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Face-off in Catalonia (2)

Some quotes from private citizens, published on the BBC online news service in the wake of yesterday’s ugly events in Catalonia, with Spain’s semi-military Guardia Civil police force repeatedly using brute force against defenceless Catalans in an only partly successful attempt to prevent them from voting on independence in a referendum that was unwisely declared illegal by Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government:

We have to defend Spain because it’s a great nation.

We should bring all the powers over health, education and other services back to Madrid and leave Catalonia without a penny. They’d soon come to heel.

Catalonia is not like Scotland, a country that joined a union. Catalonia has always been Spain.

Not surprisingly, the speakers are all Spaniards from Madrid. Not all Spaniards are quite so hostile towards Catalonia, but there seems little doubt that such views are widespread. So let’s look at them more closely:

We have to defend Spain because it’s a great nation.

This is a purely emotional reaction with no foundation in fact. Whether or not Spain is a ‘great nation’ depends on where you stand – not only is the whole notion irrelevant, but some would say that the behaviour of the Spanish police is evidence of the very opposite. And if ‘defence’ is assumed to include physical assault on peaceful voters – luckily no-one was actually killed, but the number of people injured by beatings, rubber bullets and other violence is a shocking 850 – then words have lost all meaning.

We should bring all the powers over health, education and other services back to Madrid and leave Catalonia without a penny. They’d soon come to heel.

This is not only attempted blackmail, but politically very stupid. If anything were more likely to drive even more people into the separatist camp, I can’t imagine what it would be. Catalans already feel that they pay more than they should just to shore up the Spanish economy. Were the Madrid government to grab even more of their money (as they see it), they would have even more reason to seek secession. The whole notion of them ‘soon coming to heel’ says a lot about many Spaniards’ attitude towards Catalans. Unfortunately I don’t know what exactly the Spanish interviewee said in her own language to the BBC interviewer, but you can’t help thinking of a master/servant – not to say master/dog – relationship. Indeed, under Franco’s fascist regime, which for decades banned the public use and even the teaching of the Catalan language, Catalans were often rudely ordered by the selfsame Guardia Civil police force ¡Habla cristiano, perro catalán! – ‘Speak Christian [i.e. Spanish], you Catalan dog!’

Catalonia is not like Scotland, a country that joined a union. Catalonia has always been Spain.

This may seem a somewhat milder response – and the speaker said his mother and wife were both Catalan (though he did not say whether they both agreed with him). In any case, the statement ‘Catalonia has always been Spain’ is to say the least tendentious. The Catalan language area was a recognisable entity long before Spain became a unified state. What I notice here is that Spanish government spokesfolk are at pains to play down any similarity between the situation in Catalonia and Scotland – but this is surely only because London did allow a referendum in Scotland, and any comparison is embarrassing to Madrid. In any case, such references to the distant past are once again irrelevant. Centuries of oppression by centralised Spanish-speaking regimes – especially Franco’s within living memory – have brought many Catalans to the point where they no longer want to be part of Spain. And this is surely their right – which the Spanish police yesterday literally tried to trample underfoot.

As I indicated in my previous post on this topic, by declaring Spain ‘indivisible’ the Spanish constitution undemocratically prevents anyone from asserting this right by legal means.

Yet, amazingly despite the violent repression by the Spanish police, many polling stations remained open, and only some ballots were successfully confiscated. Part of the credit for this must go Catalonia’s regional police force the Mossos d’Esquadra (literally ‘Squad Lads’), who largely ignored instructions from Madrid to assist the Guardia Civil in their efforts to prevent people from voting. But what we now have is an almost impossible situation, which is surely of the Spanish government’s own inept making.

In recent years, opinion polls had indicated that a narrow majority of Catalonia’s citizens would in fact, if allowed to vote freely, say no to secession from Spain. But Rajoy was not prepared to take the risk of even a slight majority (for it would surely have been little more than that) saying yes. And so yesterday we had the unedifying spectacle of riot police attacking peaceful voters, as if Spain were some dictatorial ‘banana republic’ rather than a full-fledged member state of the European Union.

Suppose the referendum had been allowed to go ahead unhindered, as it was in Scotland three years ago. Such evidence of Madrid’s willingness to compromise might well have produced a pro-Spanish majority, and so prevented Catalan secessionists from claiming victory, and delaying any future referendum on the subject. Even a slight majority in favour of secession could have been used to emphasise that almost 50% of Catalans wanted to stay in Spain; and the result would surely have been peaceful negotiations on even more autonomy for the region.

But Rajoy’s crass interference with the democratic process – his claim to the contrary is frankly ludicrous, since it depends on manifestly undemocratic provisions of the Spanish constitution, which Catalans have never been in a position to influence – has simply inflamed the situation. Only 43% of the population succeeded in voting (quite an achievement in itself); but of those that did, 92% – an astonishing figure given the opinion polls – are stated by the Catalan government to have voted for secession, and a paltry 6% to have voted against it (the rest cast blank or invalid votes). This claim is not even denied by the Spanish government, for it did not have observers in place to verify the results; instead it fooled itself into believing it could simply suppress the referendum by brute force without incurring international disapproval. Shades of the Franco regime, or Russia, or China. But today we have worldwide media that can reveal what in fact went on; and the pictures speak for themselves.

