Thursday, January 31, 2008

Copper Chemistry: a Mixed [+I], [+II] Oxidation State?

CopperI am currently looking to produce relatively small amounts of copper (I) oxide (Cu2O) in a quick and convenient way, for use in "backyard" copper thermite experiments. There are several routes open to choice. Electrolytic oxidation of copper scrap metal and reduction of Cu [+II] compounds with mild reduction agents like sodium metabisulfite or fructose are two possibilities.

Another possibility is the reduction of Cu [+II] compounds with scrap copper metal itself. For example, boiling up a copper (II) chloride (CuCl2) solution with copper scrap, causes insoluble white copper (I) chloride (CuCl) to precipitate from the solution via Cu + CuCl2 --> 2 CuCl. The CuCl can then be quickly and easily converted on the spot to the desired copper (I) oxide by treating it with a strong alkali, like NaOH.

I have no CuCl
2 in my possession at the moment but plenty of high quality copper scrap, as well as some decent 35 w% nitric acid (HNO3). Copper readily dissolves in it to form copper (II) nitrate (Cu(NO3)2). A small excess of nitric acid is necessary to ensure complete dissolution of the copper metal. In this way a 0.58 M (mol/l) Cu(NO3)2 aqueous solution was made up.

Initial experimentation using various mixes of this solution and some kitchen salt (NaCl, a source of Cl- anions, necessary to form the CuCl) led to some puzzling results and the suspicion that a mixed oxidation state of Cu [+I] and Cu [+II] might exist, as suggested also by a fellow backyard chemist. I decided to investigate.

I started from 2 solutions:

#1 = copper (II) nitrate ≈ 0.4 M; NaCl ≈ 0.8 M


#2 = copper (II) nitrate ≈ 0.4 M; NaCl ≈ 2 M.

Both were "neutralised" with NaOH ≈ 5 M, until a few blue blobs of Cu(OH)
2 no longer dissolved into the solution, the pH was then still slightly below 7.

To 75 ml of both solutions was added 1.9 g of wire copper. Both conical flasks where then gently boiled up for about 1 hour.

There is not much difference in how both solutions behave: both turn a very dark green colour on heating. From #1, some CuCl starts dropping out almost from the start, from #2 no precipitate at all forms during boiling.

On cooling more CuCl drops out of #1 and roughly (visual estimate) the same amount drops out of cooled #2. In both cases there was some copper wire left.

The supernatant liquids (SL) of #1 and #2, after boiling and cooling are indistinguishable to the naked eye, both are clear dark green (wine-bottle green is how I'd describe it).

Diluting or adding more NaCl to SL #1 has no effect. Adding 5 M NaOH caused a deep green, floccular precipitate to from (leaving clear liquid above).

Diluting SL #2 caused more CuCl to form. Adding 5 M NaOH caused a deep green, floccular precipitate to from (leaving clear liquid above).

And adding 5 M NaOH to the diluted SL #2 caused the same green precipitate to form, as well as small amounts or reddish-orange Cu2O.

Adding strong ammonia to the precipitated SL #2 caused the precipitate to dissolve and the typical very deep, intense blue of Cu(NH3)42+ to appear.

Although I decanted SL #2 to have a CuCl-free sample, soon after that small, clear crystals began to appear in it (possibly NaCl, the #2 had indeed been concentrated quite a bit during the boiling). And the next day more CuCl had appeared in this sample (quite a bit, actually).

Whether the bottle green solution can actually be described as a "mixed Cu oxidation state" may be a little contentious at this point. But it's clear that Cu [+I] and Cu [+2] co-exist in it and in quite a stable manner too: almost 24 hours later and in the presence of air oxygen the bottle green solution hasn't changed at all. The dark green colour, quite unusual for Cu compounds may well be a [Cu(1+),Cu (2+)]Cl complex anion.

It would also appear that CuCl's complexing ability via CuCl + Cl- ↔ CuCl2- overrides it tendency to form Cu2O (in near neutral conditions) and that this complexation would explain why #2 doesn't generate any precipitated CuCl right from the off, due to high NaCl content. Presumably the complexation constant (Kf=[CuCl2-]/[Cl-]) is temperature dependent.

That still leaves the question of what constitutes the deep green precipitate. Copper (II) hydroxychloride (Cu(OH)Cl) springs immediately to mind but although I've never seen Cu(OH)Cl I somehow imagine it to be green but lighter in colour. And if it was indeed Cu(OH)Cl, this would still beg the question of what has happened to the Cu [+I], present also in the solution.

Presumably a little UV-VIS absorption spectroscopy could shed some light on this presumed mixed oxidation state and its associated Cu [+I], Cu [+II] chloride complex...

To be continued?


A solution #1, this time boiled and reduced with sodium metabisulfite (Na2S2O5), also becomes dark green and CuCl drops out of it upon cooling and/or dilution. The same green precipitate forms with addition of NaOH.

Incidentally, the wine-bottle green solution, when strongly diluted to a light blueish-green coloured liquid, still produces the green Cu-OH-Cl compound when 5 M NaOH is added to it: the complex survives dilution.

Also, I've now got some 150 ml of 0.4 M CuCl2 (probably about 0.1 to 0.01 M in HCl as well, from excess HCl). It's lighter than 0.4 M Cu (II) nitrate, greenish blue, I'd say.

Adding a few drops of 5 M NaOH to it causes blue Cu(OH)2 to precipitate.

Saturating the CuCl2 solution with NaCl causes it to shift to a bright green (from CuCl42-) but 5 M NaOH still causes blue Cu(OH)2 to drop out.

Heating the CuCl2/saturated NaCl to BP doesn't change anything and on cooling 5 M NaOH still causes blue Cu(OH)2 to form.

Boiling 75 ml of the CuCl2 acidic solution with copper wire also caused the dark wine-bottle green to appear. No CuCl dropped out immediately but on cooling a great deal did. After cooling (and precipitation of the CuCl) the supernatant liquid was much lighter in colour.
Reheating the cooled solution causes the CuCl to completely redissolve.

Adding 5 M NaOH to the cooled solution causes a khaki green flocculate to precipitate. Adding ammonia to this slurry, causes only a light blue supernatant liquid (Cu2+-ammonia complex?) to form, leaving behind reddish orange Cu2O (I believe). The latter dissolves easily in an excess of ammonia.

Clearly the reductions causes a stable complex to form, which when neutralised causes some "Cu hydroxychloride" compound to precipitate. This complex has to be a species different from CuCl42- and may combine the Cu2+ and Cu+ cations into a single hydroxy chloride anion.

Update 2:

It would appear that I'm far from the only one that has encountered and documented the unusual and so far unidentified complex that causes Cu [+II] bearing solutions to colour-shift to the unexpected dark green when exposed to a reducing agent and some heat. Over at some experiments are described that are very similar to my own exploits and that are attributed to a "mixed oxidation state copper complex".

