The Scottish Referendum: Will Fear Determine The Result?

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me

There we are: twenty days to go before people in Scotland go to the polls to cast their votes in the most important referendum the country has ever seen. The choice: continuing as part of the United Kingdom or going it alone. Considering that the union in its present form has been around for some 300 years, Scots can be forgiven for approaching the 18th of September 2014 with a degree of trepidation. The decision they are asked to take must not be taken lightly. It is important, therefore, that they are in full possession of all the available facts and able to separate lie from truth.

This is not going to be easy, for the amount of obfuscation purveyed by both the NO and YES campaigns is immense. Here’s an example: in the second televised debate the other day the ‘Better Together’ champion Alistair Darling raised yet again the question of what currency a sovereign Scotland would adopt. It’s the least blunt arrow in a quiver otherwise filled with duds for, although totally irrelevant, ‘currency’ to most people means the money in their pocket and nobody wants to wake up on the 19th of September and find the piggy bank emptied of solid Pounds Sterling and filled instead with worthless coins and notes. Never mind the fact that the Pound over time has frequently been far from solid (and isn’t as solid today as George Osborne would have you believe), it’s the money with the Queen on and therefore superior to all others. The ‘Better Apart’ spokesman, Alex Salmond, replied (as he had many times before) that if it was up to him Scotland would continue using the Pound Sterling. This should have relieved him of the job of looking for alternatives, for if the Scots are happy with the Pound they should have it, right? Wrong. Part of  the NO campaign’s dark tactics is the veiled threat that London would not allow Scotland to keep the Pound. Oh dear.                                    17691527-british-pound-sterling-in-coins-and-bank-notes-macro-isolated-on-white

Bullshit is not a word I often use, it’s a bit crude and there are better, more refined expressions available. But I’m using it here because it describes perfectly the nature of Darling’s so-called argument. If there is any reason, apart from sheer spitefulness, why London would try and snatch Scotland’s traditional currency away from it I’ve yet to hear it. If anyone can explain to me why and how a poundless Scotland would be better for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, let him speak. I’m all ears. Anyway, having thus struck fear into the hearts of the usually so valiant Scots, Alastair Darling (believing he was on to a good thing) continued by sketching the horrors of an economy without the Pound. Scotland could, of course, hang on to it regardless, but it would not have the protection of the Bank of England and inevitably sink to the level of, say, Panama. It’s true that Panama adopted the US dollar unilaterally, a move not sanctioned by Washington. But guess what? Far from being an impoverished backwater in Central America it isn’t doing badly at all. Less blessed with natural resources than, say, Scotland, it has an economy largely based on services. You know, administering the Panama Canal, banking, insurance, flagship registry and tourism, that sort of thing. In December of last year, Forbes quoted Panama’s annual growth rate at 10.7 percent. At that time, the Better Together United Kingdom (with far greater resources, manpower and home to the financial capital of the world) posted a mere 0.2 percent of growth. Unemployment in Panama stood at 4.4 percent, against 8 percent in the UK. Panama’s public debt amounted to 39 percent of GDP, while in the Scepter’d Isle a history of profligacy and reckless spending on unnecessary wars had pegged public debt at fully 90 percent of GDP. Yes, like Darling, I have picked precisely those figures that suit me and ignored others, so maybe I’m cut out for political office after all.

Alex Salmond, for his part, has failed to address a whole raft of important subjects and his attempts at imbuing the Scottish general public with a new elan and lust for adventure have not, on the whole, been impressive. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, though. So much of his time he has to spend revisiting the same tired old subjects of currency and the economy (what if the Scots find they’re 500 Pounds a year worse off, or better off, after September 18th?) that his energies must be sapped just a bit.

In a next blog I hope to address the matter of Trident, another bone of contention and a source of much truth-bending and fact-inventing, and maybe even dwell on the folly of referring to Scotland’s future as a sovereign nation as ‘independence’. Precisely for what Scotland currently depends on the rest of the UK I cannot think. Wait a minute….yes! Of course! Security and defence! About this and other complete bollocks we’ll talk next time.                               tridentCrazy

Oh yes, before I forget: a currency is NOT the foundation of a country’s economy, as Alastair Darling falsely suggested in the debate, it is no more than a reflection of a country’s economic strength and the confidence that others have in it.

