Adonis Diaries

Archive for January 2016

Father of Koch Brothers Helped Build Nazi Oil Refinery (before WWII), Book Says.

So what?

No companies in the USA, UK or France refrained from contributing to Germany economy and infrastructure before WWII. And the US industrialist kept investing in Germany during the war before the US officially declared war on Hitler.

By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE. January 11, 2016

The father of the billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch helped construct a major oil refinery in Nazi Germany that was personally approved by Adolf Hitler, according to a new history of the Kochs and other wealthy families.

The book, “Dark Money,” by Jane Mayer, traces the rise of the modern conservative movement through the activism and money of a handful of rich donors: among them Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the Mellon banking fortune, and Harry and Lynde Bradley, brothers who became wealthy in part from military contracts but poured millions into anti-government philanthropy.

But the book is largely focused on the Koch family, stretching back to its involvement in the far-right John Birch Society and the political and business activities of the father, Fred C. Koch, who found some of his earliest business success overseas in the years leading up to World War II. One venture was a partnership with the American Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis, who, according to Ms. Mayer, hired Mr. Koch to help build the third-largest oil refinery in the Third Reich, a critical industrial cog in Hitler’s war machine.

The episode is not mentioned in an online history published by Koch Industries, the company that Mr. Koch later founded and passed on to his sons.

Ken Spain, a spokesman for Koch Industries, said company officials had declined to participate in Ms. Mayer’s book and had not yet read it.

“If the content of the book is reflective of Ms. Mayer’s previous reporting of the Koch family, Koch Industries or Charles’s and David’s political involvement, then we expect to have deep disagreements and strong objections to her interpretation of the facts and their sourcing,” Mr. Spain said.

Ms. Mayer, a staff writer at The New Yorker, presents the Kochs and other families as the hidden and self-interested hands behind the rise and growth of the modern conservative movement. Philanthropists and political donors who poured hundreds of millions of dollars into think tanks, political organizations and scholarships, they helped win acceptance for anti-government and anti-tax policies that would protect their businesses and personal fortunes, she writes, all under the guise of promoting the public interest.

The Kochs, the Scaifes, the Bradleys and the DeVos family of Michigan “were among a small, rarefied group of hugely wealthy, archconservative families that for decades poured money, often with little public disclosure, into influencing how the Americans thought and voted,” the book says.

Many of the families owned businesses that clashed with environmental or workplace regulators, come under federal or state investigation, or waged battles over their tax bills with the Internal Revenue Service, Ms. Mayer reports. The Kochs’ vast political network, a major force in Republican politics today, was “originally designed as a means of off-loading the costs of the Koch Industries environmental and regulatory fights onto others” by persuading other rich business owners to contribute to Koch-controlled political groups, Ms. Mayer writes, citing an associate of the two brothers.

Mr. Scaife, who died in 2014, donated upward of a billion dollars to conservative causes, according to “Dark Money,” which cites his own unpublished memoirs. Mr. Scaife was driven in part, Ms. Mayer writes, by a tax loophole that granted him his inheritance tax free through a trust, so long as the trust donated its net income to charity for 20 years. “Isn’t it grand how tax law gets written?” Mr. Scaife wrote.

In Ms. Mayer’s telling, the Kochs helped bankroll — through a skein of nonprofit organizations with minimal public disclosure — decades of victories in state capitals and in Washington, often leaving no fingerprints. She credits groups financed by the Kochs and their allies with providing support for the Tea Party movement, along with the public relations strategies used to shrink public support for the Affordable Care Act and for President Obama’s proposals to mitigate climate change.

The Koch network also provided funding to fine-tune budget proposals from Representative Paul D. Ryan, such as cuts to Social Security, so they would be more palatable to voters, according to the book. The Kochs were so influential among conservative lawmakers, Ms. Mayer reports, that in 2011, Representative John A. Boehner, then the House speaker, visited David Koch to ask for his help in resolving a debt ceiling stalemate.

“Dark Money” also contains revelations from a private history of the Kochs commissioned by David’s twin brother, William, during a lengthy legal battle with Charles and David over control of Koch Industries.

Ms. Mayer describes a sealed 1982 deposition in which William Koch recalled participating in an attempt by Charles and David to blackmail their fourth and eldest brother, Frederick, into relinquishing any claim to the family business by threatening to tell their father that he was gay.