Hat tip to Tim over at for pointing me to these pages.

Some thoughts on the possible composition of the unknown complex:

Assume we start from a solution of CuCl2, acidified by a strong, monoprotonic, non-chlorine bearing acid, such as nitric acid (so that OH- ions play no part). The solution now contains x mol of Cu (in whatever form) and 2x mol of chlorine (in whatever form). The molar chlorine to copper ration is thus 2.

Assume we add an excess of copper metal and allow the reduction of Cu2+ to proceed, via Cu + Cu2+ --> 2 Cu+ and that most of the Cu+ precipitates out of the solution as CuCl (s). Assume y mol of copper metal reacted away, this would yield 2y mol of CuCl, reducing the amount of chlorine in the solution by 2y mol, leaving 2x - 2y.

Bear in mind that only half of the Cu needed to form the 2y mol of CuCl actually comes from the solution (the rest is supplied by the copper metal), then the amount of Cu precipitated from the solution is actually y mol and the remaining Cu in solution is x - y.

The new molar chlorine to copper ratio is thus (2x-2y)/(x-y) = 2.

The molar chlorine/copper ratio remains therefore unchanged, regardless whether some reduction has taken place or not.

The ionic species present in solution are probably H3O+, Cu+, Cu2+, CuCl2-, CuCl42-, the unknown Cu+,2+ - Cl- complex, Cl- and a spectator anion (like nitrate, to comply with the neutrality requirement).

The first two species are likely to be small in concentration, due to complexation. [CuCl2-] is also likely to be quite small, since CuCl has a tendency to drop out of the solution, despite the formation of the assumed unknown complex. CuCl2- requires free Cl- to be present in the solution and most of it is likely to be bound up in CuCl42-and the unknown Cu+,2+ - Cl- complex.

This leaves CuCl42- and the unknown Cu+,2+ - Cl- complex as the most likely dominant, copper and chlorine bearing species and would appear to suggest its Cl/Cu ratio to be close to 2.

Perhaps something like {Cl--Cu+-Cu2+ - 3 Cl-}- could be envisaged. Simply put: Cu2Cl4-?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What can Israel do?

How can it negotiate a peace deal when the rockets daily raining down embody the spirit of the Hamas Charter's annihilationism

Benjamin Pogrund

Does anyone have an answer for the Israeli government's dilemma about the rockets from the Gaza Strip? Up to 40 a day fall on the southern part of the country. About 2,000 during last year.The Qassams are home-made and primitive, but are deadly. Mercifully, the death toll is still low. But there have been deaths and injuries and the town of Sderot is dying: its residents live in daily fear and many have fled. Kibbutzim in the area are also targets. Not only for rockets: last week a man working a potato field was shot and killed from across the border.

Israel rates among the most technology-savvy countries in the world. But it is unable to block the Qassams or to prevent the gradual growth in their power and range. They are creeping north and are already landing on the outskirts of the port town of Ashkelon.

Yielding to international and domestic protests, the government temporarily eased its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Although some of the protests are wild, with claims of "genocide", Gaza is clearly being driven into deep crisis with its 1.5 million people suffering from the restrictions on imports of fuel, food and medicines, and export of fruit.

Some rightwingers in Israel demand wholesale attack to wipe out swathes of houses with little regard for the numbers of people who will be killed. The Israeli Defence Force does not want to do that: it fears loss of its soldiers and is worried about the international consequences of many Gazan deaths.

The military response thus far is to assassinate leaders of the movements which fire rockets - Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees - and to hit and kill those who are about to fire or have just fired rockets. The attacks reflect astonishing levels of intelligence-gathering. In the confines of Gaza, civilian deaths are inevitable, whatever the efforts to avoid them.

It is all horrible. Yet no government in the world can sit by idly while rockets rain on its people. It is impossible. Public anger is intense. The first duty of government is to protect its citizens - and if it fails to do so, it faces the rightful wrath of its electorate.

Palestinian suicide-bombings drove many or most Israelis to the right. The rockets are having the same damaging effects on Israeli public opinion in hardening opposition to ending the occupation of the West Bank and accepting a Palestinian state. Such a state would have Ben Gurion International Airport within easy rocket range, it is argued; and with Israel a mere 12 miles at its narrowest, from the Mediterranean Sea to the West Bank, the coastal cities would also be imperilled.

These dangers certainly exist, if the neighbour is an enemy. The obvious answer is peace. But how to achieve it?

Israeli leaders and the Palestinian Authority are attempting it. But Hamas and its partners are rejectionists. Hamas staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority last June and seized control of the Gaza Strip. Those firing the rockets not only don't want peace, but they are also committed to eliminating Israel. Go read the Hamas Charter of 1988 with its naked hatred of Jews.

Under the pressures of the blockade and assassinations there are whispers that Hamas now wants a ceasefire, whether for a shorter or longer period. How much substance there is to this cannot be said. Is it merely a ploy to gain a breathing spell to bring in yet more explosives through the underground tunnels, which start on the Egyptian side of the border? Or can it be the first tentative step towards accepting the fact of Israel's existence, opening the way to the mutual recognition and working together which must come?

Meanwhile, the bottom line remains for Israel: how do you make peace with someone who not only refuses to talk to you, but actually wants to kill you?

Without any answer to that question, and without any means of halting the rockets, will someone please tell the Israeli government what to do today about the Qassams?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Damages: Great Show!

DamagesAlong with The Sopranos and The Shield, Damages is quickly set to become one of my favourite telly moments. I've already come to the point (at episode three, last night on BBC 1) that I'm looking forward to watching the repeats.

Whoever did the casting did a brilliant job. Glenn Close is a legend of course but played off against the relatively unknown (well, to me at least) Rose Byrne this is simply a great combo. But I can't fault any of the cast or their acting. And the story, flimsy as it may turn out or not turn out to be, hooks you right from the off.

It's clear there's something in Patty's and Frobisher's past that connects them and I'm already inclined to go and look it up but I'll resist. For now... The FXNetworks website on Damages is here.

The music is great too. I'd never heard of The VLA before (I only found out they were called that minutes ago) but you've gotta love that When I am Through with You (... there won't be anything left - listen to it here). Dark and broody US Indie rockpop just like I like 'em. Their website can be found here.

In short, I'm regaining the will to live...