Rajoy’s brazen statement in a televised speech last night that no referendum actually took place (!) and that the whole thing was ‘stage-managed’ by the Catalan government may sound convincing to at least some of his supporters; but to many outside, and even in, Spain it inevitably looks like an affront to democracy. Germany’s Green Party has appealed to the European Union to call the Madrid government to account; and the speaker of the Slovenian parliament (Slovenia has ‘been there and done that’, by unilaterally seceding from Yugoslavia a quarter-century ago) has today announced he will summon the Spanish ambassador in Ljubljana to explain his government’s actions. The Slovenian prime minister and president have both called for a ‘peaceful solution’ to the dispute – and, since the only violence has so far come from the Spanish side, these are implicit criticisms of the Spanish government.

But what the hell are the 50% of Catalans who probably don’t want to leave Spain now going to do? The Barcelona government has provocatively – and, I think, unwisely – said it may call on the Catalan parliament to declare unilateral independence in just a few days.

But why not wait for cooler, wiser heads to prevail in Madrid? Remember that Rajoy’s is only a minority government, cobbled together after inconclusive general elections; and few people in Catalonia have ever voted for his party.

Perhaps this will force a constitutional crisis on the Spanish state, with the Basque, Galician and even Andalusian regional governments rallying to Catalonia’s support. The Catalans might still just accept a far more federalised state – if only Madrid were willing to offer such a prospect. But that would mean Rajoy resigning – and so far he is not prepared to do so, but instead claims yesterday’s brute force was exactly the right thing to do.

Time for the European Union to intervene? If it wants to play a stronger role in the world, now is surely the time.



Face-off in Catalonia (1)

Whatever actually happens before midnight today, 1 October 2017 will be a crucial date in the history of Catalonia, of Spain, and of European democracy. The Generalitat, as the autonomous Catalan government is locally known, has said it will hold a referendum on whether Catalonia should cease to be part of Spain and instead become an independent country; but the Spanish government has always taken the view that such a referendum is illegal, on the grounds that it violates Article 2 of Spain’s constitution:

La Constitución se fundamenta en la indisoluble unidad de la Nación española, patria común e indivisible de todos los españoles, y reconoce y garantiza el derecho a la autonomía de las nacionalidades y regiones que la integran y la solidaridad entre todas ellas (‘The Constitution is founded on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards, and recognises and guarantees the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions that make it up, and solidarity between all of them’).

In other words, since the Spanish state is officially ‘indivisible’, no-one is allowed to secede from it unless the constitution is changed, by a nationwide two-thirds majority; and since such a majority would in practice never be achieved, any attempt to secede is by definition a criminal act. The most any minority can hope for is autonomy – whose limits are of course determined by the majority Spanish state.

In invoking this constitutional provision, the Madrid government – and those opposed to Catalan secession – have described the referendum as anti-democratic (sometimes emotionally phrased as ‘a fraud against democracy’). Personally I would have thought precisely the opposite. If a constitution can effectively lock a group of people into a country against their will – as is indisputably the case in Spain – then the constitution is itself anti-democratic.

Simply saying that it was adopted by a majority of Spaniards cannot suffice. Most citizens of Spain feel allegiance to the Spanish state, and will always heavily outvote those who do not; so telling the Catalans they should simply persuade their fellow citizens to change the constitution is disingenuous nonsense. They never wanted to be part of Spain in the first place; they were forced to by a succession of oppressive, undemocratic regimes; and they no longer have the political power to break free.

Why, you might think, would Spain want to hold on to people who clearly don’t want to be part of it, and will continue to be a source of unrest? The answer, as so often, is a combination of economics and politics. Catalonia has long been Spain’s most prosperous region; Spain is only just starting to emerge from a serious financial crisis, and unemployment remains high, especially among the young; and the country can now ill afford to lose the lucrative tax revenues from its north-eastern province. Worse still from Madrid’s point of view, if Catalonia were to succeed in breaking away, Spain’s second-most prosperous region, Euskadi (as the Basque Country is known in the Basque language) might well be tempted to follow suit, weakening the Spanish economy still further. Hence the constant insistence on the frankly arbitrary principle that Spain is ‘indivisible’.

Spain has always been a highly centralised state, and over the centuries has gone out of its way to conquer neighbouring peoples whose mother tongue is not Spanish: Catalonia (and the likewise Catalan-speaking Balearic Islands), Basque-speaking Euskadi, and Galicia (where a language closer to Portuguese is spoken). For several decades Portugal itself was absorbed into Spain, through a union of royal houses; but this was not to last. The most recent involuntary incorporation was under General Franco’s fascist regime (1939-1975), which punished Catalans and Basques for supporting its opponents during the Spanish civil war by banning the public use, and even the teaching, of their languages; and, since the present ruling Partido Popular (PP) party headed by prime minister Mariano Rajoy is widely perceived to be a pseudo-democratic successor to the Franco regime, support for secession has increased.

Not that the Catalan language is now banned – indeed, it occupies an increasing amount of public space in Catalonia, at the expense of Spanish. But as the prospect of Catalan independence comes closer, Rajoy’s government is resorting to measures that inevitably revive memories of Franco’s earlier oppression. Catalan politicians have been accused of fomenting sedition against the Spanish state; Catalonia has been threatened with financial paralysis; and members of the Guardia Civil police force have been moved into Catalonia for the purpose of preventing today’s vote (among other things by padlocking the entrances to schools that might be used as polling stations). Hardly the actions of a democratic government, whatever Rajoy may like to pretend. And the EU has hardly distinguished itself by unconditionally supporting Spain’s appeal to its constitution, which flies in the face of European political principles.

