Friday, 28 March 2014

Yet more on US police - the Boston Tea Party has a lot to answer for

Three in a row is probably enough, but you shouldn't miss the story about the family who got a morning visit from a SWAT team because they drink loose-leaf tea. Full story here. At least one can be confident that that wouldn't happen in the UK.

I'm not the only right-wing extremist who doesn't like that kind of thing. Mark Steyn, from whom I got this story, notes "the five-to-seven officers required to kill a 95-year old veteran for refusing to take his medication; the multiple law-enforcement agencies needed to off a confused woman with a baby on board who drove too near King Barack's palace - and who earned the cheers of Congress for so dispatching her. In recent days, a mentally ill homeless man was shot dead for "illegally camping" in the Albuquerque foothills, and at a traffic stop in South Carolina a 70-year old veteran was shot by an officer who thought the man was reaching for a gun. It was his cane."

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

More on paramilitary police

Following on from my post on Waco, I see that the Economist is concerned about American paramilitary police as well.

How about this one "In 2006 Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman in Atlanta, mistook the police for robbers and fired a shot from an old pistol. Police shot her five times, killing her. After the shooting they planted marijuana in her home. It later emerged that they had falsified the information used to obtain their no-knock warrant."

And the incentives are all wrong too. "Because of a legal quirk, SWAT raids can be profitable. Rules on civil asset-forfeiture allow the police to seize anything which they can plausibly claim was the proceeds of a crime. Crucially, the property-owner need not be convicted of that crime. If the police find drugs in his house, they can take his cash and possibly the house, too. He must sue to get them back."

Would you like your policemen to wear T-shirts saying "We get up early to beat the crowds"?

In similar vein. the Atlantic recently had a sobering article on how prison warders are trained to deal with riots.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


I have an occasional series on over-zealous US law enforcement. The worst example of this is, of course, Waco. Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker doesn't do much of his Gladwell thing on us (and when he does, it's not that convincing in this piece), he just tells the story by reference to one of the believers' memoirs here.

It started when "some eighty armed agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms raided the Mount Carmel community, in an effort to serve a search and arrest warrant on Koresh, on suspicion of violating federal firearms rules." That is to say, it started very badly, and not because of the Branch Davidians. The Feds could have served the warrant on him when we went into town, which is something he did. And what was the evidence for the firearms violations? Well, an undercover agent had infiltrated the group to look for it - and found no evidence.

This is what happened then. "“I want you all to go back to your rooms and stay calm,” Doyle recalls Koresh saying, as federal agents descended on Mount Carmel. Doyle goes on, “I could hear David’s steps going down the hall toward the front door. . . . Then all of a sudden I heard David say: ‘Hey, wait a minute! There are women and children in here!’ Then all hell broke loose—just a barrage of shots from outside coming in. It sounded like a bloodbath.”" Sounded like - and it was.

So, in a reaction to this, "Outside the Mount Carmel complex, the F.B.I. assembled what has been called probably the largest military force ever gathered against a civilian suspect in American history: ten Bradley tanks, two Abrams tanks, four combat-engineering vehicles, six hundred and sixty-eight agents in addition to six U.S. Customs officers, fifteen U.S. Army personnel, thirteen members of the Texas National Guard, thirty-one Texas Rangers, a hundred and thirty-one officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, seventeen from the McLennan County sheriff’s office, and eighteen Waco police, for a total of eight hundred and ninety-nine people."

As we know, it all ended even more badly. "Koresh and seventy-three others perished, including twenty-five children." Wikipedia tells me that one of the women was pregnant. I think the guys with the tanks, the CS canisters and the demolition equipment got off more lightly than the children.

My sympathy is always for the underdog, and people on the receiving end of that kind of effort are definitely the underdogs. But they weren't bad underdogs either. Gladwell describes them as "the sort whose idea of a good evening’s fun was a six-hour Bible study wrestling with a tricky passage of Revelation", which might be accurate. It's a little sneery, but makes it clear that they weren't necessarily the sort of people who should be on the receiving end of an army assault. They weren't your classic cult weirdos: "The Branch Davidians ... engaged freely and happily with the world around them. Doyle went to California periodically to work for an audiotape-dubbing company and make money. Other Davidians started small businesses around Waco. Wayne Martin, a prominent member of the community, was a Harvard Law School graduate with a legal practice in town."

Moreover, when they found out about the agent who infiltrated them, they were nice to him. The FBI, in the 'negotiations' before the final assault, tried to goad the Branch Davidians with the infiltrator. This was the response from the deputy to Koresh "I realize that. . . . [But], still, we love people so much, you give them the opportunity. . . . Even if it’s one out of a million, even if it’s that, whatever it might be, he’s still a person that was made, created by an authority above himself and we loved the guy. I mean . . . we spent enough time with him where we really do appreciate the man’s character and personality."

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Zadie Smith on why the French are to blame for climate change

This is, I assure you, not a wholly misleading headline, but it is not all the French, just Jacques Derrida and his acolytes. See below for details.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Battle of Salamis: "a gay neoconservative snowglobe"

This is, of course, the defining sea battle of ancient Greece as seen in 300: Rise of an Empire and reviewed by Alex von Tunzelmann.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The best magazine in the world (at least north of the river)

This is an article in the Guardian about the London Review of Books. It is, as one would expect, full of praise for the unashamedly loss-making venture, worrying mostly only about the lack of women contributors.

What I most liked was the tension between the parochial and the global. The headline is "Is the LRB the best magazine in the world?". The subheading starts "The London Review of Books has become the most successful – and controversial – literary publication in Europe". So the message is that the LTB is big - and yet...

