12 Dec 2010

Al-Akhbar/Wikileaks: A postscript. The limits of journalism.

On the 1st of December, a Syrian worker was shot by Lebanese police dressed in civilian clothes in the early hours of the morning. The murder happened in Hamra, a residential and commercial district of Beirut that is popular with tourists and locals alike. The incident received little coverage in the media, with the exception of Al-Akhbar newspaper which published detailed coverage of the circumstances of the murder and placed it prominently on its digital version. Two things conspired to keep the story from receiving the attention that it deserved: the fact that the victim Abdel Nasser Ahmad was Syrian and Al-Akhbar’s publication of the leaked cables from several Arab countries which dominated the news.


11 Dec 2010

My first article for Muftah.Org 'the Key to Middle East and North Africa Policy-Making'

I've started writing about Lebanon for Muftah, they just published my first article: "Consensus in Lebanese Politics: The Authoritarian Alternative to Democracy." Muftah is an online publication concerned with Middle East and North Africa Policy-Making, and it's ran and written by an impressive group of volunteers. Please visit the website and if you want to show your support 'Like' their page on Facebook and you can also follow them on Twitter.

9 Dec 2010

A Scandalous Lack of Scandal: Why Wikileaks failed to impress in Lebanon

First things first: the attacks that brought down Al-Akhbar newspaper’s website today are a despicable action that is as pointless as it is stupid. Pointless because any hope of stemming the flow of information on the internet is a delusion and stupid because those attacks will only reinforce the idea that the leaked information that Al-Akhbar published should be repressed. To me, freedom of speech in the Arab world is much more important than political disagreements and we should all support Al-Akhbar against those attacks.

22 Nov 2010

Consensus: the authoritarian alternative

If you believe the hype, Lebanon is heading fast towards another crisis. A round of civil violence is lurking around the corner, or perhaps a renewed confrontation with Israel. For the seasoned conspiracy theorists, even a double whammy is in the cards: an Israeli attack in parallel with civil strife according to some plan being hatched by the tireless forces of imperialism. We’ve been there before of course, at countless times. Typically, the Lebanese instinct manifests itself in two ways under those circumstances: firstly emphasise the need for consensus to ward off the external danger, and secondly seek the intervention of external agents to help us avoid an explosion.


In defence of elitism: the American University of Beirut

I was amused to read this philistine attack on the American University of Beirut by Jana Nakhal in Al-Akhbar newspaper, The AUB and Beirut: One Side Love. Nakhal, 'an urban-planning engineer' (sic), subjects the AUB to a shrill anti-colonial examination, uncovering it in the process as an 'accelerating factor in the popular acceptance of colonial ideas, tastes and concepts'. (Presumably things like engineering, medicine and architecture which colonialism forced us to accept).

8 Nov 2010

Suspended democracy and Lebanon’s paralysis

During Saad Hariri’s recent visit to London, he was questioned by a journalist about the failure to ratify the national budget for the past five years. The ‘opposition’ press has dedicated significant coverage to the subject of the budget during the past few months, especially that its ratification is linked to the funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. In any other country, not ratifying the budget for 5 years would be a serious problem. In Lebanon, it’s a minor transgression, as Hariri’s matter-of-fact response indicated. The budget issue is one expression of the perpetual crisis that the Lebanese political system has been going through for years, but it’s only a symptom of the willingness of the political elites to suspend democratic mechanisms whenever convenient.

4 Nov 2010

Saad Hariri: The limits of politics

I met the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri for the first time this week, when I went to a talk he gave at the London School of Economics. The talk itself was very general. Hariri discussed the Arab Peace Initiative which was first proposed at the Beirut Summit for Arab leaders in 2002, and explained the need for peace in the Middle East which he asserted that Lebanon’s internal stability depends on. He touched on the economic achievements of his and the preceding government and outlined how building on those achievements is vital to fulfilling the aspirations of the Lebanese people.

3 Nov 2010

Hariri Pop Idol

By Joseph El-Khoury, re-published with permission from Arabdemocracy


Yesterday night I came face to face with Saad Hariri for the first time. I had shaken hands in a past life with his late father more than 12 years ago and was looking forward to draw a comparison between father and son. The Lebanese Embassy in London provided the backdrop to an evening reception where the banking industry was overrepresented. Having sampled the canapés and exchanged opinions on the resilience of the Lebanese economy, they laid down their glasses to clap in their hero as he appeared past a group of heavily botoxed ladies. A friend pointed out that Saad Hariri looked a defeated man. Perhaps I thought! I rather found that his tone, posture and demeanour still revealed a degree of discomfort in his role, despite the 5 years of experience as heir to his father’s political legacy.

28 Oct 2010

The Prince and CABE 2.0: An even less accountable version

It's emerged that the The Prince of Wales’ architectural charity, the Prince’s Foundation , is contemplating plans to replace CABE as the body in charge of carrying out design reviews. Instead of getting rid of this meddling and intrusive process of policing architectural design, we're now facing the prospect of an even more stylistically rigid organisation heading it. The haphazard nature of the government's decisions leaves the space open for powerful organisations to lobby for this role instead of handing the power back to planning departments as I had argued before. Councils are democratically-elected and accountable bodies, unlike Prince Charles and his foundation which are medieval relics.

The chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation Hank Dittmar tried to deny accusations that his organisation would only favour traditional architecture: “To be credible, it would have to have democratic, independent judgement. We would have to have a panel that was balanced and not exclusively traditional architects.” I am not worried about such a prospect. What I am worried about is the un-democratic nature of review panels.

Architects could build neo-Gothic hotels in central London for all I care. It's time that we learned that the tyranny of taste is not the way to ensure good design. But what we should fight for is the right of architects to make judgments about what they think is right and wrong without subjecting them to an extra layer of scrutiny. We should also give planners with the confidence to champion good schemes and not undermine their authority through committees of the great and the good. This new authoritarian outfit should be resisted before it turns into a reality.

You can watch a debate I had with Hank Dittmar here. The session was hosted by the Urban Design Group and entitled 'Building Urban Communities - What is a City?' I think it's a good preview of the clash of ideas between the authoritarian and backward-looking decision makers and those of us who have an aspirational outlook.

25 Oct 2010

In defence of factory farming

Jason Smith makes a very good argument in defence of factory farming in response to the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) campaign against a proposed super dairy at Nocton in Lincolnshire, England. Jason takes on several of the misguided arguments that drive antagonism towards large-scale farming. His article is a good accompaniment to my article against the misplaced faith in urban farming Grow Your Own: Urban Farming: The future of food or Arcadia on the cheap?