There is currently no majority in Catalonia in favour of secession, but it’s a close call; and simply insisting on the supposed ‘indivisibility’ of the ‘Spanish nation’, and the supposed ‘unconstitutionality’ of the referendum, will surely drive more people into the separatist camp. The point remains that very many Catalans do not consider themselves Spaniards (the todos los españoles referred to in Article 2 of the constitution), but still have no legal option that would in practice allow them to express their views on the matter.

Sending in police to disrupt a manifestly democratic process – not a ‘fraud against democracy’ by any stretch of the imagination – can surely only lead to further polarisation and, at worst, violent confrontation. If this leads to injury or death, the Spanish government will of course blame the Catalan government; but the blame surely lies with the Spanish government for banning the vote on supposedly ‘constitutional’ grounds. Whatever the constitution may claim, no country can ever be ‘indivisible’.

A comparison with the situation in Scotland is inevitable. Of course there are differences. For one thing, Scotland is by no means Britain’s most prosperous region; and there are some in England who would say ‘good luck to them’, or even ‘good riddance’, if the Scots decided to try and make it on their own. But above all, Britain does not have a written constitution, let alone one that declares the country ‘indivisible’. It may officially call itself ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’; but holding a referendum on possible independence is not in itself an illegal act, as it apparently is in Spain. And all the evidence is that prime minister David Cameron’s decision to let the Scots vote on the matter back in 2014 actually worked against independence. Not that he did it out of any sense of democratic principle; he simply wanted to take the wind out of the sails of his party’s more populist rivals the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and so strengthen his own Conservative party.

The latest news since voting began in Catalonia at 9 a.m. this morning is attacks with rubber bullets by Spanish police against people attempting to exercise their right to vote (with at least several dozen people wounded), enforced closure of polling stations, and confiscation of ballots. If Rajoy’s government wants to pretend that refusing to let people vote is ‘defence of democracy’, it must realise that this looks to the rest of the world like a reimposition of Francoist repression.

We’ll see where all this leaves us by the end of the day; but Spain has surely not emerged well from today’s confrontation. And it is surely time for the European Union to take a democratic stance, rather than simply defend the undemocratic Spanish constitution.



Another domino stays upright (3)

And now, after Holland and France, Germany has voted. In the light of the first projections, it seems that both leading parties (Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats) could still form a coalition; but both of them have lost a substantial amount of support, with just 33% for Merkel and just 20% for Schulz, and the Social Democrats have already announced they will go into opposition.

That leaves four other parties that will all make the 5% electoral threshold that entitles them to seats in the Bundestag. Three of them – the Greens, the radical left-wing Linke and the liberal Free Democrats (who failed to make the threshold at the last election) – are each expected to get about 9-10% of the vote. But the fourth is the extreme right-wing, nationalist, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, ‘Alternative for Germany’) party – and with some 13% of the vote it will be the first such party to make it into the Bundestag since the Federal Republic of Germany was founded almost 70 years ago in the wake of the Second World War.

Should this worry us? I don’t think so, at least not yet – and certainly no more than Donald Trump’s presidency in the USA. In response to Chancellor Merkel’s surprisingly open policy on immigration, the AfD had scored much greater successes in regional elections, with up to 20-25% of the vote. But what we have seen today, as in Holland and France some months ago, is that a vast majority of the German electorate – in this case 87% of those that actually voted, with a respectable 75% turnout – have chosen not to vote for the populists. None of the other parties that will be represented in tomorrow’s Bundestag has any intention of going into coalition with the AfD. Just as most Dutch voters rejected Geert Wilders’ party and most French voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s, most German voters have today rejected the AfD.

As usual in Germany, forming a coalition may be something of a problem; but one distinct possibility presents itself, even now that the Social Democrats have indicated they no longer want to govern with the Christian Democrats. A left-of-centre coalition of Social Democrats, Linke and Greens isn’t numerically feasible; but nor is a right-of-centre coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats; and the AfD are excluded on principle. What now seems most likely is a ‘Jamaica’ coalition: black-yellow-and-green, named for the distinctive colours of the Jamaican flag, and based on the traditional colours of the various parties (black for the Christian Democrats, yellow for the Free Democrats, and green for the Greens).

Since the Greens could be thought to be instinctively left-wing, this might seem a surprising combination; but they are above all an environmental party, and have already formed successful ‘Jamaica’ coalitions in German regional parliaments. There are several reasons for this. The Greens have only two potential left-wing coalition partners: the Social Democrats, and the Linke. The Linke are widely perceived to be the successors to the notorious Socialist Unity Party that ruled the communist German ‘Democratic’ Republic (and hence never to have quite accepted German reunification – which calls their democratic credentials into serious question); and the Social Democrats are just as widely perceived to be the party of workers’ rights at all costs, even if that means preserving environmentally unfriendly industries. Meanwhile, in response to the earthquake and tsunami that wrecked Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power-station complex back in 2011, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats have decided to phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2022. Regardless of their other political views, more and more Germans are environmentally conscious; and the Greens are pragmatically willing to work together with anyone that is prepared to pursue environment-friendly policies. Hence the success of the once seemingly improbable ‘Jamaica’ coalitions. Green doesn’t have to mean red.