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Jonah Goldberg: Librul Fuh-Ffffascists

Long before Jonah Goldberg finally managed to publish his magnus octopus (two years late), Jon Swift had already published a highly comical proto-review of the then still non-existent book, Liberal Fascism. It's worth reading for many reasons but in particular Jon's suggestion to Jonah to save time by writing his text using LOLcats and Swift's illustrations (scroll down that page a bit):
KitlerMost of Goldberg's ideas could be expressed much more economically, not to mention entertainingly, by using LOLcats, an Internet meme where pictures of cats and other cute animals (or "varmints," as Mitt Romney likes to call them) are captioned with grammatically challenged prose. Cats are thematically appropriate because they are often used to depict Nazis in such books as Art Spiegelman's Maus and Maus II. And conveniently, many cats look like Adolf Hitler so these "kitlers," as they are called, can be used as pictorial shorthand to depict liberals.

And for those who need reminding who Jonah Goldberg is, here's a small sample of Jonah's gems:

On McCarthy’s wisdom:

What makes McCarthyism so hard to discuss is that McCarthy behaved like a jerk, but he was also right.

Banning books:

Now, I’m not in favor of pulling Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn from libraries, but let’s at least give a small nod to the fact that some material actually can be banned from libraries without the sky falling.

A message to Katrina victims:

ATTN: SUPERDOME RESIDENTS – I think it’s time to face facts. That place is going to be a Mad Max/thunderdome Waterworld/Lord of the Flies horror show within the next few hours. My advice is to prepare yourself now. Hoard weapons, grow gills and learn to communicate with serpents. While you’re working on that, find the biggest guy you can and when he’s not expecting it beat him senseless. Gather young fighters around you and tell the womenfolk you will feed and protect any female who agrees to participate without question in your plans to repopulate the earth with a race of gilled-supermen.


In praise of “The Bell Curve”:

[Charles Murray crunches] the numbers with the sort of élan and sophistication we’ve come to expect from the author of “Losing Ground” and coauthor of “The Bell Curve.”

Anti-sodomy laws:

Santorum is probably right that anti-sodomy laws are constitutional.

Nazi appreciation for anti-war activism:

GOOD FOR CINDY [SHEEHAN]! She’s rallied the Nazis to her cause (obviously unintentionally, but it’s interesting how her message resonates in such quarters nonetheless).

And, of course, Goldberg’s explanation for why he can’t be troubled with serving in Iraq:

As for why my sorry a** isn’t in the kill zone, lots of people think this is a searingly pertinent question. No answer I could give — I’m 35 years old, my family couldn’t afford the lost income, I have a baby daughter, my a** is, er, sorry, are a few — ever seem to suffice.

And now Jonah booky wook is finally out and the first reviews are coming in. Here's one that strikes me as probably as funny as the book itself.

Jonah Goldberg's 'Liberal Facism' Brings Historical Revisionism to Comical New Heights

By Brad Reed, AlterNet. Posted January 11, 2008.

The welfare-wingnut king has decided that fascism is a phenomenon of the left.

About five years ago, I imagine that Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza and Jonah Goldberg went out to a local bar and subsequently got into a drunken feud over who among them could write the most comically stupid right-wing attack book.

"I'm-a gonna write two books, one callin' libruls TRAITORS and the other one callin' 'em GODLESS," cackled a sauced Coulter while sipping down her gin and tonic.

"Pfffffft, anyone can call 'em godless traitors," said D'Souza. "I'm-a write a book that blames libruls fer 9/11"

Not one to be outdone, Goldberg pounded his Amstel Light on the table and rose to his feet.

"Tha's nothin'!" he shouted. "I'm-a write a book that calls all libruls FASCISTS!"

Coulter and D'Souza burst into laughter.

"Tha's shameless e'ev fer you!" said Coulter. "Yer own magazine used ta make a habit of praising Franco!"

"I can too write a book about librul fascism!" said an indignant Goldberg as he trudged off to the men's room. "I'll show you! I'll show you all!" And that, in my mind, is how Liberal Fascism was born.

For the uninitiated, Liberal Fascism is a new book by National Review editor Jonah Goldberg that contends that Hitler and Mussolini were committed left-wingers, and that today's liberals are fascism's natural intellectual heirs. While this may sound like yet another Coulteresque quickie aimed at prying some money out of Dittohead Nation, Goldberg insists that it is actually a Very Serious Work that "isn't like any Ann Coulter book" because it presents an argument that "has never been made in such detail or with such care. Goldberg also goes to great lengths from the start of the book to say that he's not really saying liberals are fascists, but hey, here are 400 pages of similarities between liberals and fascists, and if you start associating the two of them by the end of the book, then that's not his fault.

But despite Goldberg's protestations and caveats, "Liberal Fascism" is indeed a remarkably silly work that's jam-packed with the same sloppy logic and dodgy research that we've come to expect from today's conservative pundit class. On page 2, for instance, Goldberg admits that he doesn't really know how to define fascism and that "not even the professionals have figured out what exactly fascism is." But as anyone who's followed Goldberg's career can tell you, lacking knowledge on any given subject in no way impedes him from writing over 400 pages on it. Indeed, not providing a concrete definition of fascism is essential to his case, since it allows him to define fascism however he pleases. Goldberg puts this conceit to good use throughout the book, as everyone from the French revolutionaries to Teddy Roosevelt-era Progressives to the New Dealers to communists to the '60s New Left to Hillary Clinton is linked with fascism at one point or another. By the end of the book, Goldberg comes off as a lonely, belligerent drunk who shouts obscenities at people leaving his local 7-11.

"You're all fuh-fascists!" you can picture Goldberg hollering on a city street corner. "Every damn onea ya's a fuh-ffffffffascist!"

But what in the world do Hitler's Germany, Soviet Russia and America under the Roosevelts all have in common, you ask? For one thing, Goldberg contends that all of these regimes gained popular support by using sinister populist rhetoric that painted wealthy capitalists in a negative light. Through sheer ignorance or ideological blindness, Goldberg never explores why trashing wealthy plutocrats during the Gilded Age and the Great Depression had become both politically profitable and morally sound. Rather, he deems all populist rhetoric as a key piece of the anti-individualist "totalitarian political religion" that American liberalism shares with Communism and Fascism.

Later in the book, the connections between liberalism and fascism grow even flimsier. For instance, did you know that "Hitler claimed to be a dedicated vegetarian" and that he would "talk for hours about the advantages of a meatless diet and the imperative to eat whole grains?" Sounds a lot like that long-haired hippie uncle who drives that hybrid car to family reunions every year, no? And gee, did you realize that the Nazis had a vigorous animal protection program, just like what the vegefascists at PETA are advocating? Oh sure, Goldberg says, you could argue that "animal rights activism was a major concern of pre-Nazi Germany" and that "the animal rights movement shouldn't be associated with Nazi Germany." But that doesn't get animal rights activists off the hook, because their "conventionally leftist views were held by the Nazis," which suggests that "Nazism isn't as alien to mainstream progressive thought as some would have us believe." (To appreciate how absurd this comparison is, try applying it to a local store that has a "no shoes, no service" policy. As in, "Sure a lot of people wore shoes in pre-Nazi Germany, but the local store owner's insistence that his customers wear them shows that Nazism isn't as alien to his views as some would have us believe.")

