Signing with the KGB

‘All intelligence agencies, no matter what controls they appear to work under,’ Phillip Knightley once wrote in the LRB, ‘are a danger to democracy.’ Knightley, who died yesterday, wrote a handful of excellent pieces for the paper in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including a withering assessment of James Jesus Angleton, head of CIA counter-intelligence, and a first-hand account of how the KGB monetised its archive when the Cold War ended: More »

The Best Hotel in Europe

The City Plaza hotel in downtown Athens, ‘the best hotel in Europe’, was empty for years after the company operating it went bankrupt in 2010. A group of activists and refugees occupied it a few months ago. Nasim Lomani, an Afghan national who has lived in Greece for more than a decade, is a longtime activist for the rights of migrants and refugees. He opened the door to me when I paid a recent visit to the hotel. More »

After Renzi

Technically speaking, the No vote in Italy’s constitutional referendum yesterday was a vote for the status quo. But its architect, Matteo Renzi, who has resigned as prime minister after the vote didn’t go his way, was one of the few people to see it like that. For a lot of voters who want things to change, getting rid of Renzi seemed a better bet than his proposals for getting rid of the Senate. Italy is the only country in Europe with a ‘perfectly bicameral’ system. The upper and lower houses of parliament have equal legislative powers: both are able to draft legislation, and no laws can be passed without the approval of both. Renzi wanted to replace the directly elected Senate with a smaller chamber, representing the regions, with diminished powers. More »

Sinking in Hot Soup

‘Everyone I know who has been political in Gambia has ended up in jail or dead,’ says L., who came to Italy nine months ago. ‘The army spends its time and resources arresting and torturing anyone who speaks or acts against the president.’ L. showed me a photo on his phone of what he said was an execution he’d been sent by a friend in Gambia two days before: soldiers stand over a man in a pit, his hands together in the air. ‘My parents did not educate me to end up in prison and my first loyalty is to them. I was so angry at everything but to be angry in Gambia means to get arrested or killed. I had to leave.’ L. spoke to me on Wednesday, the day before Gambia’s presidential election. ‘Now is our best chance to get rid of our president because for the first time all of the opposition parties are united,’ he said. I asked how it affected him personally. ‘My father does not keep quiet during elections. I inherited his anger.’ More »

Peace in Colombia?

The new peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was signed in Bogotá’s Colón Theatre on 24 November. It was a more sober ceremony than the extravagant signing of the first agreement in Cartagena on 26 September, a week before Colombians narrowly voted against it in a referendum. The second signing was a closed event, and only President Juan Manuel Santos and the Farc commander, Timochenko, gave speeches. A subdued group of Colombians in the main plaza in Bogotá watched it on a big screen. The right-wing TV channel RCN, meanwhile, held a panel featuring only figures opposed to the deal, for ‘balance’. More »

Derailing the NHS

On 17 October 2000, four people were killed and 70 injured in the Hatfield rail crash. A high speed train derailed because of metal fatigue in a section of track that had been tagged for replacement months earlier. Railtrack, the company which had managed the permanent way since British Rail was privatised in 1994, never recovered. In 2001 it went bankrupt, more than £3 billion in debt. In October 2002, responsibility for maintaining railway infrastructure was essentially renationalised with the formation of Network Rail. More »

Three Hundred Pounds in Her Pocket

The Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project has reported a steep rise in the number of women starting or returning to sex work in the city. The English Collective of Prostitutes says the pattern repeats itself across the country. ‘Zero hours contracts, benefits sanctions and family care needs’ are among the reasons women give for turning to sex work. More »

Stop Blaming Migrants

What miserable terrain we’re stuck in, post-Brexit vote, as the free trade v. free movement argument is endlessly discussed. Round and round we go, warning that leaving the single market and slapping more controls – we already have plenty – on immigration would harm the economy, but insisting that the public wants one, or both, or neither; who really knows? More »

The Clean Hands Problem

It has been said both that Fidel Castro was a bad man whose henchmen tortured and sometimes killed dissidents, and that Castro was a good man who gave Cuba a healthcare and literacy programme to rival many in the developed world. The BBC, in its quest for ‘balance’, says that people in Havana and Miami (‘only ninety miles away’), which hosts Trump’s only significant Hispanic constituency, are saying these things.

Philosophers chew over the ‘problem of dirty hands’ – thought to arise when a politician does something morally wrong in the name of securing a public good or preventing a public bad. It’s notable that the problem is framed in that way, rather than as one that arises when a politician fails to secure the public good or prevent the bad by avoiding doing something morally wrong – the ‘problem of clean hands’, as it might be called. The notion that actors can acquit themselves of blame often relies on the fantasy that they act in a historical vacuum. More »

Birth of a Nation

The congenial Alain Juppé lost by a huge margin to François Fillon – roughly 66 to 34 – in the French centre-right’s final round of primaries yesterday, which also saw a higher turnout than in round one. The economic policies of the candidates were close: thin down the state sector, loosen labour laws, cut taxes. Fillon’s was the harsher – and more radical – approach but the severity of his social programme was also crucial, and Marine Le Pen will be hard pressed to beat him next year. His is a face we will have to get used to. More »

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