I liked in particular Jason's debunking of 'natural' farming:

"People who argue that super dairies are unnatural should realise that there is nothing natural about farming at all. There is nothing natural about the landscape of the British countryside and there is nothing natural about humans drinking milk. Human beings had been around some 140,000 years before they gradually stopped being hunter-gatherers and took up cultivating crops and animals. The British countryside that we see today was largely created between 1760 and 1820 as part of the agricultural revolution that saw the end of the open-field system and the subsistence farming that accompanied it."

When will people learn that the romantic views of nature and of the past are not the way to solve our problems today?

21 Oct 2010

The Historian turned Oracle: Walid Raad's Miraculous Beginnings

The Whitechapel Gallery in London is hosting an exhibition of Walid Raad's work over the past twenty years entitled Miraculous Beginnings. The exhibition features the work that Raad is well-known for, with the Atlas Group project, as well as his more recent work. It is a genuinely fascinating exhibition and I highly recommend visiting it, it runs until the end of the year.


Culture Wars published my review of the exhibition. There's a clear departure in style and content best summed as 'the Historian turned Oracle'. Hopefully, this will intrigue you enough to visit. Raad's work embodies the complexities of modern Lebanon and its history and any attempts at representing it. What more can you ask for?

A different type of determinism

My colleague in ManTowNHuman Alastair Donald makes a very compelling argument in favour of rejecting 'happy clappy architecture' in his blog at The Independent today.

'Happiness is the latest Big Idea amongst policymakers and social scientists.  And given architects now justify design almost entirely in terms of delivering social policy, it was probably only a matter of time before attentions turned to shaping our feelings.'

'Ultimately, it seems there’s little genuine interest in creating the possibility for people to pursue their own happiness, but rather using design to cultivate conformism with other agendas. It’s surely time to reject happy clappy architecture.'

Alastair also echoes an argument that I made several times, most recently in my essay on happiness in architecture, that the popularity of 'designing behaviour' accepts a form of environmental determinism. When I accused David Harvey of pandering to environmental determinism by suggesting that there's 'geographic subconscious' at play in modern society, I was flooded with a barrage of pedantic comments claiming that I misunderstood Harvey who had indeed made his own critique of determinism. Someone even hit back by suggesting we discuss 'the effect of suburbia on the political impotence of the middle class in the US'. To my mind, this is the clearest example of determinism I can think of.

But an important distinction must be made here: we are not talking about evolutionary determinism but about a form of social determinism that is even more problematic. The acceptance of 'nudge' policies is a good example of this, as Alastair rightly points out. Evolutionary psychology has been utilised to provide the theoretical framework for this new paradigm and to give it a scientific gloss. Many 'social determinists' are critical of this 'scientific' approach but they seem oblivious to the convergence between their own thinking and that of evolutionary psychology. Namely, that they agree on limits to human agency that they see as beyond our control.

The most patronising and dismissive manifestation of this argument is the 'brainwashing' idea: people are too taken by the system to realise what their own good is. Not surprisingly, this idea is more popular with the left, but this popularity is a clear expression of the left's failure to connect with large sections of society. Rather than being self-critical and understanding how it lost touch with the masses, it turns to blaming the people for being too stupid or brain-washed. Of course, the idea is rarely expressed in this vulgar form, but the assumptions behind many of the arguments we hear today stem from those exact sentiments.

The convergence between evolutionary psychology and social theory finds its expression in behavioral design. Let's call that spatial determinism.

‘ Il est interdit d’ interdire’ - Ban the bans!

Josie Appleton write a great article today in Spiked about the new movement in Spain fighting against the smoking bans: 'Meet the Spaniards fighting to stub out authoritarianism'. At a time when most people are looking back nostalgically at May '68, few people remember that they were motivated by the spirit of freedom. This was clearly expressed in the slogan ‘Il est interdit d’ interdire’ or 'to ban is forbidden!' The Spanish movement adopted a similar slogan ‘Prohibido prohibir’, as a reminder of what the real issue with the smoking bans is.

Appleton makes several interesting points, but I liked in particular the distinction that those behind the movement are careful to make: this is not about smokers against non-smokers but everyone against the authoritarian and intrusive state that wants to regulate even the most basic aspects of social interaction. In all likelihood, smoking in Europe will disappear within a few generations but the principle is well-worth fighting for.

'Cabe was architect of its own demise'

Amanda Baillieu echoes some of my thoughts on why CABE should be abolished in her BD blog. Like me, she thinks that CABE is a design police force, although she stretched the metaphor a bit: 'It was a design police force run out of the equivalent of the Kremlin.' She also thought that the functions of CABE should be part of the planning system and not as an external agency. Few people today would agree that 'planners aren’t there to tell us what’s good design', but I wholeheartedly embrace this sentiment. Fat chance of this happening.

Now that the fate of CABE has been decided, I must stress that it was abolished for the wrong reasons and not part of a major reform of the planning system. The consequence will be that CABE will be reborn in a different shape, less costly but as intrusive.

A thought for all those losing their jobs, we must express our solidarity with them. They are not responsible for CABE's actions but will face the consequences of New Labour's flippancy and authoritarianism and the coalition's crisis-management mentality which they're attempting to pass off as policy.

10 Oct 2010

مسيرات الخروج على الدولة: في انحسار الطائفية و تبلور الهويات الثقافية

يكاد خروج الأهل على الدولة أن يكتمل في لبنان، عقبا على وضاح شرارة الذي أرخ بدايات هذه النزعة في معرض تحليله لمواجهات عام 1973 بوصفها "فصل من تأريخ الحروب الملبننة". تغليب سلطة الأهل و العلاقات الأهلية على الاجتماع السياسي و قوام الدولة كان بنظر شرارة هدفا أساسيا من أهداف الحركة الوطنية تم تحقيقه من خلال اتفاق الطائف و تم إرساء دعائمه خلال السنوات التي تلت الاتفاق. لوهلة بعد اغتيال الرئيس رفيق الحريري و الانتفاضة الشعبية التي تلته بدا إن لبنان قد بدأ يخطو خطوات واثقة باتجاه عكس مفاعيل تغليب النزعة الأهلية على قوام الدولة غير إن سلسلة الأحداث التي تلت ذلك المنعطف التاريخي بينت مدى صعوبة هذه المهمة إلى أن جاءت أحداث السابع من أيار لتنهي عمليا هذه المسيرة و تعيد تثبيت دعائم الحكم الأهلي. و ليس تفصيلا إن تلك الدعائم تقوم بشكل كبير على التشكيك بالدولة و أهدافها و أساليبها ووضعها بشكل مستمر تحت مجهر التدقيق بوصفها موضع شك و ريبة خصوصا من خلال علاقاتها بالدول الأخرى و النظام العالمي. و ليس اعتكاف المعارضين عن إمساك زمام الدولة الذي كان بميسرهم قبيل الانتخابات النيابية إلا دليلا على عدم الثقة بالدولة نفسها و ما تمثله، لا فقط الأطراف السياسية التي تعاقبت على تدبير شؤون السلطة التنفيذية.