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No Need To Apologise, Putin!

me1It feels funny, sitting here in the relative tranquility of a small Dutch town, with nothing more dramatic going on than a bunch of workmen laying new electricity cables just outside my front door, to write the words “we are living in troubled times”. But living in troubled times we are. In fact, we’ve never not lived in troubled times, for whenever all seemed well with the world in prosperous, well-ordered Holland there were always other places in the world where war, pestilence and natural disasters were taking their macabre toll. Our news media report every bit of human misery in exhaustive detail and I’m sure we’d all become clinically, suicidally depressed had Mother Nature not provided us with a clever defense mechanism: indifference. It’s a wonderful invention, based on the “us and them” principle. Roughly this works along the lines of  ‘the closer to home people are being killed, the more disastrous I believe it to be’

Many of us would deny this, of course, claiming that a picture of a dead Palestinian child in Gaza would affect them as deeply as one of a Dutch toddler who perished in the Malaysian airliner crash. But you only need to look at the tremendous outpourings of grief, the wave of outrage and fury that has washed over this country in recent days to know that 192 Dutch victims have a stronger grip on our emotions than the now 500+ dead in Gaza. Blood is thicker than water isn’t it? What’s wrong with that? Well, what’s wrong with that is that, not knowing any of the Dutch victims or any of the people directly affected by their death, I can’t say I feel much closer to them than to a blown up inhabitant of Gaza City. Or a dismembered Hutu.

And who’s to blame? I could scarcely believe it but within a few hours of the crash Western fingers were pointing towards Moscow, more specifically our current favourite whipping boy Vladimir Putin. Never mind the fact that Russian militias in the crash area blamed Ukraine; Kiev said “it was the Russkis what done it” and -the West being Ukraine’s best friend since the unceremonious ousting of a democratically elected pro-Moscow president- that was all the proof that was needed. The predictable claim by a Ukrainian leader of debatable legitimacy was immediately embraced as the unvarnished truth. Well, in the absence of independently produced, conclusive evidence, it is certainly possible that it was Russian militias who brought the airliner down. moordenaars

In which case the next question is: deliberate or accidental? Many people seem to find this distinction irrelevant. ‘MURDERERS’ thundered a Dutch newspaper, dispensing with such legal niceties as ‘intent’, ‘innocent until proved guilty’ and ‘due process’. It was a view echoed by many around the social media and the press, On Sunday -when even less was known than on Monday- the British Murdoch paper The Sunday Times ran an editorial comment with the rousing title “Make Putin The Pariah Pay For This Outrage”. Just how this could be done is not entirely clear: something to do with freezing assets and what the paper called  ‘concerted pressure’. Well, I wish everybody luck.putin smile

It’s not, by the way, as if Ukraine doesn’t have previous in the aircraft-downing stakes. In 2001, a Trans Siberian airliner carrying 66 passengers and a 12-man crew plummeted into the Black Sea after being struck by a Ukrainian missile. No one survived and, perhaps ironically, most of the victims were Israelis. The eventual verdict: a horrible mistake. Case closed. So if this turns out to be a mistake, what should Putin do? Apologise? No, no, no! If he is the true patriot I think he is he could express regret at the loss of life. Words of sympathy with the victims and their families, fine. But an apology? No way. He needn’t worry, for in refusing to bow in the dust he will be in good company. In July 1988, an Iranian Airbus carrying 290 passengers and crew (most of them Iranian) was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz by a US naval vessel, the USS Vincennes. The aircraft, on a short hop to Dubai, was flying at low altitude and could easily be identified as civilian. Not a single occupant of the plane survived, among the dead were 60 children. You remember the incident and no doubt the bitter tears you shed on that occasion. Your outrage and fury were red hot, I bet. Was there a Dutch newspaper thundering ‘MURDERERS!’ in July 1988? I can’t remember. Must have been, surely. What I can remember is then US Vice President George Bush (senior) giving us a memorable example of contrition, American style:

“I will never apologize for the United States”, he said on the 2nd of August, “I don’t care what the facts are. I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”American-Eagle

Over to you, Vladimir.

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Running Out Of Time, Obama!