Another great advantage of a ‘Jamaica’ coalition would be that the AfD could no longer, as it has hitherto done, dismiss pro-immigration policies as the result of left-wing influence – for the only two clearly left-wing parties would not be part of the government. And although there has never been a ‘Jamaica’ coalition at national level, its success at regional level creates a favourable precedent.

The AfD are predictably crowing that tonight’s result is an ‘earthquake’ in German and European politics; but in practice it leaves them out in the wilderness, with very little influence on future policy. Much will of course depend on how events develop in the world over the coming years, but the populists have in fact done far worse than might have been expected only a year ago (when Angela Merkel seemed to have cooked her goose forever by letting all those ‘wogs’ in).

Now AfD deputies are in the Bundestag they will have to put their money where their mouth is, rather than just shout rabble-rousing slogans from the safety of the street.

Once again – perhaps because they have seen the scary impact of Brexit and now Trumpism? – Europeans have decided that stability and cooperation make a lot more sense in today’s increasingly unpredictable world.

Good birds or bad?

When I was at university our film society showed one of the celebrated Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s psychologically intricate, symbol-laden films – I’d always remembered that it was Cries and whispers (in the original Swedish Viskningar och rop, precisely the other way round, but for some reason the reverse order was felt to sound better in English), but it can’t have been, since it turns out that film wasn’t released until December 1972, more than six months after I’d graduated.

In any case, which film it was is irrelevant, as I want to talk about another one. The Bergman showing was preceded, unannounced, by a 15-minute black-and-white film called De düva. I imagine most of the audience simply assumed it was Swedish, and that the dialogue and voice-over were in that language – at least at first. But I was suspicious from the very outset – though at first I was just as puzzled as everyone else about what was going on.

For one thing, I could already read the main Scandinavian languages well, and I knew that the letter ü doesn’t exist in any of them – that pursed-lips sound is instead represented by the letter y. And even if spelled De dyva, the title would have meant nothing, least of all ‘The dove’ as the English subtitles implied (the Swedish for this is duvan – the definite article ‘the’ is added on to the end of the word, so duva becomes duvan). Then, as the film progressed, more and more members of the audience began grinning – hardly a frequent response to Bergman’s films, which are known for their sombre mood – and by the end everyone was doubled up with laughter.

De düva was in fact a parody of the typical Bergman style, produced some years earlier by the American directors George Coe and Anthony Lover. It was in black-and-white (with subtitles, which are known to scare off most US film-goers), the ominous voice-over contrasted with the often frivolous joy of the characters, and the sing-song words did sound as if they might indeed be Swedish – but again I understood enough of the language to realise they couldn’t possibly be. Then the increasing similarities between the words being spoken and their ‘translation’ in the subtitles made clear that the words were mainly English with a heavy mock-Swedish accent and Scandinavian-sounding endings such as -ska. An additional joke was that the ‘translations’ did not always even match what was said (one example was ‘sooner or lateska’, which appeared in the subtitles as ‘eventually’). To complicate matters further, a number of Yiddish words familiar to American audiences were also dropped in.

At several ‘crucial’ moments in the plot a small dark bird (the düva in the title) crossed the sky – most hilariously at the end, when the female lead character was shown playing badminton with Death (a spoof on the iconic scene in the Bergman film The seventh seal, when the main character finds himself playing chess with Death). The racket-wielding Death lost the match at the last minute when the dove flew overhead and shat in his eye. One of the characters then made the ‘meaningful’ comment: ‘Don’t worry – it was a different dove’, whereupon the screen turned black and the word ENDSK appeared. De düva was nominated for an Oscar in the short film category.

And it is the manner of Death’s defeat that brings me to the main point of this post: pigeons.

Here in Piran on the Slovenian coast, the waterfront is lined with restaurants and bars whose numerous customers inevitably drop breadcrumbs, sugar and other food remnants on the ground; and this just as inevitably attracts birds, especially pigeons. They do a remarkably good job of cleaning it all up; and, rather to my surprise, they don’t spoil the effect by leaving their droppings all over the promenade (nor do I ever see the staff hosing down the paving). The pigeons do not land on tables, but simply waddle around under them. Yet I repeatedly see people kicking and waving their arms at them to drive them away, which causes a lot of noisy wing-flapping that could so easily be avoided. And when I ask people why they do this, the answer is always the same: Umazani so, ‘They’re dirty’.

Since on the visible evidence they actually keep the place cleaner than it would otherwise be, this makes no sense to me; and I can’t imagine there are so many peristerophobics (people with a phobia of pigeons) in the general population. Personally I rather like them: their waddling gait, the beautiful green and purple hologram glint of their neck feathers, and their relative lack of noise (which is never more than restful cooing, and mostly not even that – none of the raucous screeching of seagulls or the constant cheeping of sparrows).

But an Internet search reveals that the notion of pigeons being ‘dirty’ is by no means confined to Slovenia.