It ain't over till the fat lady sings, so read page 2 of this review here.

Conservatives Ditch "Lionheart"

From Bartholomew's Notes:

An update on the website of Phyllis Chesler:
Once I posted my interview with Lionheart, some readers insisted that Lionheart is a member of the British National Party which is a fascist, neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denying political party. People in the UK, the USA, and in Israel feared that although Lionheart’s freedom of speech in cyberspace is crucial, and that telling the truth about Islam should not lead to anyone’s arrest—that it was equally crucial that freedom-fighters and democrats not inadvertently make alliances with fascists.

At first, I thought that these well-meaning people were wrong about Lionheart. And why? Because I asked him outright if was a member or supporter of the BNP and he passionately denied that this was so. He insisted that he was an anti-racist who had friends of many ethnicities And then, a British blogger sent me the following snippet from Lionheart’s blog.

A pro-BNP screed from the blog follows, probably found the same way I discovered the shocking truth: by mystically typing the words "Lionheart" + "BNP" into Google. Why Chesler was unable to do this is unexplained. We might ask the same about this CBN News report:
Some conservatives are refusing to support [Paul] Ray [aka "Lionheart"] because of allegations that he is a member or supporter of the British National Party. The BNP is a white supremacist party. Ray reportedly denies membership in the BNP and insists that he is being slandered.

Perhaps CBN doesn’t have the resources to find out for sure? (BTW, we all know what the BNP stands for, but it now eschews public "white supremacist" positions, for strategic reasons) Also looking sheepish is the Jawa Report:
[11 January]: As to the charges that Lionheart is a supporter of the BNP, I've seen no evidence of it…

[14 January]: I've been defending Lionheart against the accusations that he's a BNP supporter. Maybe I was wrong?

"Lionheart’s"/Ray’s support evaporated when his BNP sympathies were picked up – and denounced – by LGF; he responded by denouncing LGF as "a traitor, nothing less than the equivalent of a Second World War Nazi collaborator who would have been shot", which turned out to be biting off rather more than he could chew. He quickly apologised, and quietly removed his pro-BNP blog postings – alas, too late.

There are a couple of lessons here. Firstly, the easy one: that whatever the real dangers of Islamism, hatred of Islam is the first refuge of the scoundrel in the UK and the USA, and as long as you avoid explicitly stating your support for an unambiguously far-right political party you can easily gain the uncritical support and sympathy of lazy conservative pundits who are willing to jump aboard almost any anti-Muslim bandwagon, no matter how foul or preposterous the rhetoric (although there is a free speech issue worth keeping an eye on). The fact that Ray managed to botch such an easy path to blog-glory doesn’t reflect very well on his abilities.

There is also, though, a more difficult observation: we can see a general human failing here, as well as a conservative vice. People want to hear voices that confirm their view of the world, and it takes an effort to consider critically those with a message that seems congenial – I wouldn’t claim to be perfect here, and I can think of a fair few unworthy characters who enjoy standing in certain "liberal" circles, thanks to a bit of "anti-imperialist" ranting.

So, what next for Paul Ray? Bedfordshire on Sunday has some clues:
Paul Ray, who 'blogs' as 'Lionheart', left Britain for an undisclosed location in the Middle East two years ago.

He claims he was receiving death threats which made it impossible to stay in his home town of Luton.

Since leaving Britain, he has regularly updated his blog with news and opinions on subjects such as the heroin trade, Islamic fundamentalism and police corruption.

Bedfordshire on Sunday understands that Mr Ray has been intending to return to Britain for over a year, in order to make preparations to emigrate officially and permanently.

Somehow I doubt supporters of the BNP are welcome in Israel, if that’s where he’s heading off to.

Unbeknown to Bartholomew perhaps, Lionheart has already been to Israel, as an "infiltrator of the ISM". The far right rag FrontPageMag reported also on it.

Here's a little more on Lionheart's dwindling support from Conservatives: LGF (Charlie Johnson) showing that Lionheart's apology for his statement:
Little Green Footballs you are a traitor, nothing less than the equivalent of a Second World War Nazi collaborator who would have been shot because of his treason - Iam sure there are many who would have obliged!

... was taken off Lionheart's blog...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Charlie Wilson's flaw

You don't expect good history from Hollywood, but this cold war comedy is shamefully cavalier with the truth about US backing for the mujahideen

Martin Woollacott

Charlie_Wilson_war Charlie Wilson's War never happened. The conflict portrayed by director Mike Nichols, in a film as mendacious as it is amusing, bears virtually no resemblance to the real war which convulsed Afghanistan in the eighties. His version sets up Washington's foreign policy as a slapstick affair in which a lightweight congressman almost singlehandedly saves the Afghans from Russian occupation. The complex tragedy that enveloped Afghanistan, unravelled the Soviet Union and strengthened extremists throughout the Muslim world is almost entirely off-screen.

Indeed, it is worse than that. If popular art of this kind reflects what a nation has come to understand about its behaviour in the recent past, this film shows an America that has learned nothing from events, except that the principle that "My enemy's enemy is my friend" is not always a sound basis for decision-making. True, the film derives its energy and interest from America's current dilemmas in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it has, in the end, little to say, directly or obliquely, about them.

Looking back at the 1980s, what is striking is that both America and Russia thought they were struggling with each other, while what was really happening was that both states were trying and failing to cope with powerful new forces in the non-western world. Those forces were taking on the more marked ethnic and religious guises which are very familiar to us today.

When the Soviet Union was drawn into Afghanistan, Russian leaders believed they could transform the country's incompetent, brutal and faction-ridden communist government into a more moderate and effective administration, bringing in non-communists and seeking change in society through consultation rather than coercion. Their motives were not, in fact, that different from those claimed by the United States and its Nato allies for their Afghan intervention in 2001.

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The Russian failure arose from their own mistakes, the deep inadequacies of the Afghan communists, and the capture of the Afghan opposition in the countryside by Islamists who, initially, had very little backing there. People like Charlie Wilson - along with Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Elliot Abrams and many others - thought they were inflicting a defeat on communism, while what they were really doing was helping to bring down a project of secular modernisation of which, in essence, the west ought to have approved.

What might be understandable in the fevered anti-communist atmosphere of the time cannot be excused now. The project was probably doomed anyway, but the glee with which its demise was greeted ought today to have been replaced by regret and by a more realistic grasp of how much damage both superpowers caused in their manoeuvring.