“OK Barack, say after me: ‘Israel…..'”” “Eh, Israel…..” “….is…..” “….is…..” “wrong.” “…weahhh…..frrrrr……bromm….” “No, wrong. Say: wrong.” ‘Wroammmm….bongbollah…..drannnnn…whoooobaradabangabangbalooba.” “Oh dear. Seems we’ve got a problem. Let’s try this. Say: ‘North Korea is wrong.'” “North Korea is wrong.” “Fine, fine. Now this. Say; ‘Iran is wrong.'” “Iran is wrong.” “Now we’re getting somewhere. What about BP?” “Wrong. But we’ll get their ass.” “Al Qaeda?” “Wrong. Probably the wrongest bunch on the planet.” “The Taliban?” “Wrong. Jeez, are they wrong.” “Hamas?” “Wrong. Seriously bad and dead wrong.” “Splendid. Now again: ‘Israel is….'” “Weahhh…..frrrrr…….brommmm…….”       Careful what I say now, I don’t want to be branded an antisemite or a holocaust-denier again. But what is careful? Am I to overlook the fact that the war-hungry part of the Israeli nation (which just happens to call the shots there) has no desire for a fair, equitable settlement with the Palestinians, believing instead that a few homemade missiles from time to time and the occasional suicide blast is a price well worth paying for the permanent enslavement of an entire people? Am I to believe, seriously believe, that yet another full-scale military assault on the densely populated Gaza Strip, killing mostly civilians, constitutes a legitimate act of self-defence? Can anyone explain what the strongest military power by far in the Middle East has to fear from anyone? For many years now, every Palestinian pinprick (that’s what they are, no more) has been met with retribution of outrageous, brutal force and still the world’s politicians haven’t the guts to come to any conclusion other than that this is a battle between equals, that both sides have comparable weaknesses and strengths. So they wring their hands and call on both sides to please be reasonable. REASONABLE?                                                                                           We’ve been here before, of course, and we’ll get to this point again unless…. Unless an American president comes to the fore who is not afraid of the powerful Jewish lobby in the United States, who is willing to put his own job on the line in a bid to settle this historic obscenity once and for all. Sixty-two years have seen the West move from outright, unquestioning, guilt-ridden support of Israel to the middle of the road, where Palestinian violent excesses are roundly criticized and met with concerted sanctions and Israel’s murderous transgressions are likewise bemoaned, although they have consistently remained unpunished. Mach shabbes damit, my late father would have said. And watch another UN resolution get crumpled up into a ball. Such is the hold that Zionist blackmailers have on us that, 65 (69) years after the end of World War II, hysterical Israeli accusations of antisemitism still faze us, despite the fact that there are very few Jews left who have any conscious recollection of the period, just as there are very few Germans left who are old enough to have played an active part in the Holocaust. Of course this horrid episode in Man’s history must not be forgotten and lessons must be learned from it. But today, in 2010 (2014), I -a 69 (73)-year old half Jew from Amsterdam- reserve the right to call Benyamin Netanyahu a vicious thug, the settlers a bunch of wild-eyed fanatics and Israel a rogue state that gives the finger to anyone who urges restraint. I tell you, if today antisemitism is alive and well it isn’t because of an old and long discredited view of Jews as vermin or hook-nosed moneylenders and babysnatchers, but because of the modern perception of Israelis as benders of the truth who cock a snook at the rest of the world, pursue what they see as their self-interest with the most brutal means and then cry bloody murder when anyone dares to object. I share that perception, so maybe I’m an antisemite after all. Anyway, I’m on record as a great admirer of Barack Obama, a man of deep intellect, great humanity and all the right instincts. His first year and a half (five and a half years) in office have failed to bring all the great achievements I’d been hoping for but boy! Did he have the tide running against him! No, I can’t blame him for not doing the impossible. I blame him for not doing the achievable. An example: if I had been elected in Obama’s place I would, within weeks of my inauguration, have normalized relations with Cuba. Castro’s revolution is now (more than) a half century in the past, the man himself is no longer in charge, Cuba   -no longer enjoying the comfort of the Soviet Union standing shoulder to shoulder-  poses no credible threat of any kind. For God’s sake Obama, with America still squeezing the lifeblood out of that proud but underfed island, no wonder the Israelis think it’s OK to do the same to Gaza! As for the Middle East: take it from me that no solution will ever be possble until and unless the state of Israel is taught that it can no longer rely on western support whatever the circumstances. Erase the word ‘unconditional’ from your Hebrew-English dictionary. Let Jerusalem know that the next time it oversteps the mark it can expect sanctions. Nothing military, you understand. We can’t have Israelis kill US troops with the very weapons Washington supplied to them. No, economic and diplomatic sanctions are the only ones that will do the trick. Cut off the money supply, boycot Israeli produce (I’ve been doing that for quite some years now), recall your Ambassador, that sort of thing. Tell all your western mates to do the same. Oh, and send a detail of the US fleet into the eastern Med to run humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Should be fun.                                            Get it, Obama? The key to the solution to this 62 (66)-year old problem lies in your ability to tell the Israelis that they are wrong. That they’re wrong and that things are going to change whether they like it or not. Do not tie your geopolitical future to that of Bibi Netanyahu or some day he’ll drag you into a regional conflict worse than your (or your successor’s) worst nightmare.