Some of the world’s most famous squares, from Trafalgar Square in London to St Mark’s Square in Venice, have large pigeon populations that are attracted there by the equally large flocks of tourists; and a whole pigeon-feeding industry has sprung up, with vendors selling paper bags of bird seed so that people can have their pictures taken as the birds eat out of their hands or perch on their heads or shoulders in the hope of getting fed too. Of course, such large numbers of pigeons do leave their share of messy, unsightly droppings; but this surely cannot account for the decision some years ago by London’s former mayor Ken Livingstone that people who sell bird seed to tourists in Trafalgar Square, or who feed pigeons there, should be fined up to £500 per ‘offence’. For it isn’t just the droppings – no, a stubborn myth has developed that pigeons carry diseases and can transmit them to humans. They have even been nicknamed ‘flying rats’.

There seems to be little or no scientific evidence that this is true – or at least that it is particularly true of pigeons. All animals carry diseases of one kind or another – and some of the worst culprits are surely humans, who spread deadly diseases like SARS and AIDS to millions as they cough and copulate their way round the globe. Yet no-one says we should be fined for travelling abroad, or for having sex. As for birds, why does no-one complain about the sparrows that cheekily swoop over outdoor breakfast tables, lift whatever they can manage to grab off people’s plates, then shit on the tablecloths and chairs as they depart? Yet sparrows are admired for their chutzpah; and some years ago Telecom Slovenia’s logo was a sparrow in the national colours (‘yes, we’re small, but we can still make ourselves heard!’). I’ve often seen them fly into the midst of a bickering group of pigeons to swipe crumbs from their far clumsier avian brethren.

Meanwhile, there is considerable evidence that we can catch serious diseases from animals we allow ourselves to be in much closer contact with: caged parrots and budgerigars, monkeys and other jungle animals that are butchered for human food, and poultry kept in the home as a source of income.

But no, pigeons are ‘flying rats’, and fair game to be kicked and slapped at. Wherever did this idea come from?

I strongly suspect it’s a ‘meme’ – a cultural habit that’s passed on from generation to generation without anyone bothering to consider whether it’s valid (rather like going to church in the USA). And since my parents never taught me to loathe pigeons – in fact, I have a rather touching photograph of my father crouching down in St Mark’s Square and apparently talking to a small group of them – it’s only very recently that I discovered they have such a bad press. And if anything is ‘fake news’, this is it.

Not only are they no dirtier than other animals, but they have rendered indispensable services to us humans as ‘carrier pigeons’ during wartime. Some of them have a little-understood but unmistakable ability to return to specific places when released (‘homing pigeons’); and they can fly hundreds of miles without food and water, even when wounded by bullets and shrapnel, transporting vital messages that have saved many lives. Some have even been awarded certificates for ‘animal bravery’ – a rather maudlin human-centred conceit, since the birds themselves presumably have no idea what this means, and would simply prefer lots of free food for the rest of their lives.

But in any case there is no reason to hate them, as so many people seem to do. And, when it suits us, we do love and admire them. Over the centuries they have become icons of peace – a notion derived from the biblical myth of the Flood, which a vindictive god visited on humanity as a ‘punishment’ for our incorrigibly ‘evil ways’. After sailing for many weeks on the seemingly endless floodwaters, Noah supposedly kept releasing a pigeon from its cage – knowing it would eventually return ‘home’ to his ‘Ark’ – in the hope that it would bring back evidence of dry land. One day it came back with a sprig from an olive tree in its beak – and the dove-and-olive-branch has since become the classic symbol of a return to normal life after a time of tribulation, to peace after war.

But note that I say ‘dove-and-olive-branch’, not ‘pigeon-and-olive-branch’. For doves and pigeons are quite different birds – aren’t they?

No. Although the notion has arisen that ‘doves’ are white (= clean) whereas ‘pigeons’ are not (= dirty), that’s simply a linguistic affectation to distinguish the ‘good’ birds from the ‘bad’; in actual fact, they’re all pigeons of one kind or another. Indeed, unlike English (dove pigeon) and French (colombe / pigeon), most languages have the same word for both: duif in Dutch, περιστέρι (‘peristéri’) in Greek, golob in Slovenian.

But I can’t help wondering whether Dove would have become the world’s best-selling brand of ‘personal care products’ (soap, deodorant and so on) if it had been called ‘Pigeon’ instead. For that matter, the French word pigeon also has the colloquial meaning ‘dupe’ or ‘sucker’ – and I reckon the millions who continue to buy these products are precisely that. I tried a bar of Dove soap just once, only to discover that it dissolved into water in little more than a week, whereas other brands I use survive for up to a month. That, in combination with the sickly-sweet ‘fragrance’, was enough for me never to buy it again. A bad bird.

America’s Pacific paradise

At various points in the 20th century, successive United States governments did their best to make the world’s major colonial powers give up their colonies. In both World Wars it took the US a very long time to come to Europe’s aid in its struggle against an aggressive Germany. Although the then sitting presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt both wanted the US to come into the war on the Anglo-Franco-Russian side, there were strong American lobbies in favour of strict neutrality. What probably tipped the balance in the First World War was an intercepted telegram from the German foreign minister encouraging Mexico to attack the US and so tie its forces down on the other side of the Atlantic (see my earlier post Codes and cables); and what certainly tipped the balance in the Second World War was the attack on the US territory Hawaii by Germany’s ally Japan. But for these crucial events, the US might well have kept clear of both wars, leaving its main economic rivals to destroy each other.