6 Oct 2010

Back to the Future: The Fate of Harirism

Yesterday, Al-Akhbar newspaper published a story speculating about two possible outcomes to the current confrontation between Prime Minister Hariri and Hezbollah. In the first scenario, a Syrian-Saudi agreement allows Hariri to stay in power in return for blocking the awaited Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictment and withdrawing his backing of the tribunal. The second scenario will be put into action should the Saudi-Syrian agreement fail to materialise. Hezbollah would then move to replace Hariri through peaceful protests and the subsequent resignation of the 8th of March ministers from the cabinet.

2 Oct 2010

A Victory for Big and Bold Architecture: Zaha Hadid wins the RIBA Stirling Prize

Zaha Hadid has finally won the RIBA Stirling Prize today, for the MAXXI contemporary art museum in Rome. The Stirling Prize is the UK’s most prestigious architectural award and the choice of Hadid as winner is a bold decision that should be applauded. Zaha has been nominated three times without winning,. This year the jury finally recognised her achievements and the boldness of her designs.

29 Sep 2010

ذاكرة جماعية أم تكريس سلطة الماضي على الحاضر؟

كلما انتعش النقاش عن وسط بيروت و شركة سوليدير يأتي من يذكرك بمحي الذاكرة الجماعية الذي من المفترض إن مشروع إعادة إعمار بيروت قد مارسه. الغريب إن مفاهيم كهذا تجد طريقها بسرعة إلى النخب و المثقفين و يصبح تردادها فعل إيمان من دون تدقيق أو نقد افتراضاتها المستوردة بأغلبها. و إذا تقاطعت هذه المفاهيم مع ما قد يبدو سطحيا انه مواجهة للاحتكار و الرأسمالية بوجهها المعاصر و مشاريع النخب الحاكمة زاد رواجها و اكتسبت أبعادا يبدو و كأنها تدخلها في مصاف النقاش السياسي العام. لكن قليل من التأمل كاف لقلب هذه المعادلة و كشف الأسس المُحافظة التي تدفعها.

27 Sep 2010

Sects and the City

In my post ‘Hariri / Hezbollah: in search of a new division of labour’ I argued that the climate of fear being created in Lebanon today is a noisy background for the upcoming deal that will seal a power-sharing arrangement between the main political camps under a renewed Syrian patronage. I closed that post by saying ‘we, as always, remain as spectators in all of this.’ This isn’t a call for disengagement and cynicism about politics; on the contrary it’s a call for the Lebanese people to reject all the secret deals being made without our participation. But how can we express our political will in this crucial period as we watch the blatant abdication of responsibility by Lebanese leaders?

The New Superhero on the Block: Syrian, Muslim and in a wheelchair

The 'Silver Scorpion' as he is known is 'the brainchild of a group of disabled young Americans and Syrians who were brought together last month in Damascus by the Open Hands Initiative, a non-profit organization founded by U.S. philanthropist and businessman Jay T. Snyder.'

The appearance of the superhero has not been finalised, but these early sketches show 'a Muslim boy who lost his legs in a landmine accident and later becomes the Silver Scorpion after discovering he has the power to control metal with his mind.'

It's not known yet whether the superhero will be using his super powers in neighbouring Lebanon.

Am I the only one to think that calling an amputee 'scorpion' is cruelly ironic?

Read full story here.

23 Sep 2010

UnCommon Wealth Games: Why the West loves to put India down

The problems dogging the Commonwealth Games in India have been quickly seized upon by Western commentators and athletes as an opportunity to put India back in its place. It seems that when it comes to the West's anxiety about the Rising East, the latter can't do anything right. China was criticised for the Beijing Olympic Games being elaborate and excessive, and now India is getting grief for its lack of proper preparation. The collapse of the pedestrian bridge that highlighted those problems is a tragedy, but it's astounding how this event was then used cynically to mount a vitriolic campaign against India.

22 Sep 2010

Countdown to the return of Syrian troops? Jumblatt says so.

Think I was exaggerating when I talked about the return of the Syrian patronage over Lebanon? Now Walid Jumblatt has declared his public support for the return of Syrian troops. This is an excerpt from his conversation with Michael Young:

“We’re heading toward civil war if things remain as they are,” Jumblatt told me this week.

“What about the Syrians?” I asked.

21 Sep 2010

Hariri / Hezbollah: In search of a new division of labour

The political fluctuations in Lebanon are often reported through meteorological metaphors. This is partially due to the fact that we have as much control over politics as we do over the weather. If the media is to be believed these days, rough storms are heading our way. Allegations of impending coups from one side are reciprocated by allegations about secret conspiracies with the west and Israel from the other. The truth, as usual, is much less dramatic.

It is easy to get carried away with the shrill tone of political reporting and rhetoric, but it’s often forgotten that this is usually part of the political jostling before anticipated settlements. The big headline for this period is the precise nature of the political arrangement that will ensue from Syria’s return as the main ‘player’ on the Lebanese scene. Saad Hariri’s exoneration of Syria and his statement about the political accusations that implicated it in the assassination of his father has created the ground conditions for Syria’s renewed patronage over Lebanon, but the shape of this stewardship is yet to be worked out.

Hariri and Hezbollah are effectively engaged in a power struggle to ensure the most advantageous positions within this arrangement. But this is not an open ended struggle; it’s more of an attempt at judging what will be possible under this new paradigm. All the talk of coups and conspiracies is part of the usual background noise that precedes such resolutions.

It’s worth remembering Hassan Nasrallah’s statement on the eve of Burj Abi Haidar clashes in which he declared that Hezbollah can overthrow the government in the parliament and does not need to agitate on the street in order to achieve this objective. The one thing that prevents Hezbollah and its allies from seizing power is Syrian influence. The blunt question to ask is if Hezbollah really believed in all the allegations about their opponents’ collusion with Israel, then why is it letting them run the country?

Let’s remember that the previous arrangement that ended the civil war and dictated how the country was run for a decade and a half was also orchestrated through a Saudi-Syrian agreement, albeit with a much larger role for the US at the time. The arrangement that ensued from the Taif Agreement created a division of labour between Hezbollah and Hariri the father, famously known as the development/resistance formula. In other words, Hariri was charged with development and reconstruction while Hezbollah handled the resistance against Israel.

