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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: November 25, 2006


WHY ARE AMERICAN authorities so superstitious about religion? The predominant faith in this country is not Muslim and yet when a Muslim prisoner is jailed he’s issued with a copy of the Koran and the special food of his preference and encouraged to worship in his accustomed manner. Surely, a much simpler and better torture than physical assault would be to deprive him of these things? The same thing, of course, applies to prisoners of other persuasions, but why? Jail is meant to be a punishment and making every prisoner accept the same conditions surely should be part of the routine. Are Christians jailed in other countries given Bibles? The fact is that when such prisoners are finally released, they will boast to their friends that despite being deprived of the necessary artifacts they still prayed, and ifanything — they will doubtless claim — their faith is stronger than ever.

IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME since the Communist ideal of equality had any validity. In a recent piece in the Nation, Peter Kwong revealed that 90% of China’s 20,000 richest people are related to senior government or communist party officials…. “who used their positions to pass laws transforming state-owned industries into stockholding companies and then appointed family members as managers.” For now, Kwong adds, “under one-party rule, ordinary Chinese can only wait for the current ‘dynasty’ to eventually collapse.”

THE GATED COMMUNITY is proliferating in London, writes Philip Hensher, with residents, “effectively sealed off from the community,” hardly ever interacting with neighbors. “Gated developments claim to be a response to rising crime, but they are “undermining the very social cohesion that keeps crime at bay” and actually contribute to the problem with their “unreasonable degree of security.”

PUBLIC OFFICIALS who are given a budget to hire somebody to do their job for them are naturally going to do just that, and that’s why 176 contracts costing almost five million dollars were handed out to consultants in Britain last year. That’s more than all the other European countries combined, says the Spectator describing the trend as “a dependency culture.” Public servants are “risk-averse,” explains the mag, “Rather than make a wrong decision it makes sense to make no decision at all other than to decide which outside firm to pay to take the blame if it all goes wrong.”

AFTER AN UPROAR about using abducted children as jockeys at their Dubai camel-racing track, the United Arab Emirate made a deal with a Swiss company to provide remote-controlled robots in their place. But, inspections after a recent race, reports the New Statesman, found the ‘robots’ were dressed up sacks of rice containing a motor.

COUNTERING THE TIDE of do-gooders who have set up Fair Trade organizations to deal with peasant coffee growers in poor countries, a couple of rightwing fanatics, Tom Kilroy and Ryan Myers, have entered the field. They are introducing Contra Coffee, beans cultivated by the Nicaraguan contras, described by the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign’s Helen Yuill as “a mercenary army financed and directed by the U.S. (guilty of) terrible human rights atrocities.”

LONG BEFORE the late Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin has an almost identical experience, but the black leadership in Montgomery, AL felt she would not make a sturdy enough test case. Nine months later, they persuaded Ms. Parks, already a civil rights activist, to see it through, and the rest is history, according to a new book, Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters in the Disunited States by former Guardian correspondent Gary Younge.

FRENCH NOVELIST Marc Levy trashes Paris and praises London (where he has lived for five years) in his best-seller Mes Amis Mes Amours. London, he says, is filled with exciting new buildings whereas “99% of Paris doesn’t even belong in the 20th century. Paris is like a dead city with no progress while everything here has the buzz.”

TOO MANY EMAILS is the complaint of Stephen Jukuri who says “We’ve reached the too-much-information age, but we haven’t really reached the communication age.” Jukuri’s complaint is echoed in a Wall Street Journal story by Jared Sandberg which points out that with an estimated 84 billion emails sent worldwide every day, it’s sometimes hard to welcome its efficiency. “Like bad advice, self-importance and ugly carpeting, there’s just too much of it in the office.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: Within 20 years or so, there will be no residents left in Venice predict city officials who cite escalating property prices and regular floods which drove 2,000 residents to the mainland last year and reduced the population to 62,000 — half what it was 40 years ago…. Britain’s roads are so congested that highway authorities will allow driving on the hard shoulder when sensors detect traffic jams are building up… No one traveling on a business trip would be missed if he failed to arrive wrote Thorstein Veblen…. After an anonymous caller told a New Zealand radio station that registering a car as a hearse cut insurance costs by two-thirds, the licensing bureau had to write hundreds of warning letters with the message: ”Carrying groceries or dead animals in your car does not make it a hearse….” “Our solutions have become our problems. Somehow we have become the very stuff we are in pain about — isolated, addicted, self-serving, and living life from our heads”Susan Pomeranz in the Ventura Voice…. The first solarpayphone, installed by South Africa’s Mobil Phone company MTN on Uganda’s Lake Victoria, has put local fishermen in touch with the world, and Ireland’s Ryanair is equipping its planes with satellite links to allow passengers to use mobil phones… Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström forecasts that telephone calls will eventually cost nothing. “You don’t pay for each email or each web page you unload; it’s the same with phone calls. That’s where it’s going. It will be free….” Most people return small favors, acknowledge middling ones, and repay great ones with ingratitude Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)