Category Archives: politics

The Putin diversion

Putin and Obama in serious discussion at the G20 summit. The political leaders need to be judged intelligently.

“The Putin diversion” could be the title for a n episode of the popular show “The Big Bang Theory.” Or, more appropriately, the name of a chess strategy. But I have found this diversion a real problem in discussing important issues.

How can we discuss , for example, the current Russian/Olympic doping scandal if a serious commentor simply responds “Russian authorities ran the doping! Putin is rotten, through and through.”

When I pointed out “Unfortunately, statements like “Putin is rotten” are hardly intelligent and they are certainly not a sensible response to this whole scandal,” and attempted to return to the doping discussion I get a response:

“Putin is a monster in one of the most oppressive countries. he has his critics assassinated in the best traditions of Russia. Your support for him is bizarre.”

So we make no progress discussing the issue of doping.

Similarly, I feel that diverting a discussion about the MH17 tragedy in eastern Ukraine with raves about Putin being a “petty tyrant” or that he has “been accused of assassinating or imprisoning his political rivals” is insulting to the memory of the innocent passengers who died in the  crash and to their loved ones.

So, my purpose with this post is to provide a forum for commentors to vent their feelings about Putin and the Russian Federation. Rave on about Crimea, Ukraine or Syria. Let’s discuss here some of the issues being inappropriately raised on comments on other posts.

It would be nice, though, if commentors present a bit more than feelings and prejudices – perhaps back up their claims with some citations or evidence.

To kick off, I do not know a terrific lot about Putin or have particularly strong feelings about the man. But he is certainly an important international figure today and any cultured person should make an effort to learn a bit about him. Two books that have perhaps influenced my thinking are:

First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President

Based on interviews of Putin soon after he became president in 2000. I have attempted to read other books about Putin but find so many of them are extremely biased (he is a controversial figure) and so many authors approach him with their own political agendas – often very extreme ones.
Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism

Not about Putin but describes Russia in the 1990s when it had become, as the author put it, a criminal anarchy.

It does go up to the period when Putin moved to Moscow and was given Yeltisn’s blessing as acting president. But it provides a very useful background to what preceded Putin – and provides some idea of what he has been combating during his presidency. Incidentally, it perhaps gives some insight into the current situation in Ukraine where conditions similar to Russia in the 1990s still continues.

Another book I have found useful is The Litvinenko File. Putin is only a peripheral figure in Litvenenko’s story but it provides a similar picture the the Godfather of the Kremlin about the role of the criminal oligarch Berezokovsky in promoting Putin, why he and Litvinenko felt betrayed when he refused to deliver and turned against him.

Seeing I have been accused of being “pro-Moscow” for this level of interest in this particular political figure I should note that while having read one book by President Putin (or at least his interviews) I have also read one book by the US president Obama – Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  So, perhaps I should also be labelled “pro-Washington.” Or, perhaps, we should just keep away from such silly McCarthyist labeling and instead get on with a good-faith discussion.

I look forward to the discussion.

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The insult of low expectations

Th above Today’s Jesus and Mo strip underlines a problem we have the “politically correct” charges of “Islamophobia.” it’s just a way to prevent rational discussion and it is insulting to Muslims because it demands lower expectations than for the rest of the community. Shouldn’t we be labeling those demanding lower expectations prejudiced or racist?

Ali A. Rizvi describes the problem well in the above video. Here is some of what he says:

“As a brown-skinned person with a Muslim name, I can get away with a lot more than you’d think. I can publicly parade my wife or daughters around in head-to-toe burqas and be excused out of “respect” for my culture and/or religion, thanks to the racism of lowered expectations. I can re-define “racism” as something non-whites can never harbor against whites, and cite colonialism and imperialism as justification for my prejudice.

And in an increasingly effective move that’s fast become something of an epidemic, I can shame you into silence for criticizing my ideas simply by calling you bigoted or Islamophobic.

For decades, Muslims around the world have rightly complained about the Israeli government labeling even legitimate criticism of its policies “anti-Semitic,” effectively shielding itself from accountability. Today, Muslim organizations like CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) have borrowed a page from their playbook with the “Islamophobia” label — and taken it even further.

In addition to calling out prejudice against Muslims (a people), the term “Islamophobia” seeks to shield Islam itself (an ideology) from criticism. It’s as if every time you said smoking was a filthy habit, you were perceived to be calling all smokers filthy people. Human beings have rights and are entitled to respect. But when did we start extending those rights to ideas, books, and beliefs? You’d think the difference would be clear, but it isn’t. The ploy has worked over and over again, and now everyone seems petrified of being tagged with this label.