Part of the explanation for the tension we are witnessing today is that this formula is not easy to resurrect for various reasons. For starters, the strict division of labour is not adequate any longer. Hezbollah has been increasingly more active in reconstruction and development since 2006, and it has had several achievements on that front. (Helped with the flow of Qatari and Iranian funds.) Hariri’s intelligence apparatus meanwhile has had various successes in discovering Israeli spy rings and arresting high-profile agents. Their roles have become increasingly overlapping.

This is partially more relevant in the case of Hezbollah because Hariri’s spy catcher apparatus is not an integral part of his political project. Hezbollah’s role in fighting Israel on the other hand cannot be expressed as aggressively as it used to be anymore. The 2006 war is still seen as a victory by the Party but, as Nasrallah remarked afterwards, the cost was quite high. Despite the talk of war that we constantly hear from both sides, it’s unlikely that Hezbollah or Israel see any strategic gains in any major confrontations anymore.

Hezbollah’s recently opened Museum of Resistance in Mleeta illustrates the nature of this new phase in Hezbollah’s existence. It is an indication that Hezbollah is now ready to see military resistance as part of its history. This does not mean that Hezbollah will lay down its weapons, but that any confrontations with Israel in the future are likely to be limited in nature. You don’t build a $4 million project and plan a large touristic development around it if you’re expecting to be engaged in a war.

The recent frequent critiques of Solidere are another indication of the changing nature of this division of labour between Hezbollah and Hariri. During the period of Syrian hegemony, criticism of Hariri’s monopoly over development was never translated into any meaningful action or alternative plan. In fact, the law that brought Solidere into being wouldn’t have been approved without the consent of all the major parliamentary blocks at the time. It’s very hypocritical today to deny responsibility for the decisions taken in the 90s by any of the political blocks that were in parliament then. Such criticism today is more of a declaration of intentions that, in the coming period, Hariri’s monopoly on development will be challenged.

Will Hariri be willing to concede? We will have to wait and see. But two things are for sure. First, the current escalation is only part of the tactical jostling and its effects will be contained in time in preparation for the next political period. Second, the division of labour between Hariri and Hezbollah will be reproduced in a new format, one that we haven’t quite grasped yet. We, as always, remain as spectators in all of this.

Doubts about Zaha Hadid's return to Baghdad

Following my post yesterday about Zaha Hadid being commissioned to design the new building for the Central Bank of Iraq, a friend drew my attention to articles in the Iraqi press discussing the subject. It seems that another firm has been working on the design of the new CBI headquarters and is more than half way through the process. So far there has been no clarification from the CBI itself about this apparent conflict, but there's been a fair bit of speculation.

20 Sep 2010

Deconstruction doesn't mean the same in Baghdad

Zaha Hadid has been appointed as the architect for the new Iraqi central bank in Baghdad, after the existing building was attacked in June. They could have asked a more reasonable Iraqi architect like, I don't know, me, but they decided to go with the big name. But joking aside, this should be interesting.

Beirut: The City of Long Shadows

Yet another article bemoaning the loss of Beirut’s architectural heritage as a result of the current construction boom. I’ve counted no less than ten articles in the western press this year, and they’ve all covered almost the exact same angle on the subject. Greedy developers, weak state, poor people kicked out of the city. While part of the picture, this narrow angle hardly provides a comprehensive view.

17 Sep 2010

Toby Young V Architecture Ltd: 1- 0

I’m not a fan of Toby Young, but when someone says something sensible I’m willing to listen. Young is planning to start a new ‘free school’ in west London. In a statement that no doubt made most architects choke on their organic Muesli he denied that there’s any link between building design and academic achievement. As to be expected, the comments sparked ‘a backlash’ among architects who ‘lined up to attack Young’. The world would be a much better place if all mobs had the decency of architects to stand in a queue when savaging someone.

15 Sep 2010

CABE and why London needs more skyscrapers

A refined version of my blog calling for the abolition of CABE has been published at Blueprint. Thanks to this and a mention by the architecture and design critic Hugh Pearman, the article has sparked off much needed debate about the subject. I don't want to create the impression that I am singling out CABE for critique, I think the entire planning system in the UK and in London in particular has become a barrier to innovation and experimentation in architecture. I think my article making the case for building more (and taller) skyscrapers in London is a useful reminder of the broader points I made. Read the article published at Culture Wars. Here's a hint of what I think the London skyline should look like:

14 Sep 2010

Inequality, Brazilian slums and The Spirit Level

Read my article on inequality, Brazilian slums and The Spirit Level in World Architecture News. The article was inspired by a photograph of  Paraisópolis favela by young Brazilian photographer Tuca Vieira and the recent debate around The Spirit Level, the book that argues that inequality is the cause of all social problems. The WAN editorial explains the context of the article.

The picture below is not Tuca Vieira's, but another photograph of Paraisópolis.

13 Sep 2010

Why not abolish CABE altogether?

The architectural establishment is experiencing a mild shock to the system, one of its leading lights has publicly broken rank and dared to criticise CABE. In Sunday’s Observer, Rowan Moore the former head of the Architecture Foundation wrote an article entitled ‘Bricks, mortar and mateyness’ accusing CABE of not being critical enough of badly designed buildings. “Too often CABE has found itself in the business of ameliorating bad situations with the result that it has come to look, or be, complicit with them,” said Moore. “Worse, it has looked too matey with the people it is trying to oversee and influence.”

10 Sep 2010

A truth universally ignored: on Lebanon's predicament - Guest blog

I received an interesting comment from a reader in response to Is Hezbollah Lebanon’s NRA? I thought I would share this comment on the blog because it addresses the hypocrisy of our discourse(s) in Lebanon. The comment dwells on the various aspects that manifest our disregard of universalism, shedding light on what is without doubt one of the main barriers towards our social and political development.

It’s very rewarding when what we write resonates with other people, and even more so when this gives us a glimmer of hope that we’re not alone in our discontent.

Fatima writes:

9 Sep 2010

Burning the Quran: A superfluous controversy

The most reasonable comment I came across on the Quran burning controversy was written by Lebanese blogger Mustafa aka Beirut Spring. “The more we talk about and vilify the Koran burners, the more we play into their hands.” Mustafa has managed to recognise a truth that has eluded world leaders and commentators alike. Mustafa went on to say:

“They will burn their Korans, go home, and nobody will die as a result. The Muslim world would have finally grown the thick skin it always needed. We would learn the lesson that most other religions have already learned: Just because a fool somewhere calls your religion evil/ignorant/foolish, it doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Call me naive, but I think most Muslims are as reasonable as Mustafa. The truly offensive suggestion in this debate is that all Muslims are blood-thirsty savages who will fly into a rage and start murdering people when they hear of the Quran burning. And this is precisely what western leaders and journalists are suggesting will happen, hence their eagerness to stop this burning from taking place.