Once the Second World War was over, US governments pursued their policy of undermining other colonial powers. When the Dutch attempted to suppress the insurrection in their lucrative East Indies colony, which had been occupied by Japan during the war, the Americans put heavy pressure on them to abandon it, and in 1949 it gained its independence as the new state of Indonesia; when the French were faced with a communist-led uprising in their own lucrative colony of Indochina, the Americans did little to help them, and in 1954 – ironically at the height of US Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist ‘witch hunt’ – the French were forced to quit Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (although barely a decade later the US was to become embroiled in its own anti-communist war in Vietnam, and eventually also Cambodia); and when the Anglo-French administrators of the lucrative Suez Canal attempted (with Israeli collusion) to reverse by military force the new Egyptian President Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal in 1956, the US government pointedly withheld support (see my earlier post Merge or die).

But of course all this ostensible anti-colonialism was little more than a pose. Rewind to the Spanish-American war of 1898. Back in 1823, US president James Monroe had proclaimed the ‘Monroe doctrine’, which stated that European powers must no longer intervene militarily or politically anywhere in the Western hemisphere (any act to the contrary would be considered hostile to interests of the United States); by the same token, the US would not intervene in conflicts in other European colonies or within Europe itself (which helps account for the initial American reluctance to take part in the two World Wars). The British colony in Canada, which predated US independence, was left unmolested; and by the time of Monroe’s proclamation, all but a handful of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America had become independent. But that handful were very close to US territory: Cuba and Puerto Rico, whose foreign presence was inevitably perceived in Washington as a threat. When the Cubans rose in revolt against their Spanish overlords in 1895, the US government used a convenient pretext – the almost certainly accidental explosion of an American warship in Havana’s harbour three years later – to go to war with Spain.

Since the days when it had ruled half the world, Spain had seen its imperial power steadily crumble, and when war was declared in 1898 it had very few overseas territories left: the Canary Islands off the African coast (still part of Spain), Spanish Guinea (now the chaotic, impoverished state of Equatorial Guinea), Spanish Morocco (which became part of independent Morocco in 1958), Spanish West Africa (now Western Sahara, which is effectively controlled by Morocco); and the more distant colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Pacific island of Guam.

As a result of the war, which left the already shrunken remnants of the once-mighty Spanish empire in tatters, the last four territories were simply taken over and colonised by an American government that had masqueraded as liberators without further designs on the liberated territories. Puerto Rico, with its still largely Spanish-speaking (but now bilingual) population, is today a US territory that has never been accepted as a full-fledged state. Guam is to this day a US Pacific military outpost, which North Korea has recently been threatening with nuclear attack. Cuba became officially independent when the Spanish-American war ended, but was in practice a corrupt US client state until Fidel Castro’s revolution brought it a kind of independence 60 years later, in 1959. As for the Philippines, it did not gain its independence from the US until just before the Second World War.

And so, for all its anticolonial posturing, the US has been a colonial power for more than a century; and nowhere is this more apparent than in Hawaii. Although, unlike Puerto Rico, Hawaii was granted statehood (in 1959, the same year as Castro seized power in Cuba), the history of its takeover and colonisation is a good deal uglier than its idyllic palm-tree and blue-surf image might lead many people to think.

Until the years leading up to the Spanish-American war, Hawaii had been a monarchy in its own right, whose population included not only native Hawaiians but also Japanese and Filipino immigrants. However, with their tropical climate, the Hawaiian islands were a rich source of pineapples and other exotic fruit and vegetables; and US business interests now saw rich pickings.

One of today’s main suppliers of tinned pineapple, imported from Hawaii, is the Dole company. For many years I wondered if ‘Dole’ should be pronounced as a Hawaiian word ‘DOH-lay’. However, the current Hawaiian alphabet has just 12 letters, and D isn’t one of them. In fact, Dole is quite simply an American surname. The company was founded by James Dole in 1901 – three years after Hawaii was annexed by the US, and seven years after its monarchy under Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown by a conglomerate of American businessmen, including James Dole’s relative Sanford Dole. The queen’s protests were contemptuously dismissed, and her kingdom effectively became part of the United States. This had the immense advantage – at least for American business – that imports of fruit and vegetables from Hawaii to the US were no longer subject to customs tariffs. The wishes of the local population, other than the well-bribed Hawaiian elite, were simply ignored. Business as usual.

In the decades that followed, wealthy white people moved in large numbers from the US mainland to the tropical island paradise. One of these was the New York socialite Thalia Massie, who had married a naval officer and, like most women of her social class, had never done a day’s work in her life.

Although there was certainly racial tension between native Hawaiians (including Japanese and Filipinos) and the white US elite, this seldom if ever erupted into violence. But in 1931 things suddenly appeared to have changed. One night, after leaving a US navy party she had been attending with her husband, a seemingly distraught Thalia Massie, dressed in an impeccable evening gown, flagged down a car near a secluded Honolulu park where she claimed to have been savagely beaten and raped by five Hawaiian men.

Local society and media instantly divided along predictable lines. The white community simply assumed that Thalia’s accusations were true; that male ‘natives’ were sexual predators; and that ‘white women’ were no longer safe on these ‘uncivilised’ islands. The non-white community thought otherwise, but were hardly in a position to make their opinions felt – for Hawaii was quite simply a US colony, complete with a privileged colonial elite and a native underclass.

