Operation Stand-Down

For the better part of a month, New York’s police have been throwing temper tantrums, turning their backs on the new mayor and refusing to do their day-to-day jobs, prompting the New York Times to publish a series of admonishingincensed editorials. ‘What New Yorkers expect of the Police Department is simple,’ one said: More »

Moral Clarity

After 9/11, Le Monde declared: ‘Nous sommes tous Américains.’ The love affair was short-lived: as soon as the French declined to join the war against Iraq, American pundits called them ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and French fries were renamed ‘freedom fries’. When Obama took office, relations warmed, but the tables were turned: the new administration in Washington shied from foreign adventures, while the Elysée adopted a muscular stance in Libya and Mali, and promoted a more aggressive response to Bashar al-Assad’s assault on the Syrian rebellion. Neoconservatives who had vilified the surrender monkeys now looked at them with envy.

Today a new cry can be heard among intellectuals in the US: ‘Je suis Charlie.’ It is a curious slogan, all the more so since few of the Americans reciting it had ever heard of, much less read, Charlie Hebdo before the 7 January massacre. What does it mean, exactly? Seen in the best light, it means simply that we abhor violence against people exercising their democratic right to express their views. But it may also be creating what the French would call an amalgame, or confusion, between Charlie Hebdo and the open society of the West. In this sense, the slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ is less an expression of outrage and sympathy than a declaration of allegiance, with the implication that those who aren’t Charlie Hebdo are on the other side, with the killers, with the Islamic enemy that threatens life in the modern, democratic West, both from outside and from within. More »

Rival Sanctities

Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders has solemnly reaffirmed the right to joke. The French state – which banned the magazine three times between 1961 and 1970 – has piled in to defend laicity. A humid stupor presents itself as moral clarity, voiced by such statespeople as Le Pen, Wilders and Farage.

Liberals, who tend to distance themselves from Thomas Hobbes’s account of state power, have as partial a view of it as he did. Hobbes thought physical security mattered so much that people would trade most of their rights to get it. Liberals see the trade as overpriced, because it may well include things like free speech. Hobbes was clear-eyed about that. But he was much less clear on the other side of the question, as regards those for whom worldly security matters less than, say, their eschatological destiny. Either the concern for security lacks the decisive force that Hobbes needs it to have, or it has it, but recast as security not for one’s mortal coil, but one’s eternal soul. The avatars of modern jihadis spook the pages of Leviathan, and were hardly unknown to Hobbes: Thomas Harrison, a New Model Army commander and puritan fanatic, used to yodel ecstatically in battle when he saw royalists being run through. Hobbes’s case for obedience is vulnerable not only to liberal goods, but distinctly illiberal ones. More »

Teixobactin

There’s been excitement this week at the announcement of a new antibiotic. Called teixobactin by its discoverers, it is produced by a soil bacterium, also new to science because it needed the development of a novel system to enable it to grow and be tested in the laboratory for antibiotic production. More »

Heroic Obstinacy

At the time of writing, ten of Charlie Hebdo’s staff are reported dead following this morning’s attack on the paper’s offices off the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. They include the editor Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (Cabu) and Bernard Verlhac (Tignous). Two police officers are dead and five other people are seriously wounded. Only a narrow provincialism imagines that blasphemy is not a dangerous pastime. But Charlie Hebdo isn’t a cosy backwater: it has always blasphemed in earnest, as a vocational duty with high attendant risks; the signs are pretty clear so far that this terrible attack was carried out as a lesson of some kind. More »

At the Movies

On Christmas day at 3.05 p.m. I managed to see The Interview. It was not so easy. It was playing at the Cinema Village, a pocket size three-screen theatre in Greenwich Village which specialises in obscure foreign films and other exotica. When I showed up at 2.30 all performances were sold out except the 1 a.m. but I joined the standby line and just at 3.03 managed to get in and find a seat in the very back of the theatre. There were some TV people outside both when I entered and left. What they expected I have no idea. More »

In Doha

photoThere was a bride in full wedding regalia on my plane from Cairo to Doha last month. She was wearing a sequinned, lacy hijab and a long, tight mermaid skirt that flared at the bottom, over a wire hoop. It wasn’t easy to manoeuvre the hoop down the aisle of the plane. She was travelling alone, and in the long empty hallways of Doha’s new airport made laborious progress. I didn’t see who came to meet her. More »

Business First

Whose university?

Whose university?

Last year, students at Cambridge campaigning for a living wage for staff were told by a senior official that their college was ‘a business first, a home second’. A few months later, King’s College hosted George Osborne and others at an international economics conference. Students were hauled before the dean for singing a protest song as Osborne walked past them in the bar. One of the things they were angry about was that the conference had taken over the student coffee shop – part of their home – for its corporate hospitality. More »

Outside the Egyptian Embassy

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the arrest and incarceration of three al-Jazeera journalists in Cairo. Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were charged with broadcasting false news and aiding a ‘terrorist organisation’ (the Muslim Brotherhood). Al-Jazeera rejects the charges.

‘They’re not terrorists, they’re journalists,’ Lindsey Hilsum, the Channel 4 News international editor, told me at a protest outside the Egyptian embassy in London. ‘Everybody knows that. President El-Sisi knows that. It’s completely insane that they’re still in prison.’ More »

In Cuba

On the morning of 17 December, schoolchildren in Coralito assembled under the Cuban flag to sing the anthem before starting lessons. Early sunshine picked out five palm trees on the roadside opposite the school. They were planted in support of the ‘Cuban Five’, agents sent to Miami to disrupt anti-Castro plots by Cuban exiles in 1998, but arrested and imprisoned for spying against the US. There are symbols or images of the Five all over Cuba, often accompanied by Castro’s declaration ‘Volverán!’ (‘They will return’). Last February Fernando González, the second to finish his sentence, returned to Havana, but the remaining three had longer sentences: one, Gerardo Hernández, was serving two life terms. More »

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