David Koch has since described himself as socially liberal and as a supporter of same-sex marriage.

Correction: January 12, 2016
An earlier version of a capsule summary for this article misspelled the surname of the author of a new book about the history of the Koch family. She is Jane Mayer, not Meyer.


Google HR Boss Laszlo Bock :  Why GPA And Most Interviews Are Useless

Google likely sees more data than any company on the planet. And that obsession carries through to hiring and management, where every decision and practice is endlessly studied and analyzed.

In an interview with The New York Times’ Adam Bryant, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock explains that some of the biggest stalwarts of the hiring and recruiting world, the interview, GPA, and test scores, aren’t nearly as important as people think.

Google doesn’t even ask for GPA or test scores from candidates anymore, unless someone’s a year or two out of school, because they don’t correlate at all with success at the company. Even for new grads, the correlation is slight, the company has found.

Bock has an excellent explanation about why those metrics don’t mean much.

Academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment,” he says.

While in school, people are trained to give specific answers, “it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer,” Bock says. “You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

As for interviews, many managers, recruiters, and HR staffers think they have a special ability to sniff out talent. They’re wrong.

“Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring,” Bock says. “We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship.”

Google also used to be famous for posing impossibly difficult and punishing brain teasers during interviews. Things like “If the probability of observing a car in 30 minutes on a highway is 0.95, what is the probability of observing a car in 10 minutes (assuming constant default probability)?”

Turns out those questions are”a complete waste of time,” according to Bock. “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

The only thing that works are behavioral interviews, Bock says, where there’s a consistent set of questions that ask people what they did in specific situations.

Many of the assumptions and practices we have about hiring came about because we didn’t have anything better. For decades, the only (relatively) consistent data point among hires was GPA and test scores. It was an easy way to sort, and because that’s the way it was always done, people stuck with it.

We can do better now. And though Google has something of a head start and a lot more data, more and more companies are catching on. 

The best thing about data? It’s hard for people to contest. (If they believe the data is validated and unbiased)

Even when people don’t want to believe that they’re underperforming, it’s hard to dispute years worth of numbers. “For most people, just knowing that information causes them to change their conduct,”  Bock says.

Note: Best interview is to let new hires be challenged on specific problems: Hands on practise of the skills and attitudes they demonstrate 


I don’t know what to do with good white people.

I’ve been surrounded by good white people my whole life. Good white people living in my neighborhood, who returned our dog when he got loose; good white teachers in elementary school who pushed books into my hands; good white professors at Stanford, a Bay Area bastion of goodwhiteness, who recommended me M.F.A. programs where I met good white writers, liberal enough for a Portlandia sketch.

I should be grateful for this. Who, in generations of my family, has ever been surrounded by so many good white people? My mother was born to sharecroppers in Louisiana; she used to measure her feet with a piece of string because they could not try on shoes in the store. She tells me of a white policeman who humiliated her mother by forcing her to empty her purse on the store counter just so he could watch her few coins spiral out.

Two summers ago, my mother showed me the welfare reports written about her family. The welfare officer, a white woman, observed my family with a careful, anthropological eye. She described the children, including my mother, as “nice and clean.” She asked personal questions (did my grandmother have a boyfriend?) and wrote her findings in a detached tone. She wondered why my grandmother, an illiterate Black mother of nine living in the Jim Crow South, struggled to find a steady job. Maybe, she wrote in her loopy scrawl, my grandmother wasn’t searching hard enough.

This faded report is the type of official document a historian might consult if he were re-constructing the story of my family. The author, this white welfare officer, writes as if she is an objective observer, but she tells a well-worn story of Black women who refuse to work and instead depend on welfare. Occasionally, her clinical tone breaks down. Once, she notes that my mother is pretty. She probably considered herself a good white person.

In the wake of the Darren Wilson non-indictment, I’ve only deleted one racist Facebook friend. This friend, as barely a friend as a high school classmate can be, re-posted a rant calling rioters niggers. (She was not a good white person.) Most of my white friends have responded to recent events with empathy or outrage.