That very evening, as bad luck would have it, a group of five local young men – three native Hawaiians and two Japanese – had got drunk at a luau (Hawaiian celebration) and were driving home under the influence. Their car collided with one driven by a leading local Hawaiian couple, and in the ensuring altercation the wife was punched in the face by one of the men (it seems she gave as good as she got and punched the man back just as hard). In any case, she noted the car’s number, which was promptly broadcast on local radio.

Although Thalia Massie initially claimed not to remember much about the attack on her in the park, including details of the number plate or the men’s faces (she was apparently unable to see much without her glasses, which she said she had not been wearing at the time), her testimony changed in the hours that followed. Suddenly she knew the car number almost perfectly (just one figure off), and when the five men whose car had crashed into the Hawaiian couple were presented to her at her home – without any other ‘neutral’ figures to make the ‘identification’ more honest – she put on her glasses and claimed to recognise two of her five ‘rapists’ (but not the other three – including Joseph Kahahawai).

As a result, all five men – who admitted the collision and altercation with the Hawaiian couple, but consistently denied ever having seen a white woman that evening – were arrested and eventually tried for gang-raping Thalia Massie. Supposedly fearing pregnancy, Thalia said she had carefully washed out her vagina, and there was no physical evidence of any attack. Perhaps significantly, Thalia at first refused a medical examination, and only allowed one when her husband insisted that it would help her case. The only ‘proof’ of the rape was thus her own say-so; but once again Hawaiian society had made its mind up. Whites ‘knew’ the five men were guilty, even though they could not prove it; non-whites were sure they had been framed, but could not prove it either.

The ensuing trial was sensational, for the Hawaiian jury was split down the middle, and failed to reach a verdict. Various leading whites, including Thalia’s navy officer husband Thomas Massie and her socialite mother Grace Hubbard Fortescue (who had come over specially from New York to attend the trial), were now determined that ‘justice must be done’. They kidnapped Joseph Kahahawai, who was held at gunpoint and threatened that he must confess to the rape and say his friends had been accomplices. When he refused, he was shot dead by a navy colleague of Thalia’s husband called Albert Jones (who did not confess to the shooting until the mid-1960s).

The body then had to be disposed of, and the idea was to throw it off a cliff into the Pacific. But the drawn curtains on the car made a police officer suspicious, and the corpse was discovered – whereupon Thomas and his mother-in-law Grace were tried for premeditated murder.

This time the Hawaiian jury found that they were guilty of manslaughter (i.e. accidental killing) rather than deliberate murder; but the idea that a female pillar of New York society and a US navy officer might spend the next ten years in prison was so shocking that the state governor of Hawaii was, to his eternal shame, prevailed upon to reduce the ten-year sentence to a ludicrous one hour’s detention. One hour for a human life – but it was only a Hawaiian life, and what did that matter?

With hindsight, as the famous Pinkerton detective agency pointed out in its subsequent independent review of the case, it seems highly unlikely that the same group of five local young men managed to gang-rape a woman in a park and then crash their car into another one on the other side of the city, all within half an hour.

So who did rape Thalia Massie? Were there really two separate groups of five men at work in Honolulu that evening – or did the rape in fact occur?

Thalia’s initial refusal of a medical examination, like her changing testimony in the hours that followed, suggests that she knew the accusations were false. You can’t help thinking – and other investigators have since drawn the same conclusion – that she had good reason to believe she might fall pregnant by someone other than her husband, that this would damage her social reputation, and that a group of otherwise innocent local Hawaiians (who already had a reputation as tearaways) would be a useful scapegoat. Maybe she had had unprotected sex with one of the five accused men, or maybe even with someone else – another US navy officer? In any case, the supposed absence of physical evidence of her ‘rape’ cannot be entirely explained by her rinsing of her vagina the same night. Even if there were no traces of semen, there should have been traces of injury following such a gang rape by five drunken men. None were found.

What seems to have happened is surely a piece of racist American colonial justice. Only Joseph Kahahawai actually died; but it could have been far worse. As for the murderers, they got off scot-free.

A disgrace to his profession

It seems that the person who translated Donald Trump’s irresponsibly inflammatory speech to the United Nations General Assembly into Persian for the Iranian media has gone out of his way to defend his deliberate omissions and mistranslations, in the following terms:

‘Trump made some remarks in his speech at the United Nations against Iran which I did not translate. Why did I decide not to translate them? First, these remarks were untrue. Second, they were against my country and they were against Iran … I think if it was anybody else they would have done the same … I do not think it would be good if I spoke against my own country on my own national broadcaster.’

As some people even in dictatorial Iran have dared to point out, it was not his job to make personal value judgements about what he was translating. Whether or not Trump’s remarks were untrue is irrelevant. And if they were ‘against his country’ and ‘against Iran’ (to make a linguistic point of order, I don’t see the difference), so what? The translator was not there to act as an official censor – and it would surely have done the Iranian regime more good to let Trump’s rantings be heard in full, perhaps even earning it some unaccustomed sympathy from the rest of the world.

The translator seems to think that translating someone else’s words can be equated with ‘speaking against my own country’. This is a travesty of what translation means – for translators are not speaking in their own personal capacity, and are simply not so important. Finally, in a democracy, speaking against your own country should not be a problem – but then, of course, Iran is not a democracy.