"Wilmers [the editor] is an established part of the liberal-leaning Primrose Hill intelligentsia: she was married to the film director Stephen Frears (the couple divorced in the 70s and have two sons, Sam and Will) and used to live next door to the biographer Claire Tomalin and her husband, the writer Michael Frayn. The playwright Jonathan Miller was down the road. Her best friend from Oxford (where she read modern languages) is Alan Bennett.

When I put this to her, Wilmers blinks. "Does everybody live in north London?" she asks herself, before going through a mental checklist of contributors and staff. "John Lanchester doesn't," she announces triumphantly. Spice [the publisher] says that most of their readers come from N and NW postcodes. Anywhere else?

"Clapham," he replies briskly.

I'm pretty sure that means that John Lanchester is the Clapham reader as well as being the Clapham contributor. But I can help out with another example - James Wood lives in Massachusetts, where he "teaches the practice of literary criticism at Harvard". Although I think Harvard is spiritually north of the river in LRB-land.

Teasing aside, I got the link from an American blog, an Anglophile, but a Daniel Hannan-reading Anglophile. So the LRB's writ does run a little outside the N and NW postcodes.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Bob Crow has died

The Daily Mash covers the story accurately here:

"As the only union leader most people under 40 have ever heard of died, tube drivers said Bob Crow was the one person standing between them and trains driven by robot slaves.
Meanwhile, across Britain opinion was divided between those who thought Bob Crow was really good at his job and those who thought he was really good at his job.
Wayne Hayes, an investment banker, said: “He brought the world’s most capitalist city to its knees on several occasions. I couldn’t do that and I genuinely believe I’m worth two million quid a year.”

The Economist says much the same thing here:

"Mr Crow's belligerent negotiating style as RMT leader was borne of sheer pragmatism. His members enjoyed excellent pay and conditions. Under the latest deal, drivers on the London underground will see their salary rise to £52,000 by 2015, much higher than that of equivalent workers in other public services. Strikes by the union last month—in which its leader angrily clashed with Boris Johnson, the mayor of London—forced bosses to suspend planned job cuts.

Under his leadership, RMT membership grew from 59,000 in 2002 to 78,000 last year—at a time when overall union membership in Britain was declining.

The Women at the Top

This is a very readable review-cum-set of musings on Alison Wolf's The XX Factor (that book about high-achieving upper middle class women).

There are a few interesting thoughts, for example: "I think there is some reason to believe that the emotional bond between parents is to some extent redirected toward the children; the term “housewife,” which calls attention to the woman’s relationship to her husband, has been replaced by “stay-at-home mom,” which focuses on her relationship with her children."

I am most interested in the author's comments about children and child-rearing. Wolf's thesis is that upper-middle class families nowadays (and this applies pretty much equally to men and women) are dedicated to two things: their work and their children. This is interesting to the reviewer in three ways. (More below.)

Friday, 7 March 2014

The sad case of Mr O'Riordan: the man who tried to cheer up his mother by lying about his school

You might have seen something about this case in the news. Dennis O'Riordan got a 2:1 from East Anglia and became a barrister. He didn't get a tenancy immediately, so he started (but did not complete) some post-graduate study at Oxford. He then went on to have a pretty successful career in financial law.

However, his CV claimed that he had been to Radley, then obtained a First from East Anglia, a First in a BA and in a BCL from Oxford, a DPhil, the Eldon Scholarship (I had an argument with Lord Hoffmann about the right to silence in my own, unsuccessful, attempt at an Eldon Scholarship), a Masters in Law from Harvard and that he had been called to the Irish and New York Bars. None of that was true. (More below)

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Some links you might like

1. Setting up your own business can be stressful, but this chap created a "uterus" from a football bladder by
punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goat's blood, while his neighbours concluded he had a sexual disease and was possessed by evil spirits. He lost his wife and mother and even had to cook for himself. Still, it's a story with a happy ending, and not just for Mr Muruganantham.

2. Elephants have a "a complex language we will probably never decipher", according to Scientific American. I'd take that as a challenge if I were working in Silicon Valley. Also, does it say more about us or about elephants that their most recognisably intelligent activity is grieving for their dead?

3. Mark Steyn's having a bit of a bad time with the American legal system at the moment. Seeing as he's on the receiving end of a libel action, we don't necessarily have the comfort of saying that it wouldn't be like that in England. The legal systems of the US and England diverged a long time ago but, in some respects, not that far from each other. My diagnosis, as a non-US lawyer, is that Steyn's problem was using the f-word (fraud) against someone who's not afraid to sue. But on a completely different topic, here he is on the song 'Beautiful Dreamer'. It's an interesting story, whether you like the song or not. Did you know that the man who wrote it, Stephen Foster, also wrote "Oh! Susanna", "The Old Folks At Home (Swanee River)" and "Camptown Races"? And if you feel like buying a gift voucher or two from Steyn's store, I'm sure he'd be grateful too.

4. In unsurprising news, "there’s a whole cottage industry on the Web devoted to bitching and moaning about anachronisms in the vocabularies of television and movie depictions of the past. “Downton Abbey” is the mother lode, and it set off an anachronism gold rush." If you want an Anachronism Machine then this link will tell you about a man who has one. As with real gold rushes, you are probably better off selling the machines than looking for the gold yourself.

Monday, 3 March 2014

How many divisions has NATO?

Not enough to scare Russia.

At this link you will find the text of the 9 July 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine. It's worth a bit of quoting - after the break. And for good measure I've thrown in some 1930s comparisons too.