You would not think, seeing this movie, that the first Stingers brought down Russian helicopters shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev had become the leader of the Soviet Union, and after he had already decided that the only sane policy was to aim for an early withdrawal. You would not think that the Russians had constantly urged their Afghan allies to look for non-military solutions to their unpopularity in the countryside. You would not know, from the benign impression it gives of President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, what a devious, ruthless and bigoted man he was.

You would not know that the Americans could have channelled their aid to relatively moderate rebel groups and chose instead to pass it through Zia, who gave it to the most extreme. Or that those extremists used some of their new weaponry resources to murder the leaders of those more moderate groups. Or that the Russians appealed to the Americans to stop the torture and ill-treatment of Russian POWs and were ignored. Or that the Russians left Afghanistan in 1988 on the basis of an international agreement that, among other things, was supposed to end all outside funding and and aid for any of the contending groups in the country, but the United States only went along on the impossible condition that the Afghan government be wholly abandoned, and Pakistan instantly and comprehensively violated the agreement.

And, as the audiences thrills to the film's rat-a-tat editing of exploding Russian helicopters and armoured vehicles, you would not know that this was a Russian tragedy, too. "Why did we lose all those boys?" Gorbachev asked in 1987.

The film touches on these issues only in a few asides, and contents itself with making the simplistic point that it was a mistake to have vanquished one enemy only to empower another.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

History of the ME in 90 seconds...


Barenboim the Palestinian

Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim takes Palestinian citizenship

By News Agencies, via Ha'aretz

Daniel Barenboim, the world renowned Israeli pianist and conductor, has taken Palestinian citizenship and said he believed his rare new status could serve a model for peace between the two peoples.

"It is a great honor to be offered a passport," he said late on Saturday after a Beethoven piano recital in Ramallah, the West Bank city where he has been active for some years in promoting contact between young Arab and Israeli musicians.

"I have also accepted it because I believe that the destinies of ... the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are inextricably linked," Barenboim said. "We are blessed - or cursed - to live with each other. And I prefer the first."

"The fact that an Israeli citizen can be awarded a Palestinian passport, can be a sign that it is actually possible," he continued.

Former Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouthi, who helped organize Saturday's concert, said the passport had been approved by the previous government of which he was a member and which was replaced in June. The passport had actually been issued about six weeks ago, he added.

Argentine-born Barenboim, 65, is a controversial figure in his adoptive homeland, both for his promotion of 19th-century composer Richard Wagner - whose music and anti-Semitic writings influenced Adolf Hitler - and vocal opposition to Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories.

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Asked about U.S. President George W. Bush's remarks last week on a visit to the region that a peace could be signed this year, Barenboim warned of the danger of raising hopes too high.

"It would be absolutely horrible if now, with good intentions, expectations are raised which will not be able to be fulfilled," Barenboim said. "Then we will sink into an even greater depression."

Though he dismissed any wish to play a political role, the former music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra took a dig at Bush's strikingly forceful call in Jerusalem last week for Israel to end, in the president's own words, "the occupation."

"Now even not very intelligent people are saying that the occupation has to be stopped," Barenboim said.

Along with the late Palestinian academic Edward Said, he co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab countries.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bush uses O-word!

Charles City Express.

Bush during his visit to Israel:

‘‘There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.’’

By any Arab definition, the way Bush described occupation would include East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Golan Heights. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the president was talking just about the West Bank. In a nod to Israel, Bush said borders would have to be adjusted by mutual agreement ‘‘to reflect current realities’’ since Israel’s formation. He was referring primarily to Israeli neighborhoods on disputed lands, essentially saying Israel would keep these settlements when an independent Palestinian state is formed.

But he also said a Palestinian state must be ‘‘viable and contiguous.’’ Earlier in the day, Bush said Palestinians deserve better than a ‘‘Swiss cheese’’ state fitted around Israeli land and security bulwarks.

One new element was the suggestion that the international community should help compensate Palestinians and their descendants who claim a right to return to land they held before Israel’s formation.

‘‘It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other’s fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement,’’ the president said.

Bush’s remarks evoked scant reaction in Israel. Polls show a majority of Israelis support a land-for-peace agreement and are uncomfortable with the notion of a long-term occupation. In 2003, two years before Israel withdrew from Gaza, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that ‘‘keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation is bad. Occupation is bad.’’

Monday, January 07, 2008

Should we support Lionheart?

I wasn't really going to pay much attention to the latest bit of Islamophobic wingnuttery pervading a considerable part of the blogosphere but considering how many lies are being peddled in the world's largest echo chamber and rumour mill regarding this "case", I now feel obliged to step in and dot some is, cross some ts and provide a little context to this recent brouhaha. The case involves a British blogger, going by the Blogger handle Lionheart, soon to be arrested by British police in relation to his blogging activities. On the face of it one could easily, but wrongly in my view, conclude that Lionheart's case is one about freedom of speech in the blogosphere and that that should concern all of us.

The alleged offence

Right now it isn't clear what said blogger's offence actually is supposed to be because he (Lionheart (LH) - real name Paul) hasn't been arrested yet, let alone charged. This in reality leaves the very genuine possibility that Paul will be interviewed and released without charge. But arrested (scheduled for 19/02/08) he will be and this is what who is presumably the Arresting Officer had to say about it in an email to Paul (LH) (as reported by Paul's legal council, Anthony Bennett):
For the public record, here is a full copy of the e-mail sent by Ian Holden of Bedfordshire Police to ‘Llionheart’ yesterday, Thursday 3 January 2008:


The offence that I need to arrest you for is “Stir up Racial Hatred by displaying written material” contrary to sections 18(1) and 27(3) of the Public Order Act 1986.

You will be arrested on SUSPICION [my emphasis] of the offence. You would only be charged following a full investigation based on all the relevant facts and CPS [Crown Prosecution Service - my blurb] consent.

Paul I will see you on the 19/02/08 when I will tell you everything that you need to know. Due to being out of the office for six weeks I will not have access to my email as of tomorrow 04/01/08.


The potential charge of stirring up racial hatred seems a little strange but could pertain to Paul's repeated blog attacks on Pakistani Muslims. Alternatively, Ian Holden's email may simply be a little sloppy: it seems more likely and more logical that Paul would be charged with stirring up religious hatred under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, an Act which complements and completes the Public Order Act of 1986 (the one mentioned in the email to Paul) with offences relating to religious hatred and not just racial hatred.

Despite everything remaining much in the realm of possibilities rather than certainties this case has already inflamed part of the wingnut blogosphere and support for Lionheart has swollen to a veritable deluge in the past days.

Support for Lionheart: Straw Man arguments galore...