The phobia of being called “Islamophobic” is on the rise — and it’s becoming much more rampant, powerful, and dangerous than Islamophobia itself.”

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MH17 tragedy – 2 years on

Two years on and there has yet to be a a decision on who was responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines MH17 over Eastern Ukraine.

This video shows the local memorial meeting held near the crash site. We often forget that the locals in such tragedies also suffer as they have to deal with the destruction and death on the ground.

Another group which suffered this exposure to death and destruction were the members of thew OSCE special monitoring mission who were very quickly at the scene. The Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, Ambassador Ertugrul Apakan, commented on July 17 saying:

“The disaster once again reminds all of us of the heavy toll that civilians pay in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, and in all armed conflicts. “

“We take this moment to again offer our sincere condolences to those who lost loved ones when Flight MH17 was downed two years ago in eastern Ukraine, with the loss of all 298 lives on board.”

“This tragic event affected many around the world, including SMM monitors, some of who were on the ground immediately following the crash. We recall that their involvement in the initial recovery efforts and in facilitating a localized ceasefire to allow access for emergency and recovery teams is a time of deep sorrow, but also of pride to have been able to assist in those dark hours,” said the Chief Monitor.

“The memory of those who perished is a reminder to us all that peace is precious and life sacrosanct.”

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Permission to have that conversation

In May, Maajid Nawaz presented this important talk at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum. It’s important because he attacks the concept that religion, and especially Islam, should be protected from criticism. And especially he attacks the concept that we should not talk about the problem of Jihadism, or Islamic terrorism. We should not avoid calling a spade a spade.

Maajid says the West, and particularly the USA, has it all wrong. The policies of intervention, imposing “democracy” and the killing of terrorist leaders and civilians via bombing and drones, will never solve the basic problem – that extremist jihadism appeals to many Muslims, even western born Muslims.

He is advancing the need to counter jihadist ideologies with alternative moderate policies – but points out this is hardly happening. And how can it happen if people are too “politically correct” to discuss and condemn actions like the stoning of women, female genital mutilation, imposed marriages, etc.

Maajid has the right credentials to back up his message. He is a former member of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir and used to advocate jihadism.  He was imprisoned in Egypt from 2001 and 2006. His experience led him to change his thinking and he left Hizb-ut-Tahrir in 2007, renounced his Islamist past and called for a “Secular Islam“.

Now he is a co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamist extremists.

Maajid wrote about his experiences and changes of thinking in his book Radical: My Journey Out Of Islamist Extremism.


More recently he discussed these problems with the atheist Sam Harris. Their discussion is published in the book Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue.

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A cynical take on effective speakers

This video is a parody of a TED talk – you know, those talks which often come across very impressively but may not have much in the way of real content.

Or is this just me getting cynical in my dotage? I certainly feel I have an excuse for that.

Source: This Parody Of Every TED Talk Ever Is Absolutely Perfect – Digg

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MH17 tragedy – new investigation launched

MH17 front

The cockpit wreckage of MH17. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Two years after the shooting down  of the Malaysian commercial airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine (Donbass), investigators seem no closer to identifying the culprits.  This may seem surprising given the quick recovery of the black boxes and most of the airplane. But, on second thoughts, perhaps not surprising given the regional and geopolitical politics.

But, time is taking its toll on the credibility of the current investigators. Until now the investigation has been handled by the Dutch Safety Board (which published its final technical report last October (see MH17: Final technical report) and the Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) which is responsible for a more detailed investigation enabling determination of criminal liability.

Now, the Malaysian government is launching their own independent investigation. In announcing this the Malaysian PM Najib Razak said this would be a joint investigation together with the Russian Federation and its research results would be revealed in October 2016 (see Malaysia to start independent investigation into MH17 tragedy).

Meanwhile, the work of the Dutch Investigating Commission (JIT) will continue and the Minister of Transport in Malaysia has asked that a Russian expert be included in that investigation team. This has upset the Ukrainian authorities  who have responded by asking that the US to prevent the joint Russia/Malaysia investigation. (Why the Ukrainians think the US has any power of arbitration or decision on this issue is beyond me).