Michel Aoun: A case of meagre ambitions

Michel Aoun’s recent statements have been interpreted by some as an attempt to bring President Michel Suleiman’s term to a premature end as a prelude to replacing him. Aoun’s apparently commented during the Doha conference that he would accept Michel Suleiman as president but only for two years. The FPM has denied the allegations, insisting that Aoun’s statement is part of its parliamentary role in promoting institutional accountability. Is the Reform and Change parliamentary block that represents the FPM trying to live up to its name or is this really a power grab?

According to Ghassan Saoud, a journalist close to the FPM, the answer is neither. Saoud characterised the tension between Suleiman and Aoun as a manifestation of their competition for winning popular Christian support. Saoud suggests that Suleiman has replaced Samir Geagea as the second most popular Christian leader after Aoun, but that he has attained this position by ‘breaking the rules of the game’ and openly competing against Aoun. (Those ‘rules’ suggest that the president should stay above political competition!)

8 Sep 2010

The Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour: Comedy isn't about laughs!

There’s an important field in which Jews have consistently outperformed Arabs. This has both caused me some anxiety and made me wonder about the reasons. I’m talking of course about comedy. (The anxiety bit is an exaggeration). When I think of my comedy favourites, many Jewish names pop out: Groucho Marx, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, to name but a few. By contrast, there are very few Arab comedians that.... actually there are very few Arab comedians full stop. Why is that?

I’m not talking exclusively about stand-up comedy; that would be an unfair comparison because stand-up is in its early days in the Arab world. I’m talking about humour in general in all its forms. Why does it seem like we haven’t produced enough humorists and that the comedy landscape in the Arab world is quite barren?

7 Sep 2010

The Revolution was Televised, hence its downfall

Prime Minister Saad Hariri officially declared The Cedar Revolution over yesterday when he announced that Syria was not responsible for the assassination of his father. This declaration brings to an end a tumultuous era of Lebanon’s history that lasted just over five years. In truth, the ‘revolution’ had lasted for one month exactly, but it took a much longer time for the realisation to sink in. Hariri’s declaration provided the closure that many had been seeking.
"This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has ended," thus spoke Hariri. But a political exoneration is the mirror image of a political accusation. Much as Hariri and his allies were wrong to make the accusation in the first place, he is repeating the mistake now by making this declaration. How can we be expected to believe that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is independent when Hariri has just decided to eliminate one of the suspects on his own initiative?

Is Hezbollah Lebanon’s NRA?

The issue of Hezbollah’s weapons had divided the Lebanese for a long time. In the last few years it has become the central question of Lebanese politics without a shadow of a doubt. Hezbollah’s insistence on maintaining its large arsenal and military capabilities is considered by its political opponents a destabilising factor. They have insisted on implementing the state monopoly on arms as a precondition for the emergence of a fully sovereign state. But such a state monopoly is not universal; America is of course the obvious example among many. Would the American model throw some light on this thorny issue in Lebanese politics?

6 Sep 2010

Fantasy politics in the Arab world

The power of self-delusion in the Arab world is a fascinating phenomenon. Take politics: instead of being honest about our disagreements we like to pretend that they somehow resemble western political conflicts. We get carried away and start using words like ‘leftist’, ‘liberal’, and ‘neo-liberal’ to give some depth to our confused fumbling, like a teenager trying to unhook a bra while desperately trying to come up with excuses. Those political categories are metaphors at best in this part of the world; our politics is driven mainly by narrow pragmatic considerations that have nothing to do with those imported political categories.

So imagine my surprise today when I saw the headline ‘Enlightenment First’ in an editorial by Khaled Saghieh in Al-Akhbar. But what I mistook for an epiphany turned out to be yet another example of political cross-dressing. The gist of the column is that liberals in the Arab world are working in the service of dictatorships under the pretext of promoting reform and modernisation. Using recent examples from Egypt and Tunisia, Saghieh argues that ‘liberals’ are publicly supporting bids by corrupt rulers to stay in power. The threat of political Islam has apparently caused those liberals to ally themselves with dictators, an alliance that they justify through the need for development.

2 Sep 2010

'A Jihad for Love' comes to Beirut

Looks like a minor controversy is brewing in Beirut around the screening of Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love. The film explores the relationship between Islam and homosexuality through the eyes of men and women who are both Muslim and gay and are openly defiant about their sexuality and its place within Muslim societies. I saw the film a while back on Channel 4 and was fascinated by it and by the courage of the individuals portrayed in it, many of whom had been beaten, raped and chastised by their communities. Sharma spent six years making the film, getting to know the characters very well and gaining their trust. The diversity of the stories told, covering countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey and France, gives a comprehensive view of the treatment of homosexuality in Islamic societies today.

1 Sep 2010

'General Suleiman': Lebanon’s elusive self-portrait

In Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, the protagonist Galip undertakes a strange journey to find his wife who had mysteriously and inexplicably disappeared from their flat. In keeping with Pamuk’s obsessions, the journey becomes a quest for identity, that of Galip, of Istanbul and of modern Turkey. During his journey, he enters a ‘spider-infested labyrinth of memory’ where the authentic Turkish self is preserved. This labyrinth is an underground museum displaying dusty mannequins rejected by department stores because ‘Turks no longer wanted to be Turks, they wanted to be something else altogether.’

31 Aug 2010

Adam Curtis on why Mad Men is so fascinating

Here's an excellent article by Adam Curtis on why Mad Men is so fascinating. Curtis's grasp of the historic moment we live in is phenomenal, very few people are able to see beyond the prevailing dogmas in the same manner. If you're not familiar with his work, he's the documentary film maker behind The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self, and The Trap among others. 

In this blog, he perceptively identifies the source of our contemporary anxiety:

"In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.


I think we are fascinated because we have a lurking feeling that we are living in a very similar time. A time that, despite all the great forces of history whirling around in the world outside, somehow feels stuck. And above all has no real vision of the future."

The clips he uses with the article are fascinating to watch, a must see for sure.

Wars must stop because they're preventing us from dealing with climate change!!