Tens of rightwing bloggers have taken it upon themselves to spread the word regarding this perceived injustice, yet not a single one manages to address the actual issues. Broadly speaking said supporters treat the case as an assault on freedom of speech and their arguments can be fitted more or less into three main categories:

1. Political Correctness gone mad:

It's alleged that Paul's case hinges on suppressing criticism of Islam or even criticism of Jihadists. Nothing could be further removed from the truth. In Britain, freedom of speech does have legal limits but the law goes out of its way to impose as few impediments to free discourse as possible. For example, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, under which Lionheart may be charged with offence(s), stipulates under 29 J:

Protection of freedom of expression

Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.

Paul is therefore perfectly legally entitled to criticise Islam or Islamists to his heart's content, no charges could ever flow from that. But it has to be noted that 'criticising' and 'stirring up hatred' aren't the same thing and can be distinguished from one another quite easily.

The 'political Correctness gone mad' defence is increasingly used by parties that have been found guilty (but not necessarily in the legal sense of the word) of making racial slurs, including anti-Semites, we should be careful to judge it properly.

2. Islam is not a race and therefore Paul cannot be charged with 'stirring racial hatred':

Right now it isn't clear what Paul will be charged with (IF he will be charged with anything at all). The charge(s) could pertain to Paul's written treatment of Pakistanis (mostly Muslims), in which case the law would definitely recognise a racial element. Alternatively it could pertain to Paul's attacks on British Muslims as a whole (without distinction between Radical British Islamists and law abiding British Muslim citizens or legal residents) under the 2006 Act. Either way, the 'Islam is not a race' argument simply doesn't cut mustard.

3. UK Dhimmitude at work:

This most extreme of arguments really doesn't punch much above Roswellians, or advanced Ufology and is in essence as whacky as the "9/11: t'wos Mossad wot did it" conspiracy theory. Usually used by those highly critical of 'multiculturalism', it implies that Europe in general, and in this case the UK in particular, has already fallen for the 'Muslim Hordes' and that the 'barbarians' have taken over (both are in themselves rather vicious allegations). It implies that 'Muslim colonisers' are setting the agenda, that Sharia law is replacing Civil Law and that legal prosecution of Lionheart is nothing more than making said blogger a political prisoner of Islam. A fictitious book, yet to be written, called "The Protocols of the Elders of Mecca" really does spring to mind in this context.

It should come as no surprise that Lionheart, in slightly different words, actually subscribes to the 'Muslims have taken over' theory.

Most of Lionheart's supporters can be found here.

Lionheart: a profile

Let me firstly emphasise that my characterisation of Paul does not imply illegality: no matter how much I disagree with much of what he writes, he's perfectly entitled to believe what he wants to believe. This is merely an attempt to figure out where his thinking comes from and how it's come to the point where he might be charged with 'stirring racial/religious hatred'.

Paul runs three blogs (see his profile to find the other two) and comes across as an extremely Manichean writer, full of extreme hyperbole, rhetorical exaggeration and pulling things out of context. He's a Far Right English Nationalist, rarely referring to the United Kingdom, but almost invariably to England ('Christian land'). He has a bit of a knack for self-aggrandisement, seeing himself clearly as some sort of a 'knight for England', defender of the Realm. A racist? Possibly not, as on his blog he supports Oona King as mayoral candidate for London (against the 'racist Ken Livingstone' [Paul's words]).

He appears also to have a rather poor grasp of legal matters in general, at one point appealing to our non-executive Head of State,
Betty II, to stop the construction of a Mega Mosque.

He's a fairly poor (but very variable) writer, yet has an uncanny ability to choose terms and catchphrases that resonate well with the like-minded: one of his posts is titled "Heroin: Golden Sword of Islam", another "Jihad (Holy War) against our children", another "Osama Bin Laden - The third Anti-Christ".

Much of Paul's discourse focuses on Luton and Dunstable's problems with drug dealers, which in his book are invariably Pakistani Muslims. It would appear that his past experiences in that area have very much coloured his current day view of British Muslims.

It seems likely to me that Paul's intense dislike of Muslims (and Pakistani Muslims in particular) started well before 9/11 (and 7/7): in the mid eighties, Paki-bashing (including its more violent expressions) among rightwing whites in Britain was very much du jour. The typical racial stereotypes of those days, including "they send all their money to Pakistan", "they take our jobs", "they rape our women" and many more besides that, have now found vindication with that group of white rightwingers by means of that small band of bad apples, often connected via Pakistan, that make up British born Islamic radicals and terrorists.

Lionheart: what's in a nickname?

Knights_TemplarSuperficially one might be advised not to read too much into any blogger's chosen Blogger handle but in Paul's case it's legitimate to make an exception. Apart from the name Lionheart, the address of his main blog (, Paul also incorporates the Lionheart theme in his avatar, posing with a figure clad in military regalia, designed to conjure up images of Richard the Lionheart, or Cœur de Lion, Richard I, King of England (1157 - 1199) and Christian Commander during the Third Crusade. There's little doubt in my mind that Paul strongly identifies with Saladin's greatest foe. Certainly several of Paul's supporters have gotten the message: the image to the right of this paragraph has been used by quite a few of them: clearly the icon of a Christian Crusader against Islam very much appeals to them...

BNP support?

Whether the BNP actively supports Paul's crusadette remains to be seen: at the time of writing the BNP website made no mention of Paul's plight.

But at least one of Lionheart's supporters, Home of the Green Arrow is an active supporter of the British National Party (from the site's motto: "The purpose of the site is to support the British National Party and [...]"). From one of its recent posts:
I do not know Lionheart personally but know him to be a very sincere religious man with deep convictions. We have not always agreed on everything but have been united in our fight to make our fellow True Brits aware of the dangers of Islam.

Lionheart replies in kind in the post's comment section; "Thanks Green Arrow, please dont put yourself on the line its not worth it".

Clearly the two aren't complete strangers to one another. Again, no illegality is implied here.


It would appear that whether or not the BNP supports Paul's plight, Paul himself is nonetheless a BNP supporter. Who'd have thunk it (note irony)?