Concern about attitudes of current investigators

Apparently the Malaysians are not happy with the current findings of Dutch investigators. The do not see any evidence implicating Russia in the tragedy and had found that  Russia was very supportive during the first days of the crash. They had requested Russia be involved in the official investigation but this was not allowed.

According to the Australian National Review:

“Furthermore, all independent findings of Russian investigators were avoided. After the meeting between the heads of the states, Transport Minister of Malaysia, Liow Tiong Lai sent a letter to the Commission of Inquiry of the Netherlands requesting that Russia be included in the investigations. The request set off an alarm as Malaysia’s claim cannot be refused. This has made international observers suspicious on why Ukraine is reluctant to include Russian experts in the probe team.”

I too am suspicious. Russia has experts who could contribute greatly to the investigation. They have made their own investigation of the crash which deserves proper consideration  because it was carried out by specialists from the manufacture of the likely weapon involved, Almaz-Antey. The final Report of the Dutch Safety Board brushed off these findings without proper consideration (see MH17: Final technical report). Yet the Russian research appeared to make a more evidence-based evaluation of the specific missile used and its likely launch location. This research is very relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation because of its relevance to the specific model of missile used and the launch location.

Russian investigators frustrated

This is frustrating the Russian investigators. In February, Oleg Storchevoy, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, accused the Dutch Safety Board and JIT of “showing no interest” in working with Russia:

“I would like to stress that Russia disclosed all of its available satellite data in the days immediately following the crash,” he wrote, adding that the data it had submitted to the investigation showed “movement and increased activity by Ukrainian BUK surface-to-air missile systems observed within the conflict area in eastern Ukraine one day ahead of the tragedy.”

Includingof Ukrainian experts in the JIT, while at the same time excluding Russian experts, raises suspicions. The Ukrainian Army, together with the rebel authorities in the Donbass region, are the main suspects. In fact, analysis of the intelligence evidence presented to the Dutch parliament (see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?) indicate that the only BUK systems active in Eastern Ukraine at the time of the tragedy were in the hands of the Ukrainian Army.

Because much of the work of the JIT takes place in Kiev, close relationships have formed between the Ukrainian experts and the Dutch and Australian experts. Commentators see this as a problem in making an objective evaluation of the evidence supplied by the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian security and intelligence service, SBU.

Geopolitical prejudices may be preventing proper consideration of Russian data but of more concern is the likely biased information provided by the Ukrainian SBU. Apparently this included telephone wire-tapping data which is very hard to verify without full and open access. Ukrainian authorities are unlikely to give this on security grounds.

There are also problems with US satellite data which the JIT says they have access to – but only in secret. These security factors make it impossible to use such data in a criminal case. Although, politically motivated press releases are great for casting suspicions  – and this has plagued this investigation from the start.

So, I welcome the new investigation by  Malaysia and the Russian Federation.They have declared their willingness to cooperate with the Dutch-led investigators.  Currently, the Dutch-led investigation is being carried out by officials from Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine but it would gain more credibility if it included Russian investigators. The Dutch-led team claim they are making good progress and their report is just months away.

Hopefully, this report, and a similar report from the Malaysian/Russian joint investigators due in October, will show some progress which helps bring justice to the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy.

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Don’t be fooled by simple media “science”

This video is getting plenty of coverage – and despite its length, it is worth watching. The humour helps, of course. You certainly won’t be bored if you commit the 20 minutes required to watch the video right through.

Oliver warns about the way journalists often misrepresent the science. Further, he is warning that often the science itself is suspect – or even no good.

It’s a warning we should all take on board. If we are interested in understanding something, and not just cherry-picking to confirm an existing ideological bias, then we have to approach what we read in the media about science critically and thoughtfully. Not accepting things at face value. Nor interpreting a journalist attempt at a false balance as somehow authenticating an article.

Hell, all good working scientists know that we should approach the peer-reviewed scientific literature itself in the same critical way. So we should hardly be more gullible when it comes to the media reporting of science.

I do get annoyed at the way our media often presents scientific issues in simplistic and shallow ways.

But then again, I also get very annoyed at the way our media presents important political issues in the same way – or even worse. Just look at the disgraceful way our media covers important issues like the war in Syria.

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Victory Day celebration of defeat of terrorism in Palmyra

Victory over terrorism in Syria is still a long way off. But the liberation of Palmyra was an important and symbolic step towards that. This concert on Thursday, in the historic amphitheatre of the ancient city of Palmyra, was dedicated to the 71st anniversary of the defeat of fascism in Europe as well as an expression of gratitude to all those who fight terrorism today and memorial to the victims of terrorism.