Some have joined protests. Others have posted Criming While White stories, a hashtag that has been criticized for detracting from Black voices. Look at me, the hashtag screams, I know that I am privileged. I am a good white person. Join me and remind others that you are a good white person too.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve seen good white people congratulate themselves for deleting racist friends or debating family members or performing small acts of kindness to Black people. Sometimes I think I’d prefer racist trolling to this grade of self-aggrandizement. A racist troll is easy to dismiss. He does not think decency is enough. Sometimes I think good white people expect to be rewarded for their decency. We are not like those other white people. See how enlightened and aware we are? See how we are good?

Over the past two weeks, I have fluctuated between anger and grief. I feel surrounded by Black death. What a privilege, to concern yourself with seeming good while the rest of us want to seem worthy of life.

When my father was a young man, he was arrested at gunpoint. He was a Deputy District Attorney at the time, driving home one night from bible study when LAPD pulled him over. A traffic violation, he’d thought, until officers swarmed his car with shotguns aimed at his head. The cops refused to look in his wallet at his badge. They cuffed him and threw him on the curb.

My father is mostly thankful that he’d stayed calm. In his shock, he had done nothing. That’s what he believes saved his life.

I think about this while I watch Eric Garner die. For months, I avoided the video, until we arrived at another officer non-indictment. Now I’ve seen the video of Garner’s death, as well as a second video I find even more disturbing.

This second video, taken immediately after Garner has been killed by a banned chokehold, shows officers attempting to speak to him, asking him to respond to EMTs. They do not yet know that he is dead, and there’s something about this moment, officers shuffling around as an EMT seeks a pulse, that is so bafflingly and frustratingly human, so different from the five officers lunging and wrangling Garner to the ground.

In the wake of this non-indictment, a surprising coalition of detractors has emerged. Not just black and brown students hitting the streets in protest but conservative stalwarts, like Bill O’Reilly or John Boehner, criticizing the lack of justice. Even George W. Bush weighed in, calling the grand jury’s decision “sad.” But even though many find Garner’s death wrong, others refuse to believe that race played a role.

His death was the result of overzealous policing, a series of bad individual choices. It would have happened to a white guy. The same way in Cleveland, a 12-year-old Black boy named Tamir Rice was killed by officers for playing with a toy gun. An unfortunate tragedy, but not racial. Any white kid playing with a realistic-looking toy gun would have been killed too.

Darren Wilson has been unrepentant about taking Mike Brown’s life. He insists he could not have done anything differently. Daniel Pantaleo has offered condolences to the Garner family, admitting that he “feels very bad” about Garner’s death.

“It is never my intention to harm anyone,” he said.

I don’t know which is worse, the unrepentant killer or the man who insists to the end that he meant well.

A year ago, outside the Orange County airport, a white woman cut in front of me at the luggage check. She had been standing next to me, and soon as the luggage handlers called next, she swooped up her things and went to the counter. She’d cut me because I was black. Or maybe because I was young. Maybe she was running late for her flight or maybe she was just rude. She would’ve cut me if I had been a white woman like her. She would’ve cut me if I had been anyone.

Of course, the woman ended up on my flight, and of course, she was seated right next to me. Before the flight took off, she turned to me and said, “I’m sorry if I cut you earlier. I didn’t see you standing there.”

I often hear good white people ask why people of color must make everything about race, as if we enjoy considering racism as a motivation. I wish I never had to cycle through these small interactions and wonder: Am I overthinking? Am I just being paranoid? It’s exhausting.

“It was a lot simpler in the rural South,” my mother tells me. “White people let you know right away where you stood.”

The problem is that you can never know someone else’s intentions. And sometimes I feel like I live in a world where I’m forced to parse through the intentions of people who have no interest in knowing mine. A grand jury believed that Darren Wilson was a good officer doing his job. This same grand jury believed than an eighteen-year-old kid in a monstrous rage charged into a hailstorm of bullets toward a cop’s gun.

Wilson described Michael Brown as a black brute, a demon. No one questioned Michael Brown’s intentions. A stereotype does not have complex, individual motivations. A stereotype, treated as such, can be forced into whatever action we expect.

I spent a four hour flight trying not to wonder about the white woman’s intentions. But why would she think about mine? She didn’t even see me.

In elementary school, my older sister came home one day crying. She had learned about the Ku Klux Klan in class that day and she was afraid that men in white hoods would attack us. My father told her there was nothing to worry about.

“If a Klansman sat at this table right now,” he said, “I’d laugh right in his face.”