Anthony Bennett: Lionheart's legal representative

Anthony ("Tony") Bennett, Paul's lawyer, is no stranger to controversy. A former Labour member, he's a relatively well known Euroskeptic activist and anti-metrication nut and was once associated with the National Front:
In early 2002, he was banned from standing for UKIP for two years[citation needed] and from holding office in the party in 2004 after he privately circulated a pamphlet in which he called the Prophet Muhammad a paedophile for having consummated his marriage to his child bride Aisha when she was nine years old, which Bennett stated would have been prosecuted today as a case of child sexual abuse. The pamphlet also warned of the probable rise of militant Islam in the UK, which were later claimed to be part of a "reasoned, academic exposition" aimed at explaining the reasons behind the September 11 terrorist attacks". UKIP described Bennett as "an energetic campaigner, with some extremely eccentric and individualistic views".[10]

On 15 August 2004, Bennett began work as Robert Kilroy-Silk's Researcher and became a founder member of the Veritas Party in January 2005. In February 2005 however, Bennett was involved in controversy when it was revealed that he had previously co-founded the People's Campaign to Keep the Pound with Ian Anderson, a former chairman of the far right, White Nationalist party, the National Front.[10] Bennett denied any knowledge of Anderson being chairman of the National Front at the time the two men formed the campaign, describing Anderson as an "English patriot".[10]

Presumed innocent until found guilty

While everything remains up for grabs in this case, it remains likely that Paul will either not be charged with anything or be let off with a warning and a slap on the wrist. Alternatively, if charged with and found guilty of stirring up racial and/or religious hatred Lionheart could face a lengthy prison sentence.

Having read large swathes of Paul's two main blogs there is no doubt in my mind that stirring up hatred is exactly what he's doing, although that may be somewhat inadvertently and possibly due to ignorance of the law (which in one of his rebuttals in the comment section he dismissed rather cavalierly as irrelevant) but ignorance can be no excuse for committing an offence. Paul's constant equating of Radical Islam, Jihadists, Pakistani drug dealers and British born Muslim bomb throwers with ordinary British Muslims or Muslim British residents, is difficult to construe as anything other than stirring up hatred of Muslims in general. Ironically, the comment sections of his blogposts are a testimony that this tactic is working and that many are in agreement or are influenced by Lionheart's Islamophobic musings...

And so, no, until further notice I will not be supporting Paul's cause. To be continued...


The Sadly, no! blog has an excellent post on Lionheart, with plenty of quotes from Paul's rants, illustrating how it's hard not to see much of it is stirring up religious hatred, in the aptly titled Oh England My Lyin’ Heart blogpost. Read it...

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Celebs and Quack Science

Our gilded mountebanks believe that quackery can pass for gravitas

Celebrities' attempts to influence the medical and spiritual choices of ordinary punters is nothing short of tragic.

Marina Hyde

We begin with two quotations. The first comes from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who last year told the world about "evil genes", and declared that "by eating biological foods it is possible to avoid tumours". The second comes from the uncle of Peter Parker, Spider-Man's mild-mannered alter ego, who observed that "with great power there must come great responsibility".

Alas, if only Paltrow had some wise avuncular presence to remind her that just because she's good at pretending to be other people, she knows the square root of nothing about science and medicine, and has an even more minuscule right to preach to others on how "possible" it is to avoid tumours with diet. ("Diet cannot prevent cancer," Ursula Arens, a dietician at the British Dietetic Association, states. "It is reasonable that the risks of some of them can be reduced with certain diets, but some cancers, alas, show no link to dietary factors.") Indeed, whereas one might regard it as merely a shame if the surgeon general were cast in a movie and ruined it by mugging to the camera, it's morally offensive and dangerous to find Gwyneth gatecrashing a field in which she is completely unqualified.

Warmest thanks, then, to the charity Sense About Science, which this week published its annual report into gaffes made by actors and presenters, in which Ms Paltrow was among those criticised by a panel of experts.

Editor's note: more about Sense About Science
can be found here. Download their report (pdf) via the link provided on that page
(scroll down a little).

The influence of celebrities can, of course, be overstated. In 2001, GQ magazine ranked David Beckham as more powerful than Rupert Murdoch, and only last month Kevin Federline - Britney Spears's unemployed ex-husband and former backing dancer - was placed at No 7 in Details magazine's list of the most powerful men under 45 on the entire planet. He came one spot higher than Moqtada al-Sadr, six above the YouTube founders, and 14 above Syria's President Assad.

But despite these idiotic exaggerations, celebrities' hold over ordinary people grows stronger all the time. Advertisers know that simply associating a star's face with a product shifts myriad units of it, while the thirst for content means media outlets air celebrity views largely uncritically. All very well, but when this influence extends to crazy medical theories, it becomes a genuine social tragedy.

Increasingly, celebrities seem to think that quackery by another name is the route to gravitas. There tends to come a point at which the borderline narcissism that drives many stars to seek validation in the entertainment industry is no longer sated by simply being talented and successful in one discipline. An intellectual or mystical dimension to one's public persona is craved, and this kind of hocus pocus starts worming its way into their utterances. Our gilded mountebanks appear to think it passes for a radical, even hip, "belief system" - and unfortunately, they are not given to worshipping in private.

About the same time as Madonna stopped being cool and transgressive and interesting, and tipped over into being a pretentious country lady manqué, she began publicising her adherence to Kabbalah - a sort of cod-Jewish cult whose followers are encouraged to spend a small fortune on, among other things, a set of books whose Hebrew text one is not even required to understand to gain spiritual benefit, but merely to look at.

Indeed, Madonna began to pepper her interviews with the declaration that she and her husband never watched television but only read books. Books with very small words in very large print, it seemed, because she also began extolling the heal-all powers of Kabbalah water, which is simply water that has been blessed (remotely) by a Los Angeles-dwelling authority figure I am convinced would be going to hell if I believed in its existence.

Among other things, this Philip Berg has stated that large quantities of Kabbalah water were emptied into a lake near Chernobyl to clear it of radiation, and aside from the suggestion it could help troops in Iraq, Madonna told one interviewer that "it has gotten rid of my husband's verrucas". Kabbalah water costs £4 for a 1.5-litre bottle.

The thing is, a celebrity shouldn't even be talking about verruca cures, let alone cancer. But the boundaries are gone. There is now a sort of continuum between celebrities telling people how cutting out crisps got them into a pair of skinny jeans, and telling cancer patients how to eat.

Much as Sense About Science's report is to be welcomed, what more can be done before we realise, too late, that the fifth horseman of the apocalypse is probably celebrity quackery? In Brussels, the EU's UK press room collates Euromyths peddled by some British tabloids, and in moments of idle fantasy I sometimes envisage a special body being set up to regulate all celebrity utterances. It could be called OfSleb.

Editor's note: visit also The EU in the United Kingdom, a comprehensive overview of Euromyths circulated in the British gutter press. Some of this stuff would be simply hilarious if the attitude of some British 'journos' to the EU wasn't so sad...

Alas, this seems faintly unscaleable. But given that celebrities tend to come out with this stuff during interviews to promote personally enriching projects, perhaps the answer would be to treat such outbursts as ads, and subject them to the same censure as all

Friday, January 04, 2008

Making Republicans nervous

US elections 2008: Mike Huckabee's Iowa win throws the GOP into disarray, and may force it to coalesce around one of the other major candidates.