During their occupation of Palmyra, Daesh committed public executions by beheading in this amphitheatre. One of the most prominent people beheaded in the city at this time was Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city. The New York Time reported the murder (see Syrian Expert Who Shielded Palmyra Antiquities Meets a Grisly Death at ISIS’ Hands):

“After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters.”

According to Wikipedia:

“A placard hanging from the waist of his dead body listed al-Asaad’s alleged crimes: being an “apostate”, representing Syria at “infidel conferences”, serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran” and communicating with a brother in the Syrian security services. His body was reportedly displayed in the new section of Palmyra (Tadmur) and then in the ancient section, whose treasures ISIS had already demolished.

In addition to al-Asaad, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of the DGAM Laboratories, also protected the Palmyra site. He also was killed by ISIL while on duty on 12 August 2015. He was 37 years old.”

Archeologist

Portrait of murdered Khaled al-Asaad at concert in Palmyra ampitheatre.

Given the religious basis of terrorism in Palmyra, and Syria as a whole, I am a little put off by the title of this concert “Pray for Palmyra. Music Revives Ancient Ruins.” Sure, “prayer” can have a secular meaning – but to me it brings up pictures of terrorists chanting “Allah Akbar” – “God is great.” This chant seems to accompany the launching of all mortars, rockets and almost every bullet fired by jihadists.

Maybe the chant “Allah Akbar” also accompanied each beheading in Palmyra.

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Barrel bombs, hell cannons, Aleppo and media bias

The result of terrorist shelling of Aleppo

I guess most readers have become familiar with barrel bombs – an indiscriminate weapon currently being used by government forces in the Syrian war. But how many have heard of “hell cannons?”

I hadn’t until recently and I think this shows the bias in our media coverage of the conflict. Hell cannons are an indiscriminate weapon used by rebel/jihadist forces, cause terror and  civilian damage and loss of life. Unfortunately, our media often seems to paint the picture that only government actions cause civilian losses.

1104_cannon

“Rebels” load hell cannon with explosive filled gas bottle in Aleppo. (Getty)

This bias seems particularly bad in their current reporting of the civilian deaths in Aleppo. Here are some of the mythical stories our news media is promoting:

1: The government is not attacking a city held by “rebels” as many of our media stories imply. Rebels hold the smaller part of the city in the east and attacks by the government forces and its allies are aimed at removing them. There is also intensive fighting in areas around Aleppo – particularly in the north where Syrian and allied forces recently disrupted rebel supply lines with Turkey.

So, if anyone is attacking Aleppo it is the rebels/jihadists.

2: The claim that the government and its allies are attacking “moderate rebels” is biased propaganda. the anti-government militias are numerous and allegiances are complex. They often fight among themselves.  Some may well be “moderate” but they cooperate and are often integrated with Al-Nusra – the main terrorist/jihadist group in the area.

How does one define “moderate” in Syria, though? I guess one way is to characterize those rebel militia which accepted the recent cessation of hostilities and signed ceasefire agreements with the Syrian government, as outlined in the US/Russian initiative, as the real “moderates” ready to take part in a political solution. It would seem that the “rebel” militia fighting in Aleppo have not accepted the cessation of hostilities agreement.

3: I recently heard an Al Jazeera reporter imply that only the Russians and Syrian government classifies “rebel” groups like Al Nusra as “terrorists” implying this was unfair. Again biased propaganda. The UN specifically lists Al-Nusra, together with Daesh (ISIS) as a terrorist organisation. Those groups were specifically excluded from the cessation of hostilities agreement.

There is a media tendency to describe only Daesh as terrorist or to present the aim of the US-based coalition and the Russian Federation in Syria as fighting Daesh. US spokespersons seem to repeat that description. This is very misleading. The UN and the cessation of hostilities agreement make clear that Al-Nusra is also the enemy.

Al-Nusra is the Al-Qaeda group in Syria (ISIS/Daesh originally broke away from Al-Nusra). Its aims and programme are just as obnoxious as those of Daesh but Al-Nusra has been able to form links with other anti-government militia – often groups that have been backed, armed and financed by the US and its middle eastern allies (eg. Saudia Arabia and Qatar). Very often these militia are operating under the command and structures of Al-Nusra. The ability of Al-Nusra to form these arrangements probably means it will outlast Daesh – and may actually be the bigger danger.