My mother tells stories of Klansmen riding at night, of how her grandmother worried when the doctor’s son—a white boy—visited her youngest sister because she feared the Klan would burn down their home. When I was a child, I only saw the Klan in made-for-TV civil rights movies or on theatrical episodes of Jerry Springer. My parents knew what we would later learn, that in the nineties, in our California home, surrounded by good white people, we had more to fear than racism that announces itself.

We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become. So we expect racism to appear, cartoonishly evil like a Disney villain. As if a racist cop is one who wakes in the morning, twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands together as he plots how to destroy black lives.

I don’t think Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo set out to kill Black men. I’m sure the cops who arrested my father meant well. But what good are your good intentions if they kill us?

When my friends and I discuss people we dislike, we often end our conversations with, “But he means well.”

We always land here, because we want to affirm ourselves as fair, non-judgmental people who examine a person not only by what he does but also by what he intends to. After all, aren’t all of us standing in the gap between who we are and who we try to be? Isn’t it human to allow those we dislike—even those who harm us—a residence in this space as well?

“You know what? He means well,” we say. We lean on this, and the phrase is so condescending, so cloyingly sweet, so hollow, that I’d almost rather anyone say anything else about me than how awful I am despite how good I intend to be.

I think about this during a car ride last weekend with my dad, where he tells me what happened once the cops finally realized they had arrested the wrong man. They picked him up from the curb, brushed him off.

“Sorry, buddy,” an officer said, unlocking his handcuffs.

They’d made an honest mistake. He’d fit the description. Well, of course he did. The description is always the same. The police escorted my father onto the road. My father, not yet my father, drove all the way home without remembering to turn his headlights on.

Brit Bennett recently earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at the the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. She is currently a Zell Postgraduate Fellow, where she is working on her first novel.

Across the borders with Canada: Rising deaths among white middle-aged Americans

‘The American dream is dead but I’m going to make it stronger!’? Promises of the Presidential candidates

The border

You feel your whiteness properly at the American border. Most of the time being white is an absence of problems. The police don’t bother you so you don’t notice the police not bothering you. You get the job so you don’t notice not getting it. Your children are not confused with criminals. I live in downtown Toronto, in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in one of the most open cities in the world, where multiculturalism is the dominant civic value and the inert virtue of tolerance is the most prominent inheritance of the British empire, so if you squint you can pretend the ancient categories are dissipating into a haze of enlightenment and intermarriage.

Not at the border.

My son’s Guyanese-Canadian teacher and the Muslim Milton scholar I went to high school with and the Sikh writer I squabble about Harold Innis with and my Ishmaeli accountant, we can all be good little Torontonians of the middle class, deflecting the differences we have been trained to respect. But in a car in the carbon monoxide-infused queue waiting to enter Detroit, their beings diverge drastically from mine.

I am white. They are not. They are vulnerable. I am not.

Here’s the thing: I like the guards at the American border. They’re always friendly with me, decent, even enjoyable company. At the booth in between the never-was of Windsor and the has-been of Detroit, the officer I happened to draw had a gruff belly and the mysterious air of intentional inscrutability, like a troll under a bridge in a fairytale.

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Burlington, Iowa.”

“Why would anyone ever choose to go to Burlington, Iowa?” he asked philosophically.

“I’m going to see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.” Then, because it did seem to require an explanation: “They’re giving rallies within a couple of days of each other.”

“Why would anyone ever choose to go see Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?”

I didn’t argue, because it was the border, but I could have said that the police chief of Birmingham estimated that 30,000 people showed up in Alabama to see Donald Trump in August and that in Dallas, he had filled the American Airlines Center, and that his counterpart, Bernie Sanders, has generated equally unprecedented numbers – vastly more than Barack Obama drew at comparable moments in the 2008 campaign.

“I’m curious,” I said instead.

At this point he asked me to roll down my window. But it was all fine. Like I said, I’m white.

As I drove through the outskirts of the ruins of Detroit, across the I-94, one of the ugliest highways in the United States, the old familiar lightness fluttered to my heart. I love America. America is not my mother. Canada is my mother. But America is an unbelievably gorgeous, surprisingly sweet rich lady who lives next door and appears to be falling apart. I cannot help myself from loving it.