As for the statement ‘I think if it was anybody else [i.e. any other translator] they would have done the same’, it just goes to show how remote from reality – and how politically brainwashed – this man is. Most translators would have been ashamed to do the same.

In the course of my 45-year career as a translator I have only once refused to do a translation, because I deeply disagreed with the content of the source text (which I hadn’t known in advance). But the difference is that I refused to do it. Unlike my ‘colleague’ in Iran, I did not mistranslate the text and then act as if my work was a faithful rendering of the original.

What happened was this. I was asked by a translation agency to translate a brief invitation to a client’s anniversary celebrations into English. The client turned out to be a vivisection laboratory, where caged animals were exposed to poisonous and often lethal substances in the hope of determining whether these could safely be used on human beings in medicines, cosmetics or detergents.

The arguments for and against vivisection as a means of testing such products are numerous, but it was not this that made me refuse the job; at first I assumed it would be a run-of-the-mill corporate invitation, and agreed to do it. But when I saw the text I discovered that the writer had considered it amusing to imply that the animals themselves were joining in the celebrations – as if the soon-to-be-vivisected rabbits were lighting pretty candles on the anniversary cake.

This struck me as such a nauseating idea that I phoned the agency to say I could not in all conscience produce a faithful translation, and therefore wanted to give the job back. At first the secretary said I couldn’t refuse a job I had already agreed to do. So I told her to read the text herself, and ask her bosses to do the same. Within an hour I heard that they all thoroughly agreed with me, and would tell the client to take the nasty text elsewhere (or preferably rewrite it). Perhaps they should have given the job a closer look before sending it out to me; but at least in the end they realised the problem, and backed me rather than the client.

If the Iranian translator of Trump’s speech was really so concerned about saying things ‘against his country’ on his ‘own national broadcaster’, what he should surely have done was refuse to translate it. The government could then have said, without even mentioning the translator, that it chose not to confront Iranians with such offensive comments – though of course it would then have been accused of censoring news and concealing the truth from its people. But is it any better to present them with a sanitised version of the truth? The truth is that – at least this week – Trump considers Iran a ‘rogue state’, and is prepared to spout whatever dribbles off his tongue in support of this notion.

Since Iran is a dictatorship, the translator may have been acting under duress – but surely no-one forced him to defend his mistranslations. In doing so, he has made himself a willing accomplice to political censorship – and hence a disgrace to his profession.


A symbol of what?!

The American comedian Lenny Bruce once memorably quipped that, if Jesus had been executed in the 20th-century United States, children brought up in the Catholic faith – I deliberately avoid the phrase ‘Catholic children’, since no child can make that personal choice – would be not be wearing tiny crosses round their necks, but tiny electric chairs.

Failing as ever to ‘turn the other cheek’, the Catholic church affected to find the joke deeply offensive. What I find deeply offensive is the whole idea of requiring children to wear a replica of any instrument of execution (whether it be a noose, a cup of hemlock, a samurai sword, an electric chair or a cross). This is manipulation verging on child abuse, which as we should by now all know is part and parcel of the Christian religion, and almost surely of religion in general.

Although there have been many complaints from Christian quarters that Muslims ‘flaunt’ their religion by imposing strict public dress codes on women (and, to a far lesser extent, on men), they refuse to see the conspicuous wearing of crosses as in any way similar. Britain’s newsreader Fiona Bruce was incensed to be told that her very visible cross conflicted with the BBC’s code of social impartiality, and that she must no longer wear one during broadcasts – but unfortunately the BBC backed down after a ‘public outcry’. Personally I’d ban the lot. When the French government decided some years ago to outlaw the wearing of overt religious symbols in public places, particularly schools, it quite rightly extended the ban to include visible Christian crosses. Anything less would have been deeply discriminatory, by implying that France was not a secular country but an intrinsically Christian one – which it nowadays quite clearly is not.

What draws my attention to this whole issue is a Wikipedia article on the use of the ‘cross necklace’ as an overt symbol of Christian belief – which includes the following fascinating paragraph:

‘In two highly publicised British cases, [nurse X] and [flight attendant X] were disciplined for wearing cross necklaces at work, in breach of their employment terms. Both took their cases to the European Court of Human Rights … In light of such cases, in 2012 the former Archbishop of Canterbury of the Anglican Communion, Lord Carey, and the then head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, have urged all Christians to wear cross necklaces regularly.’

We have to consider here the recent actions of both Lord Carey (a curiously aristocratic title for the leader of a church that supposedly promotes humility) and Cardinal O’Brien, both born in the 1930s and still living comfortable lives in their eighties. Although Carey is not directly guilty of child abuse, he is indirectly so for having covered up proven abuse by the Anglican bishop Peter Ball (who has been sentenced to a paltry 32 months’ imprisonment for sexually abusing young men over many years). As for O’Brien, who has vociferously opposed legislation designed to improve the lot of gay people in Britain, he has finally confessed to repeated sex abuse against younger men over whom he had authority, usually priests.

These two supposed paragons of virtue have seen fit to call on the rest of us to make a point of wearing the symbols of Christian faith.

Even if I believed in a god – which ‘thank god’ I don’t – I’d be ashamed to show myself in their company by doing any such thing.