 

 

(This is a re-post of a blog published four years ago, to illustrate the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed. How many dead Palestinian men, women and children will it take before our politicians will decide that enough is enough? On reflection: don’t answer that! See you in another four years.)

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Running Out Of Time, Obama!

“OK Barack, say after me: ‘Israel…..'”” “Eh, Israel…..” “….is…..” “….is…..” “wrong.” “…weahhh…..frrrrr……bromm….” “No, wrong. Say: wrong.” ‘Wroammmm….bongbollah…..drannnnn…whoooobaradabangabangbalooba.” “Oh dear. Seems we’ve got a problem. Let’s try this. Say: ‘North Korea is wrong.'” “North Korea is wrong.” “Fine, fine. Now this. Say; ‘Iran is wrong.'” “Iran is wrong.” “Now we’re getting somewhere. What about BP?” “Wrong. But we’ll get their ass.” “Al Qaeda?” “Wrong. Probably the wrongest bunch on the planet.” “The Taliban?” “Wrong. Jeez, are they wrong.” “Hamas?” “Wrong. Seriously bad and dead wrong.” “Splendid. Now again: ‘Israel is….'” “Weahhh…..frrrrr…….brommmm…….”       Careful what I say now, I don’t want to be branded an antisemite or a holocaust-denier again. But what is careful? Am I to overlook the fact that the war-hungry part of the Israeli nation (which just happens to call the shots there) has no desire for a fair, equitable settlement with the Palestinians, believing instead that a few homemade missiles from time to time and the occasional suicide blast is a price well worth paying for the permanent enslavement of an entire people? Am I to believe, seriously believe, that yet another full-scale military assault on the densely populated Gaza Strip, killing mostly civilians, constitutes a legitimate act of self-defence? Can anyone explain what the strongest military power by far in the Middle East has to fear from anyone? For many years now, every Palestinian pinprick (that’s what they are, no more) has been met with retribution of outrageous, brutal force and still the world’s politicians haven’t the guts to come to any conclusion other than that this is a battle between equals, that both sides have comparable weaknesses and strengths. So they wring their hands and call on both sides to please be reasonable. REASONABLE?                                                                                           We’ve been here before, of course, and we’ll get to this point again unless…. Unless an American president comes to the fore who is not afraid of the powerful Jewish lobby in the United States, who is willing to put his own job on the line in a bid to settle this historic obscenity once and for all. Sixty-two years have seen the West move from outright, unquestioning, guilt-ridden support of Israel to the middle of the road, where Palestinian violent excesses are roundly criticized and met with concerted sanctions and Israel’s murderous transgressions are likewise bemoaned, although they have consistently remained unpunished. Mach shabbes damit, my late father would have said. And watch another UN resolution get crumpled up into a ball. Such is the hold that Zionist blackmailers have on us that, 65 (69) years after the end of World War II, hysterical Israeli accusations of antisemitism still faze us, despite the fact that there are very few Jews left who have any conscious recollection of the period, just as there are very few Germans left who are old enough to have played an active part in the Holocaust. Of course this horrid episode in Man’s history must not be forgotten and lessons must be learned from it. But today, in 2010 (2014), I -a 69 (73)-year old half Jew from Amsterdam- reserve the right to call Benyamin Netanyahu a vicious thug, the settlers a bunch of wild-eyed fanatics and Israel a rogue state that gives the finger to anyone who urges restraint. I tell you, if today antisemitism is alive and well it isn’t because of an old and long discredited view of Jews as vermin or hook-nosed moneylenders and babysnatchers, but because of the modern perception of Israelis as benders of the truth who cock a snook at the rest of the world, pursue what they see as their self-interest with the most brutal means and then cry bloody murder when anyone dares to object. I share that perception, so maybe I’m an antisemite after all. Anyway, I’m on record as a great admirer of Barack Obama, a man of deep intellect, great humanity and all the right instincts. His first year and a half (five and a half years) in office have failed to bring all the great achievements I’d been hoping for but boy! Did he have the tide running against him! No, I can’t blame him for not doing the impossible. I blame him for not doing the achievable. An example: if I had been elected in Obama’s place I would, within weeks of my inauguration, have normalized relations with Cuba. Castro’s revolution is now (more than) a half century in the past, the man himself is no longer in charge, Cuba   -no longer enjoying the comfort of the Soviet Union standing shoulder to shoulder-  poses no credible threat of any kind. For God’s sake Obama, with America still squeezing the lifeblood out of that proud but underfed island, no wonder the Israelis think it’s OK to do the same to Gaza! As for the Middle East: take it from me that no solution will ever be possble until and unless the state of Israel is taught that it can no longer rely on western support whatever the circumstances. Erase the word ‘unconditional’ from your Hebrew-English dictionary. Let Jerusalem know that the next time it oversteps the mark it can expect sanctions. Nothing military, you understand. We can’t have Israelis kill US troops with the very weapons Washington supplied to them. No, economic and diplomatic sanctions are the only ones that will do the trick. Cut off the money supply, boycot Israeli produce (I’ve been doing that for quite some years now), recall your Ambassador, that sort of thing. Tell all your western mates to do the same. Oh, and send a detail of the US fleet into the eastern Med to run humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Should be fun.                                            Get it, Obama? The key to the solution to this 62 (66)-year old problem lies in your ability to tell the Israelis that they are wrong. That they’re wrong and that things are going to change whether they like it or not. Do not tie your geopolitical future to that of Bibi Netanyahu or some day he’ll drag you into a regional conflict worse than your (or your successor’s) worst nightmare.