If you ever doubted that the carbon fetish has completely blinded climate change campaigners, then you must read Howard Friel's bizarre anti-war argument in The Guardian. Commenting on Bjørn Lomborg's new book Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Friel ended his article with this sublimely surreal paragraph:

"If Lomborg were really looking for smart solutions, he would push for an end to perpetual and brutal war, which diverts scarce resources and public focus from what Lomborg accurately says needs more money, including some of the research and policy projects recommended by the contributors to this volume. There might even be a few hundred billion dollars left to invest annually in new energy and mass transit economies, and science-mandated CO2 reductions. We're only two questions short of achieving those goals. Sounds pretty economical to me."

The politically incorrect necktie: on boycotts and secular coercion

A Lebanese friend recently revealed on a social networking website that he had bought a tie from Marks and Spencer. This otherwise insignificant revelation provoked a tirade of angry comments from Lebanese vigilantes that chided the irresponsible tie-wearer on his unpatriotic choice of neck wear. Even though I was aware of the M&S boycott policy as being one of the cornerstones of anti-Zionism among the Arab Diaspora, I was taken aback by the intensity of the reaction and people’s willingness to publicly chastise someone simply because of their fashion choices. This militant censoriousness is chiefly practiced by people who regard themselves as ‘secular’, and even liberal, making it much more problematic. It points to the disturbing emergence of a secular piety that is far more insidious than one stemming from a religious worldview.

Before I left for Britain several years ago, I was instructed by several Lebanese friends on the necessity of boycotting M&S because of its ‘support for Israel’. Some assured me that all the profits that it made on Saturdays went directly to the IDF. The blunt way of phrasing the argument insisted that every pound spent in M&S translated into bullets fired at the Palestinians and the Lebanese, and no one would want to live with this burden on their conscience. But aside from the veracity of the claims, which I will come back to, this argument fails to comprehend the reasons for Israel’s military superiority. This superiority is not attained through private and public foreign aid but because Israel is an advanced industrial economy that is capable of developing advanced weapons through a combination of industrial and technological development.

26 Aug 2010

Urban Farming: The future of food or Arcadia on the cheap?

In a thought-provoking article in The Global Urbanist, the urban designer Mike Duff discusses How cities can embrace urban agriculture and weaken the grip of 'big food'.  The issue of urban farming has been attracting much attention recently and Duff makes an appealing argument in favour of this form of agriculture. Duff realizes that the main limitation to the growth of urban agriculture from a marginal activity into a significant source of food is its limited scale and therefore urges the loosening of regulation to allow the development of larger, more efficient urban farms capable of competing with large supermarkets. But portraying this important discussion as a David versus Goliath confrontation reveals the romanticised view of the world that drives support for urban farming today. This is no longer a discussion about cities or food but another symptom of our discontent with modernity.

A few months ago, the BBC screened the sublime film Requiem for Detroit? which powerfully captured the decline of the city from a major industrial centre into a post-industrial wasteland. The film provided a snapshot of the extent of land reclaimed by ‘nature’, a staggering area of 40sq miles out of the 139sq mile inner city. Since the national supermarket chains had long abandoned the inner city, thereby cutting off the supply of fresh produce, the locals turned to farming thus sparking off a large-scale movement. The availability of land naturally facilitated this process.

25 Aug 2010

A Christian journalist walks into a bar during Ramadan...

A hot summer evening in Beirut, the traffic is dwindling as people head home for the Iftar. The sun is about to set behind the beautiful Mediterranean horizon, the crimson glow gently caresses the rooftops of Beirut's downtown area. The air is gently perfumed with oriental spices as the evening meal is being prepared. Nearby, an argument over a parking spot kicks off, people are anxious to get home to break their fast. The youth involved decide not to bother with the preliminary fistfights and the automatic rifles make an appearance. A few rocket-propelled grenades are fired in haste, three people die then everyone goes home. Just another typical summer evening in the Paris of the Middle East.

17 Aug 2010

The 'Ground Zero Mosque': Why are we having the wrong debate?


The ongoing debate around the 'Ground Zero Mosque' is astounding for two reasons: firstly because it's taking place at all, and secondly because it has degenerated from a debate about principles into a cultural conflict allowing identity politics to dictate the terms of the debate. This a product of the contemporary inability to debate principles, a situation which sees opponents switching positions depending on circumstances and convenience. Much like with freedom of speech, there should be no ifs and buts when it comes to the freedom of religion. But also much like freedom of speech, we have grown accustomed to accepting statements like 'I'm for freedom of speech but...' The general test in both cases is not how zealous we are in defending what we like and subscribe to, but our commitment to the freedom of ideas and practices that we oppose and even abhor.

13 Aug 2010

The Christians are in despair? Yes, but that's only half the story

Michael Young caused some controversy today when he claimed, in an opinion column entitled Downward, Christian soldiers, that Lebanon's Christians are being increasingly marginalised and becoming less important in shaping the country's development. Young argued that much of the Christian community's woes are self-inflicted, particularly as reflected in the decline of the Maronites which he sees as stemming from their political choices. This decline, Young argues, manifests itself in "...a disturbing lack of political vigor, economic innovation or intellectual dynamism in the community."

12 Aug 2010

Plus ça change: The Chronicles of a Juvenile Nation

There's a central preoccupation in Milan Kundera's work that revolves around the theme of the small nation experiencing the uncertainties of such a precarious condition. His superb intermingling of love and politics often crosses the boundaries between both, asserting once that we are witness to much larger forces than ourselves and often that we are capable of creating a path and a persona that are uniquely ours. What's true of the individual is also true of the small nation. In many respects, Lebanon's modern history has primarily been defined by being a small nation. Too often though, it seemed that Lebanon accepted that it is small, but never figured the nation part out. In what follows are some thoughts on how this failure continues to place the country in a perpetual state of emergency.

9 Aug 2010

The Forensic Alternative to the Truth: Thoughts on the Nasrallah Speech and the Difficulty of Writing History in Lebanon


The artist Walid Raad (The Atlas Project) observed a curious aspect of the Lebanese Civil War: confronted by their own powerlessness in the face of car bombs, the police turned to recording meticulously all details of the crime scene without any serious hope of finding the perpetrators. The press would always report the license plate and engine numbers of the cars used in the bombing, as well as other details such as colour and make. Many questions about the war remain unanswered, but we have an encyclopedic record of all the secondary facts, and this is as close as we ever got to writing the history of the war. As the state disintegrated its agents went through the motions, reducing their official roles to that of skilled scribes.