The death of the “last pediatrician” in Aleppo?

A blatant example of bias has been the media claim that a pediatrician who died in the bombing or shelling of a hospital in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo meant Aleppo no longer had any pediatricians. Horrible Syrian government denying medical care for children!

But Dr Nabil Antaki, who works in Aleppo, responded to this propaganda with this:

“For three days now, these media outlets have been accusing the “Assad regime” of bombing an MSF hospital [Medecins sans Frontieres] to the east of Aleppo and of killing the last paediatrician in the city. This demonstrates that, for these media, the only priority is this pocket of the city where terrorists are embedded.

The three-quarters of Aleppo under Syrian Government control where numerous paediatricians are practicing is of no consequence for this media. We witnessed the same bias when Al Kindi, the biggest hospital in Aleppo, was targeted by terrorist mortars and then intentionally burnt down about 2 or 3 years ago. The media ignored this criminal act.”

He refers to this sort of propaganda as “lying by omission” saying:

“This media never mention the continuous bombardment and the carnage we have witnessed in western Aleppo where every single sector has been targeted. On a daily basis we see dozens of people murdered.

What makes these omissions even more despicable is that these areas represent 75% of Aleppo and there are 1.5 million people living in them. Compare this to the 300,000 living in the eastern zone which is occupied by terrorist groups.

This twisted narrative engenders the belief that these terrorist groups that are attacking us are actually the victims. Even more abhorrent, these media have distorted our “Save Aleppo” appeal, to make it look as if we are calling for Assad and the Syrian Army to cease hostilities!

This is FALSE. Added to which, they are not “Assad’s forces“, they are the national forces of the regular Syrian army that is defending the Syrian State.

The western and gulf media could at least have had the decency to mention the terrorist massacres of our people. For example, on Friday 30th April, when one of their mortars targeted a mosque at prayer time.”

Footnote: I find the New Zealand media pathetic in its coverage of events like the Syrian war and tend to search for other sources. I regularly watch Al Jazeera but now find their coverage of Syria extremely biased. Perhaps this is because the organisation is based in, and financed by Qatar, a sponsor (together with Saudi Arabia and Turkey) of anti-government forces in Syria.

Of late I notice that Al Jazeera has been smudging out the logos identifying sources in many of the videos they display. Can’t help thinking they wish to cover up they fact they are relying on the “rebel’ news media for their videos of action in Syria.

Pathetic if true.

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Fluoridation decisions to be made by District Health Boards

newspaper-changes-fea

Image credit: Constant Contact

This has been on the cards for a while. In recent years ideologically and commercially motivated activists have played havoc with the consultations organised by local body councils. Councils have shown by their own actions they are not capable of considering the scientific and health evidence related to community water fluoridation. The political intrigues of local bodies and the lack of scientific skills have prevented sensible decisions in many cases – and resulted in reversals of decisions – sometimes within a few weeks. yet New Zealanders have in most places voted to support community water fluoridation.

Councils have asked the central government to remove decisions on fluoridation from their responsibility. And now the government has decided to do just that.

This is the text of today’s  press release from the Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman, Minister of Health, and the Hon Peter Dunne, Associate Minister of Health (see Fluoridation decision to move to DHBs):


DHBs rather than local authorities will decide on which community water supplies are fluoridated under proposed changes announced today by Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.

“New Zealand has high rates of preventable tooth decay and increasing access to fluoridated water will improve oral health, and mean fewer costly trips to the dentist for more New Zealanders,” says Dr Coleman.

“This change could benefit over 1.4 million New Zealanders who live in places where networked community water supplies are not currently fluoridated.

“Water fluoridation has been endorsed by the World Health Organization and other international health authorities as the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”

DHBs currently provide expert advice on fluoridation to local authorities.

“Moving the decision-making process from local councils to DHBs is recognition that water fluoridation is a health-related issue,” says Mr Dunne.

“Deciding which water supplies should be fluoridated aligns closely to DHBs’ current responsibilities and expertise. It makes sense for DHBs to make fluoridation decisions for their communities based on local health priorities and by assessing health-related evidence.”

A Bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament later this year. Members of the public and organisations will have an opportunity to make submissions to the Health Select Committee as it considers the Bill.

See also: DHBs could make call on fluoridating water

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