For people who love to dwell in contradictions, the US is the greatest country in the world: the land of the free built on slavery, the country of law and order where everyone is entitled to a gun, a place of unimpeded progress where they cling to backwardness out of sheer stubbornness. And into this glorious morass, a new contradiction has recently announced itself: the white people, the privileged Americans, the ones who had the least to fear from the powers that be, the ones with the surest paths to brighter futures, the ones who are by every metric one of the most fortunate groups in the history of the world, were starting to die off in shocking numbers.

The Case and Deaton report, Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century, describes an increased death rate for middle-aged American whites “comparable to lives lost in the US Aids epidemic”. This spike in mortality is unique to white Americans – not to be found among other ethnic groups in the United States or any other white population in the developed world, a mysterious plague of despair.

In one way, it was easy to account for all this white American death – “drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis”, according to the report. It was not so easy to account for the accounting. Why were middle-aged white Americans drinking and drugging and shooting themselves to death? The explanations on offer were pre-prepared, fully plugged into confirmation bias: it was the economy or it was demography or it was godlessness or it was religion or it was the breakdown of the family or it was the persistence of antique values or it was the lack of social programs or it was the dependence on social programs.

Case and Deaton call it “an epidemic of pain”. Fine. What does that mean?

On the I-94, you do find yourself asking: what the fuck is wrong with these people? I mean, aside from the rapid decline of the middle class obviously. And the rise of precarious work and the fact that the basic way of life requires so much sedation that nearly a quarter of all Americans are on psychiatric drugs, and somewhere between 26.4 and 36 million Americans abuse opioids every day. Oh yes, and the mass shootings. There was more than one mass shooting a day. And the white terrorists targeting black churches again. And the regularly released videos showing the police assassinating black people. And the police in question never being indicted, let alone being sent to jail.

And you know what Americans were worried about while all this shit was raining down on them? While all this insanity was wounding their beloved country? You know what their number one worry was, according to poll after poll after poll?

Muslims. Muslims, if you can believe it.

‘The American dream is dead but I’m going to make it stronger!’

My body is white and it is male. It is six foot tall and weighs 190lb. It is 39 years old and it has had to start running. It has had to start counting calories. There is a tingle in the joint of my right thigh, so I try not to think about my body. The tingling comes and goes. I know my body is going to kill me.

“A man who fears suffering already suffer what he fears,” as Montaigne said. That’s one of the reasons why men die so much younger than women – six years younger on average in America. Ninety-two percent of men say they wait at least a few days to see if they feel better before they go to a doctor, but I know what they mean by a few days. They mean a few more days than makes sense. It is hard to have a male and white body and to conceive of its weakness. In the same breath, my body cannot bring itself to believe it is the personification of power, though it evidently is in any rational accountancy of social status. It feels like a mere body. It feels mortal.

Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD

French children don’t need medications to control their behavior.
Posted Mar 08, 2012

In the United States, at least 9 percent of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and are taking pharmaceutical medications. In France, the percentage of kids diagnosed and medicated for ADHD is less than .5 percent. How has the epidemic of ADHD—firmly established in the U.S.—almost completely passed over children in France?

Is ADHD a biological-neurological disorder? Surprisingly, the answer to this question depends on whether you live in France or in the U.S. In the United States, child psychiatrists consider ADHD to be a biological disorder with biological causes. The preferred treatment is also biological—psycho stimulant medications such as Ritalin and Adderall.

French child psychiatrists, on the other hand, view ADHD as a medical condition that has psycho-social and situational causes. Instead of treating children’s focusing and behavioral problems with drugs, French doctors prefer to look for the underlying issue that is causing the child distress—not in the child’s brain but in the child’s social context. They then choose to treat the underlying social context problem with psychotherapy or family counseling. This is a very different way of seeing things from the American tendency to attribute all symptoms to a biological dysfunction such as a chemical imbalance in the child’s brain.

French child psychiatrists don’t use the same system of classification of childhood emotional problems as American psychiatrists. They do not use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM. According to Sociologist Manuel Vallee, the French Federation of Psychiatry developed an alternative classification system as a resistance to the influence of the DSM-3. This alternative was the CFTMEA (Classification Française des Troubles Mentaux de L’Enfant et de L’Adolescent), first released in 1983, and updated in 1988 and 2000. The focus of CFTMEA is on identifying and addressing the underlying psychosocial causes of children’s symptoms, not on finding the best pharmacological bandaids with which to mask symptoms.