1 Aug 2010

A style guide to burning effigies

Two comments on burning effigies: 1- how the hell do people get hold of one so quickly, do they have a stash for a rainy day? (well, maybe not a rainy day) 2 - these things never really look like the people they're supposed to represent. If you want to make an impact on the international stage, put some thought into it, don't just do a sloppy job. David Cameron's effigy looked nothing like him, the clothes were all wrong and the head frankly could have been anyone from Eton. Do some research, look at some photographs and choose the right clothes, otherwise, you're just making a fool of yourself.

12 Jul 2010

Society of the Spectacle 1 - Frankfurt School 0, the real World Cup result

I can't better the Stuff White People Like parody of people who don't have a TV, but suffice to say that we all know self-important people like that who feel very smug about opting out of consumer society and popular culture, despite the fact that it makes them more boring. But one thing to note is that this anti-TV tendency, like so many self-congratulatory middle class ideas, derives from a crass vulgarisation of Frankfurt school ideas, in this case Adorno's and Horkeimer's critique of mass media and culture. This high-brow, but wrong, critique of mass media is now articulated in the form of banal statements like "TV is junk food for the mind", essentially agreeing with Adorno that people are not active subjects who can make their own decisions but they are helpless victims being manipulated by The System.

What was interesting during the World Cup, was how even the most ardent Frankfurt School advocates and TV refuseniks couldn't resist watching the football and getting excited about it. Aside from the question about how did they watch it if they didn't have a TV, this was particularly interesting because the World Cup is the epitomization of Debord's Society of the Spectacle, which was a further elaboration of Frankfurt School concepts also masquerading as Marxist, when in fact it's old-school misanthropic conservatism hiding behind fancy language. Despite the fact that the World Cup is a global staged event, those people couldn't resist taking part except, perhaps, for the most miserablist among them who will always find a way to turn their misanthropy into high-minded moralism.

So, once again, it seems that the Global Spectacle has emerged victorious over the petty self-congratulatory antics of the Frankfurt School adherents. Who but the most miserable of souls wouldn't get excited when Gyan scored against the USA?

3 Jun 2010

Why are Arabists Celebrating Turkey?

Arabists everywhere, a bit of caution in celebrating Turkey: it still occupies large chunks of Arab (Syrian) territory, in parallel with the Armenian genocide it was responsible for the eviction of hundreds of thousands of Arab-speaking people, and it still has draconian laws against Arab speaking minorities. So even by your own pathetic political logic, you should be as opposed to Turkey as you are to Israel.

16 Mar 2010

Parts of this blog are moving

From today, the architectural blog will move to IconoPlastic and the Arabic language blog will move to Mismar. This blog, Karl reMarks, will remain as the political blog in English.

  انتقلت المدونة العربية الى مسمار منذ اليوم

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9 Mar 2010

موازنة التناقضات: الاقتصاد اللبناني بين الخطاب التقني و التزمت العقائدي - كارل شرو


قد يبدو للوهلة الأولى إن الاقتصاد شكَل جزءا كبيرا من النقاش السياسي في لبنان منذ انتهاء الحرب الأهلية بداية التسعينيات. فقد اخذ البعد الاقتصادي لسياسات رئيس الوزراء الراحل رفيق الحريري قسطا وافرا من النقد و النقد المبادل و شكل محورا أساسيا من محاور التناقض بين المعارضة و الموالاة حتى بعد استشهاد الرئيس الحريري وصولا إلى يومنا هذا. لكن التدقيق في محتوى هذا الجدال يدل على إن معظمه لم يلمس الاقتصاد إلا بشكل سطحي على حساب استعمال لغة الاقتصاد لتسجيل نقاط سياسية رخيصة من جانب طرفي هذا النقاش و ملحقاتهم. الحقيقة إن الاقتصاد بمعناه الواسع و علاقته بالمجتمع و السياسة كاد إن يختفي كليا من النقاش السياسي و انحسر حضوره لحساب نوعان من الخطاب: الأول ينظر إلى الاقتصاد بوصفه مسالة تقنية فحسب من الأفضل تركها للخبراء بينما يتسم الخطاب الثاني بعلو النبرة على حساب دقة المضمون و بشعبوية تحاكي الخطاب اليساري لغويا و تجافيه مضمونا و تحليلا.


4 Mar 2010

Elbaradei Presidential Bid: Low-grade Messianism


The hopes hanging on the possible candidacy of Mohamed Elbaradei for President of Egypt reflect the de-politicization of Egyptian society and its misplaced faith in technocrats as agents of political change.

In a scene emblematic of the Egyptian people’s desperation for any signs of political change, hundreds of people gathered in Cairo’s airport to greet Mohamed Elbaradei on his return to Egypt after three decades of living abroad. Elbaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, had fuelled speculation about his possible candidacy for Egypt’s presidential elections due to be held next year.  The crowd’s excitement is understandable: the incumbent Hosni Mubarak has been in power since 1981 and Egypt has been under Emergency Law rule since he took office. Yet there was a hint of artifice about the airport encounter: the posters of Elbaradei held by the crowd were too slickly designed, the scene itself had a whiff of orchestration about it.

26 Feb 2010

Design your own London skyline.

A great tool has been launched by  Hayes Davidson one of the leading visualisation firms in the UK, it lets you design your own London skyline. It does have some limitations because you can only use existing designs, but still great fun. So what did I decide to do with it? Of course, put the Burj Dubai in London. That immediately shows you how modest the buidlings that are considered tall in London are by comparison. I tried lpacing it within the City of London (above) and Canary Wharf (Below) and I think it looks great in both cases. I guess we need about 3 in London. What don't you try doing your own?

23 Feb 2010

iEmbassy: The new American Embassy in London looks like it's designed by Apple

My first reaction was that the building looks more like a dumpling than a beacon of democracy, but on further reflection, it looks like it's been designed by Apple. Welcome to the new iEmbassy!

The proposals for the new American Embassy building in London were unveiled yesterday. The new building intended for a site close to the River Thames in Wandsworth will replace the Eero Saarinen embassy in Grosvenor Square which has been bought by the Qatari government. The scheme was designed by the Philadelphia-based practice Kieran Timberlak, with security being one of the main drivers of the design. The building, a 12-storey glass cube sits within a 30m blast zones and is enclosed by a moat on one side. I hope they have provided some sheltered space outside for those long hours I will spend in the rain waiting to be interviewed for a visa...
The first Obambassy to be commissioned, apparently it is intended to project a different image of America. As far as I can tell, it is an apt monument to the age of risk assessments. Although I hear that Richard Rogers didn't like it, so I might reconsider. More to follow..

Mumbai Shopping Malls: Evil Capitalism or Social Good?