 

 

(This is a re-post of a blog published four years ago, to illustrate the fact that nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed. How many dead Palestinian men, women and children will it take before our politicians will decide that enough is enough? On reflection: don’t answer that! See you in another four years.)

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Obama’s Silliest Mistake Yet

meThere’s a sketch by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in which Dudley is interviewing Sir Arthur Steeves-Griebling, proprietor of The Vole and Pea, an establishment devoted to fine dining somewhere on the south coast of England. Not to put too fine a point on it: The Vole and Pea is struggling. The problem: no customers. Even a radio appeal to the French across the English Channel has remained fruitless. Obviously, Sir Arthur is not cut out for the catering trade, a fact he implicitly admits when he answers Dudley’s question ‘Have you learned from your mistakes?’

‘Yes I have’, replies Sir Arthur, ‘and I can probably repeat them.’

I was reminded of this exchange some time ago, when Barack Obama -having had people close to the Syrian rebels, or possibly the Israëli secret service, whispering in his ear that the Syrian President Assad might, at some point, resort to chemical warfare. At the time, nothing of the sort had yet happened and Obama could easily have said something like ‘well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’ Chances are that we’d not be in the situation we’re in today.

But Barack Obama did not say that. Remembering suddenly that he is President of the United States, the greatest country on Earth, the world’s policeman and tireless force for good he came out and warned Assad that any use of chemical weapons would mean that a red line had been crossed and that the West could in that case no longer stand idly by. Action would have to be taken.