Michael Tomasky

Iowa_caucusesMike Huckabee's Iowa win is certainly dramatic, considering that just three months ago he was one of those candidates usually included in the catch phrase "the rest." But it's worth remembering that winning Iowa hasn't had all that much to do with winning the White House in recent history.

Ronald Reagan lost Iowa in 1980, as did George HW Bush in 1988, as did Bill Clinton in 1992 - three of the last four presidents, in other words. (The fourth, the current President Bush, did win the state in 2000.)

In 1988, when Bush Senior lost in Iowa, he came third behind an evangelical minister, Pat Robertson, who very obviously wasn't going to be elected president of the United States but who excited the heavily evangelical constituencies that comprise Iowa Republican caucus-goers.

Huckabee isn't quite Robertson - at least he has a political background. And it's not impossible that he could win the nomination. But it's still highly unlikely. New Hampshire, the next state up, is not a Huckabee state in remotely the way Iowa is. And looking farther down the road to the important date of February 5, the big states that will vote that day - most notably New York and California - aren't likely to be Huckabee states either.

So the real effects of Huckabee's win are two.

First, it opens up the race. Put more accurately, let's say that Mitt Romney's failure to win opens up the race. If Romney had won, he'd have been heading into New Hampshire, a state where he is known and basically a local product, with momentum. But now Romney - who spent $6.5m on television ads in Iowa to get just under a quarter of the GOP vote, or at least $300 a vote - has to fight for his life in New Hampshire, against John McCain most of all.

McCain has big hopes for New Hampshire and has risen in the polls there. His disappointing finish in Iowa won't hurt him much once things move back East. And Rudy Giuliani, who's been fading out of sight in the last two weeks, has new life as well.

The second effect is that the Republican establishment is going to be very nervous about this. Its members - the elected officials and donors and lobbyists and behind the scenes players - are going to start talking Friday morning about whether they can coalesce around one of the other three major candidates.

Those talks will have a new urgency now, but they haven't yielded any fruit so far.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Harry Satan Potter

Over at Spaceship Vatican, the Chief Exorcist (does this imply they have a whole team of them?) has made an Earth shattering discovery: the fictional character and wannabe wizard Harry Potter, darling of millions of children (as well as a good dollop of rather childish adults) is the Prince of Darkness (sorry, King, no less...) No, really...

Reality based the Funny Hat Society known as Catholicism never really was of course. But to go and claim that the fruit of the imagination of one rather successful author is satanic because she makes no distinction between "white magic" and "black magic" is rather rich coming from people whose real-life grasp of reality seems sketchy at best. Dear Funny Hat wearers: Potter's magic isn't REAL, it's a literary device, similar to that resurrection business you're all so fond of. Similar to the miracles you maintain fellow Funny Hat travelers should accept as if Every Word is True. And, psst, these entertaining "magicians" you see on telly don't really deploy supernatural powers either, just slight of hand and assorted trickery but don't tell the little children...

Pope's top exorcist says Harry Potter is 'king of darkness
Pope Benedict XVI's chief exorcist, Rev. Gabriele Amorth, has called fictional wizard-in-training Harry Potter the "king of darkness, the devil."

Amorth made the statement about the star of the best-selling children's series by British author J. K. Rowling during an interview with Vatican Radio during the week.

"Magic is always a turn to the devil," said the Roman Catholic priest, according to Britain's Daily Mail newspaper.

Amorth, who is also the president of the International Association of Exorcists, said the series contains many positive references to "the satanic art" of magic and makes no distinction between black and white magic.

Amorth compared the Potter character to dictators Stalin and Hitler, saying they were possessed by the devil.

"You can tell by their behavior and their actions, from the horrors they committed and the atrocities that were committed on their orders. That's why we need to defend society from demons," said Amorth, who has reportedly performed 30,000 exorcisms.

Benedict voiced his disapproval of the character and series before he became Pope in April 2005.

Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, he wrote a supportive letter in 2005 to the author of a book Harry Potter - Good or Evil? In it, sociologist Gabriele Kuby had argued that Harry Potter series distorts young people's ideas about the battle of good versus evil.

"It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly," Ratzinger told Kuby in his letter.

Torture: what is it good for?

From the outstanding Pharyngula science blogs comes this little gem (below) on torture and waterboarding. The author fails to mention that historically torture was used not only to instill fear, as he rightly asserts, but also to get the tortured to sign "confessions" drawn up (and made up) entirely by the torturers. Other than that omission, PZ Myers has got it right in my opinion. The article in question also links to a self-experimenter and self-enamored "toughie" who decided to figure out how waterboarding feels exactly. That important aside makes for very compelling reading, as waterboarding is considered by many as nothing more than a form of rough interrogation, an alternative to "cup of tea/coffee, name and rank, please". This highly personal testimony on the effects of waterboarding tells a very different tale. READ IT.

By PZ Myers.

One little post about waterboarding seems to have stirred up the mob, but at least the majority seem to agree that it is torture. How could it not be? It's a process for causing pain and suffering, nothing more. At least the commenters here, even the ones I disagree with most strongly, are more honest than our politicians, many of whom seem to be in a state of denial.

(Here's the account by one tough Internet forum member of his experience with waterboarding [note by editor]).

But then the argument becomes whether torture is a useful procedure. I'm going to surprise some people and agree that torture is an extremely powerful tool. It's just useless for gathering information. There's just no way you can trust information gotten while ripping somebody's fingernails off with a pair of pliers — they'll scream anything to get you to stop.

Here is all that torture is good for: inspiring fear in a population. If you want it widely known that your ruling regime is utterly ruthless and doesn't care about individuals, all you have to do is scoop up random people suspected of anti-government activities, hold them for a few weeks, and return them as shattered wrecks with mangled limbs, while treating the monsters who would do such a thing as respected members of the ruling clique, who are immune from legal prosecution. The message gets out fast that one does not cross the government.

So, yeah, if you're a tyrant in Uzbekistan who is holding control through force of arms, fear is a useful part of the apparatus of control, and torture is a great idea, as are barbaric executions, heads on pikes, and bullets to the back of the head.

When the US government announces it's support for torture, they aren't talking about intelligence gathering: they are simply saying "Fear us." They are taking the first step on the road to tyranny.

The real problem is that fear isn't a good tool to use in a democratic society. We are supposed to be shareholders in our government; when a process of oppression is endorsed by our legislators and president, we should recognize that they are trying to set themselves apart from the ordinary citizenry, and it's time to rebel…before the goon squads come to your neighborhood. Anyone who supports torture is a traitor to the democratic form of government, and should be voted out of office, if not impeached.

And I know some are going to crawl out of the woodwork to claim it's OK in this case because the US is mainly trying to torture non-citizens, outsiders and foreigners — but then what it represents is an announcement to the rest of the world that the American superpower is not planning to be a benevolent member of the community of nations.