WORLDwrite are doing an excellent job as usual, their latest WORLDbytes endeavour takes them to India, the first installment is available to watch online entitled Man-made Mumbai. The brilliant Sadhvi Sharma takes the crew around introducing them to the wonderful developments taking place in Mumbai. The sheer ingenuity and energy of Mumbai is astounding, this is where the future is.

In the first episode, Sadhvi goes to a shopping mall and interviews people who all seem to be in favour of shopping malls. This, unsurprisingly, goes against the prevailing western prejudices against shopping malls and 'consumerism', the catch-all phrase used to demonise material affluence. The programme got negative comments making precisely this moralistic critique without attempting to understand the importance of a modern retail network for India and the aspiration of its people. Some people are happy to see Indians living as poor peasants and maintain a romantic view of poverty.

But things are not that simple. Take food supply for instance, which is one of India's biggest problems. The Indian ministry of food estimates that about £12 billion worth of food is wasted annually in India. This wastage happens primarily because of a poor supply chain due to inadequate warehouse facilities and food spoilage due to lack of refrigeration.The fact that the Indian retail market consists predominantly (95%) of small retail outlets exacerbates this problem, meaning that efficiencies through economies of scale cannot be achieved.

Enter the large shopping malls and supermarkets that have grown rapidly in India over the past few years. Through proper investment in the supply chain and refrigeration, those stores have reduced the food wastage through their operations significantly, as well as lowering the price of food because of their efficient operations. Their percentage of the total market is still very small however, and they can only contribute to solving the problems of food shortage by expanding rapidly. What western misanthropes see as the expansion of consumerism is actually very vital for Indian society.

The same goes for all types of commodities, let's not make this a matter of subsistence. I for one don't feel at all like telling Indians that they shouldn't use shopping malls or buy cars, clothes and flat screen TVs. I loved India when I visited it, not because of the picturesque poverty as most westerners do but because of the amazing energy and the effort being made to transform Indian society and improve its material conditions. Shopping malls and large supermarkets have a big role to play in this transformation, and insisting on opposing them means insisting on maintaining the problems that India suffers from. Small traders may fit within a romantic ideal but ultimately they will not be able to overcome the problems of food wastage that India suffers from.

Visit the WORLDbytes website and watch the programmes that do a much better job of understanding such dynamics, and donate some money for the great work they are doing entirely on a voluntary basis.

18 Feb 2010

The Poverty of Environmentalism

I listened to Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, announce this morning on the Today programme her party's expectation of a breakthrough in the next general elections. In response to John Humphrys suggestion that her party might lose out as a result of the public's scepticism about climate change because of Climategate and recent revelations, Lucas claimed that the Green Party "has always been about both social and environmental justice" and is not a single-issue party. What? I thought the clue was in the name. Going for a bit of Red to spice up the Green brand, are we Caroline?

17 Feb 2010

الرعب غير المتوازن --كارل شرو

لاقى خطاب السيد حسن نصر الله مساء أمس تجاوبا كبيرا من مندوبي حزب الله لدى ما يسمى بالكثير من التفاؤل باليسار اللبناني فسارعوا إلى مدوناتهم و مقالاتهم ليستنهضوا الهمم و يعلنوا عن ولادة توازن رعب جديد بين الحزب و إسرائيل. من كبيرهم العربي الغاضب و الساخط و المحتقن اسعد أبو خليل إلى الصديق الساخر و المتهكم، عادة، خالد صاغية، رددوا كلاما متشابها عن معادلة جديدة في الصراع العربي ـ الإسرائيلي أخرجها هذا الخطاب إلى العلن. الخطاب نفسه حكيم و واعي اثبت من خلاله السيد حسن عن فهمه و تحليله الدقيق للمرحلة الراهنة، ليس فقط لطبيعة الصراع مع إسرائيل بل أيضا للنفسية السائدة لدى حكام إسرائيل و الوضع الداخلي في لبنان. لكن الخطاب لم يٌفهم جيدا من قبل جوقة اليسار الإعلامي للأناشيد الوطنية و الثورية الذي يبدوا إن نشوة النصر الذي اعترتهم بعد 7 أيار قد أثرت على قدراتهم التحليلية فظنوا إن احتلال شارع الحمراء شكل بداية مسيرة تحرير القدس

11 Feb 2010

The real lesson of climate change: we can control the weather!

It has been staring us in the face all along, but nobody seems to have noticed. What is the real lesson of the climate change saga? Humanity is going to wipe itself out because of its greed? We're in for a long century of disasters, scarcities and upheaval? We have to reverse all the progress we've made since the industrial revolution and develop a non-growth based approach to economic and social organisation? None of the above actually, the real lesson is much more positive and encouraging.

9 Feb 2010

India's retreat on GM crops is a step backwards

India has announced deferring the commercial cultivation of what would have been its first genetically modified crop due to 'safety concerns.' The BBC reported that 'Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said more studies were needed to ensure genetically modified aubergines were safe for consumers and the environment.' Far from being a sound decision based on scientific evidence, this is another significant capitulation to the precautionary principle that will hinder India's ability to maximise food production to meet the demands of its fast-growing population.

7 Feb 2010

The Crackdown on Student Visas: Knee-Jerk Illiberalism

The home secretary Alan Johnson announced a crackdown on student visas aiming to cut the number of people coming to study in the UK by tens of thousands. It's quite hard to know what the intended aim of the policy is as the justification ranges from that student visas are being exploited by people coming to the UK to work to the truly surreal accusation that student visas are allowing terrorist suspects to come to the UK. The real aim, I think, is to project a sense of being in control of immigration and acting tough on border control. But like any of the hundreds of half-baked schemes that New Labour has come up with since it came to power, the result of this move will reinforce the illiberal attitude towards the free movement of people and is likely to damage the economy.

3 Jan 2010

Burj Dubai: What's wrong with towering ambition?

This is a historic day for mankind, a new era in the story of skyscrapers begins with the completion of Burj Dubai expected to be around 818 meters tall. It is almost a kilometer long of flats, offices, hotels and commercial space breaking every single record and in the process pushing construction technology to new realms. Rather than celebrate this achievement, most critics have treated this as an opportunity to kick Dubai while it suffers from a serious financial crisis, spewing all kinds of venom against its ambition and desire to push the boundaries. It is no surprise that these poisonous attacks are coated in the language of environmental concerns and social justice, we have become accustomed by now to this type of low-aspiration and reactionary critique masquerading as progressive thought. But those sour grapes should remember that history is not written instantly no matter how hard they wish Dubai to fail monumentally. If anyone had written New York off in the 30s and predicted that the depression meant its end, they would have been completely wrong. The city prospered again, and so will Dubai.