Poor Obama! A man of sound character, above-average intellect and the first in a long line of US Presidents who is not either a complete dolt or a wild-eyed gunslinger makes a mistake like that? Did he not realize that from the moment his words had left his mouth the use of chemical weapons in Syria had become all but inevitable? Assad was unlikely to use them, he has no need of that. Left alone and without western interference the civil war will eventually have only one winner: the regime. But at rebel headquarters the champagne corks must have popped merrily, for what Obama had done was give them a weapon mightier than any anti-tank rocket or machine gun. He had handed them the option of a chemical incident, that would unleash the West’s military wrath on the Syrian leadership.
As we now know, a chemical incident has duly taken place. Somewhere on the outskirts of Damascus, in what has been described in the media as a rebel-held area, people have been filmed and photographed who were purportedly suffering from the effects of a nerve agent. Personally I’m not sure what the appearance of such a person should be like, but I had expected something more in the order of horrible scarring, bleeding from eyes, mouths and noses and a complete unawareness of the presence of cameras. Hundreds of people are supposed to have died. I am in no position to confirm or deny that -I haven’t seen any corpses- but what strikes me is the apparent discrepancy between the dead and the survivors. There has to be something between snuffing it altogether and lying on a stretcher with your hands over your eyes, sneaking a peek at the cameras. Call me a cynic but I’ve seen scenes like that in a succession of conflicts, most notably the war in Bosnia.

Further proof of the fact that the West is doomed to repeat endlessly the mistakes of the past can be found in the way western leader are handling the situation. If I were Obama, or Cameron or Hollande I wouldn’t open my mouth to voice an opinion until the matter had been exhaustively investigated by chemical weapons experts. They are now on the spot in Syria, gathering evidence. Wait for their report? No need, says UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, Assad did it. For such idiocy he gets paid, I’ll remind you. The US Secretary of State: ditto. Do we need the United Nations’ permission before we start firing? Of course not.

Years ago, in the run-up to the murderous western assault on Iraq, I explained in a column for Radio Netherlands that chemical warfare is not the exclusive domain of governments. Any ordinary citizen with a well-stocked kitchen cabinet can mix a cocktail of chemicals that will make your eyes water, prevent you breathing and eventually kill you. Take a bottle of chlorine and another filled with toilet cleaner, pour them into a bucket together and see what happens. Better still, don’t hang around. Also, there’s an industrial strength drain-unblocker -freely available in shops- that will, when mixed with hot water, have much the same effect. On second thought: don’t try any of this at home, it’s dangerous. Anyway, there is no reason to believe the Syrian rebels could or would never cause a bit of a chemical emergency, just to tip weak minded but heavily armed western leaders over the edge of reason. If the cruise missiles can remain silent for a while longer, perhaps we’ll find out the truth. But then, who needs the truth? Truth is for wimps. Poor, poor Obama!

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The Trojan Horse Rides Again

 Quite a few years ago, when no one had yet heard of the Euro, my wife and I spent a holiday in Greece. The island of Samos was where our dart had landed on the map of the Eastern Med, so off we went. We stayed in a small family-run hotel in a village called Kokkari, a place which at that time boasted a fish restaurant where you couldn’t order fish and a car hire firm where you couldn’t rent a car. ‘Take a pair of binoculars’ a friend had said, ‘for from the beach at Psilli Amos you can see Turkey and wish you were there.’ This advice struck us as unkind, but how right he turned out to be!  Our impression of the Greeks  (or at least the Samosians) was that of a people to whom smiling does not come easily, service is an alien concept and tourists are a bunch of interlopers only good for handing over their cash without expecting too much in return. It was only a first impression and at the time I was willing to concede that repeated and longer visits to Greece might change my mind. No longer.

One day, at Psilli Amos beach, I was looking at the Turkish coast through my binoculars, wishing I was there. There was something intensely beautiful and mysterious about the blue and purplish mountains that made me want to swim across the 1.5 kilometre wide strait and never come back. In fact, I tried swimming across but there was such a strong current that I drifted off and barely made it back to the beach. I had to walk about 500 metres through the soft sand to rejoin my wife and my binoculars.

A bit further on there reclined lazily in the sun a man with greyish straggly hair and leathery weatherbeaten skin. He was wearing crumpled shorts and, from time to time, picked up a bit of fishing net, stared at it for a moment and then put it down again. I had noticed, while observing Turkey through my binocs, that he would regularly glance in my direction. Then, suddenly, he got up and walked over to me. Wordlessly he held out his right hand, while pointing at my binoculars with his left. I gathered he would like to have a look at Turkey, so I handed them over with a friendly smile. He didn’t smile back, but returned to where he came from, sat down and began to scan the horizon. After about ten minutes I felt it was time to re-take possession of what was rightfully mine, so I went over to him and asked him in my most pleasant manner if I could have my binoculars back. At first he ignored me completely, but when I didn’t walk away he looked up and said, in English: ‘You give me. You rich tourist, me poor Greek.’ I felt for him, of course, but as proof of his automatic entitlement to my possessions I found it unconvincing. So I said something like ‘no, no, I really must have them back’ trying to inject into my voice a tone of urgency, if not outright menace. Visibly annoyed at my display of crypto-colonial selfishness he handed me my property and turned away, muttering under his breath an imprecation that sounded like ‘taramasalata’ but could well have been something entirely different.

I was reminded of this holiday when, in early 2001, it was cheerfully announced that Greece, after earlier doubts as to its viability as a member of the European monetary union, was now allowed to adopt the Euro. It meant, as far as I could see, that one and the same currency now had to represent economies of such wildly different strengths that little good could come of it. And so it proved. After the initial boom in countries like Ireland and Spain and, to a lesser extent, Portugal and Greece, the bust has now set in with a vengeance. And still there would be no problem, still the governments of Europe’s economic superpowers would happily be pouring further billions into the bottomless pit of Greek and other debt, but for one thing: their taxpayers (the real victims of the whole shambles) are getting restless. Sooner or later, the Merkels and Sarkozys of this world will have to seek re-election and their prospects don’t look good. Other leaders will come to the fore who realize that the tune should rightfully be called by those who pay the piper. Many Europeans are currently wondering why they have to tighten their belts, work longer for smaller pensions, see energy prices rise to astronomic heights and their savings dwindle, just so the people they foolishly elected can fritter it away on such unrealistic extravagancies as the ‘European Project’.

Luckily, here in the Netherlands the voting public has other things to worry about, such as immigration, the ranking of the national football team, or the burning question ‘will the North-South metro line in Amsterdam ever be built?’ Of course here, too, people will have to pay more for less in public services, health care and the like and work longer for smaller pensions but hey! These things have been happening in the Netherlands for many years, long before the global economic collapse and the Euro crisis. It’s tradition here that prices and taxes go up relentlessly from year to year whatever the economic situation. This we call ‘prudence’ and ‘foresight’. Belt-tightening is a national sport, much as goat-dragging is in Afghanistan. On the international scene, the Dutch have found the perfect solution. In order not to have to think of answers to tricky questions ourselves, take difficult decisions or -God forbid!- act alone and risk opprobrium from our peers we simply do as the Germans do. Berlin wants to fund Greek debt? Then we do as well, with a smile. The Germans want to rid themselves of the modern Trojan Horse and cut the Greeks adrift? Just what they were thinking in The Hague too. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Look down Europe’s Main Street for a moment. Do you see Mama Merkel and Papa Sarkozy heading towards the nearest cash dispenser? And see that toddler sucking a lolly trotting on behind? That’s young master Rutte, our Prime Minister. Ten years from now, only the names will have changed.

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Once A Catholic, Never A Catholic Again!

I know I’ve been goofing off these last few months, but I do have an excuse. My 92-year old mother who lives in a care home and suffers from Alzheimer’s recently had a serious stroke. The result is precisely what my brother and I (her only surviving relatives) had not wanted; instead of peacefully going to sleep one night and not waking up the next morning she is now fighting for her life in hospital, with an array of tubes inserted in her nose, mouth and wrist. This should never happen to someone so old and frail, but there you are. The god that 1.3 billion Roman Catholics so fervently believe in chose to make her suffer some final horror and indignity before her death, which can’t be far off now. I know I’m expected to think something along the lines of  “thy will be done”, but all I can come up with are largely unprintable expressions of a far less devout nature.

I singled out the Roman Catholics but I’m aware, of course, that much the same unquestioning belief in a benign supreme being is shared by other Christians, Jews and Muslims around the world. Still, it’s Catholicism that arouses in me the most passionate surges of atheist fervour and anti-authoritarian resentment. This has to do with the fact that my mother’s second husband (and my brother’s biological father) was a bit of a Catholic priest in his spare time – of which, owing to his congenital inability to hold down a job, he had plenty. Given the fact that his clerical career was somewhat restricted by his aversion to celibacy (and who can blame him, for Ma in those days was a good-looking dame who respected the idea of chastity but didn’t feel it should stand in the way of a good time), his church was a modest affair, lacking the vaulted roof, marble pillars and pipe organ that one might reasonably expect in a branch office of the Holy See. Not to put too fine a point on it, what should have been a basilica the size of St. Peter’s was in fact the attic of our small council house in a western suburb of Amsterdam. The altar -a plank supported by two piles of bricks- looked very much the real article, as it was covered in a white sheet of the finest polyester, embossed with a gold-coloured cross. A small tabernacle holding a gold-plated chalice and two enormous wax candles completed the display. Particularly fond was our priest of his incense-burning thurible, a heavy brass contraption on a chain, which spewed acrid smoke that occasionally billowed out through the attic skylight, alerting the neighbours to the impending start of our worship.

Even smaller than the church itself was the congregation, consisting as it did of my mother, myself and my little brother. Every Sunday morning before breakfast a little bell would ring, as a sign that it was time for the three of us to climb upstairs where Pa would await us, enveloped in a cloud of incense and dressed in the finest ecclesiastical clobber. A full Mass (in Latin) followed, in the course of which the three faithful were to give their responses (also in Latin).  For example, when our priest would well-wish us with the traditional “Dominus vobiscum” the three of us would return the compliment with a tremulous “et cum spirito tuo”. So we would sit there, for well over an hour of “oremuses” and “sursum cordas”, until the words “ite, missa est” would send us scurrying down the stairs in search of breakfast. I used to hate every minute of it and, inevitably, came to hate the man who inflicted all this on a mere twelve-year old. Still, I can safely say that the loony he undoubtedly was never, ever, hurt a hair on any child’s head. Neither did he share the propensity to lie, deceive, manipulate and terrorize that characterizes the church to which his very human urges had forever denied him access.

The Lord be with you…..and with your spirit…..I was back to age twelve again last week, when I heard those words on BBC television. The Pope, who was on a state visit to England and Scotland was celebrating Mass in London. Before that he had already met the Queen, toured Edinburgh in his popemobile and done a gig in a park in Glasgow. Two things were on Benedict XVI’s mind: how to silence the ever louder protests against the way the Vatican has failed to deal with the burgeoning scandal of clerical child abuse and, even more urgently, how to stem the tide of -what he called- “the aggressive secularization of society”.  Having done little or nothing to bring the seemingly endless procession of frocked child rapists to justice (another man would have handed them all over to the police) not much remained for him but to apologize and express regret. And apologize again and express even more regret. It didn’t take too long before Britain and the watching world (except the Catholics, obviously) were heartily sick of the gushing contrition and remorse that remained so stubbornly devoid of positive action. In any other walk of life child abusers are dealt with very severely, both inside and outside the courts, losing their jobs, marriages, freedom and possibly even their very lives. But not in the Roman Catholic Church.

No, the miscreants who really push this Pope’s endurance to the limits are of a different type. They include, apart from homosexuals and women seeking to join the ministry, the current crop of outspoken god-deniers. It’s true, of course, that after many years of unbelieving in anonymity, atheists are at last showing their colours and trumpeting their views. To my mind it’s a welcome antidote to the mindless, spineless, unquestioning submission to religious indoctrination that is the lifeblood of the monotheistic faiths. Had their churches and their coffers been fuller, what would have been the chance of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope and the Chief Rabbi standing shoulder to shoulder on a dais, fulminating against a small, albeit vocal, bunch of freethinkers who prefer the illuminating power of reason, scientific evidence and discovery to the sensory deprivation, guilt and vain hope of future reward that come with blind faith? None whatsoever. They hate each other far more than they fear Dawkins. But needs must: bums in pews and pennies on the collection plate will keep the circus going. They’ve got to hang together lest, at some future time when the minds of the faithful have finally been set free, they’ll be made to hang separately. Metaphorically speaking, of course: atheists have no need to resort to any kind of violence, sexual or otherwise.

Still, one niggly thought remains. Dawkins recently embossed a London bus with the slogan: There Probably Is No God – So Stop Worrying And Enjoy Your Life. Could it be that the child abusing clerics have known this for a long time already?

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