To the extent that French clinicians are successful at finding and repairing what has gone awry in the child’s social context, fewer children qualify for the ADHD diagnosis. Moreover, the definition of ADHD is not as broad as in the American system, which, in my view, tends to “pathologize” much of what is normal childhood behavior. The DSM specifically does not consider underlying causes. It thus leads clinicians to give the ADHD diagnosis to a much larger number of symptomatic children, while also encouraging them to treat those children with pharmaceuticals.

The French holistic, psychosocial approach also allows for considering nutritional causes for ADHD-type symptoms—specifically the fact that the behavior of some children is worsened after eating foods with artificial colors, certain preservatives, and/or allergens. Clinicians who work with troubled children in this country—not to mention parents of many ADHD kids—are well aware that dietary interventions can sometimes help a child’s problem. In the U.S., the strict focus on pharmaceutical treatment of ADHD, however, encourages clinicians to ignore the influence of dietary factors on children’s behavior.

And then, of course, there are the vastly different philosophies of child-rearing in the U.S. and France. These divergent philosophies could account for why French children are generally better-behaved than their American counterparts. Pamela Druckerman highlights the divergent parenting styles in her recent book, Bringing up Bébé. I believe her insights are relevant to a discussion of why French children are not diagnosed with ADHD in anything like the numbers we are seeing in the U.S.

From the time their children are born, French parents provide them with a firm cadre—the word means “frame” or “structure.” Children are not allowed, for example, to snack whenever they want. Mealtimes are at four specific times of the day. French children learn to wait patiently for meals, rather than eating snack foods whenever they feel like it. French babies, too, are expected to conform to limits set by parents and not by their crying selves. French parents let their babies “cry it out” (for no more than a few minutes of course) if they are not sleeping through the night at the age of four months.

French parents, Druckerman observes, love their children just as much as American parents. They give them piano lessons, take them to sports practice, and encourage them to make the most of their talents. But French parents have a different philosophy of discipline. Consistently enforced limits, in the French view, make children feel safe and secure. Clear limits, they believe, actually make a child feel happier and safer—something that is congruent with my own experience as both a therapist and a parent. Finally, French parents believe that hearing the word “no” rescues children from the “tyranny of their own desires.” And spanking, when used judiciously, is not considered child abuse in France. (Author’s note: I am not personally in favor of spanking children).

As a therapist who works with children, it makes perfect sense to me that French children don’t need medications to control their behavior because they learn self-control early in their lives. The children grow up in families in which the rules are well-understood, and a clear family hierarchy is firmly in place. In French families, as Druckerman describes them, parents are firmly in charge of their kids—instead of the American family style, in which the situation is all too often vice versa.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.


In David Bowie coverage, the media forgot to mention a major aspect of the rockstar’s life

The news of David Bowie’s death, at 69, from cancer, broke late Sunday night.

Most people in the US awoke to read the news, and Monday was filled with hurriedly published obituaries, and then appreciations from critics, fans, and celebrities and notables from all over the world.

Bowie was a rock star of some note. He broadened the musical and thematic borders of the 1970s with a series of garish stage characters—personae, the critics called it—who played all manner of music.

The doomed rocker Ziggy Stardust; the transvestite on the cover of the album Hunky Dory; the epicene Aladdin Sane (a pun on “a lad insane”); the swellegant Thin White Duke, with his self-styled “plastic soul.”

And that was just the 1970s, before he moved firmly into the mainstream with his MTV-friendly “Let’s Dance” phase and the following several decades as beloved elder statesman of rock.

One aspect of Bowie’s life was left out of much of the tributary coverage, however. You could read Jon Pareles’ obituary in The New York Times Monday morning and not learn that Bowie was the first major rock star to say he was gay. You could read Elyssa Gardner* in USA Today and not hear about it, either. The obituary on CNN left it unsaid, as did the Wall Street Journal. Even hipper online outlets like Slate ignored that element of Bowie’s life in their obituaries.

What’s going on?

Bowie was already married and a recording artist when he first declared his sexuality to a British music journalist: “I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones” (his given name).

Later, he would allow that he was bisexual, and he always spoke frankly, even dismissively, about sexual matters in a way that was unique at the time.
Embed from Getty Images

This aspect of his life, too, was ignored in most major obituaries. A CNN report, for example, went out of its way to mention Bowie’s involvement in a “schoolboy fight over a girl.” Bowie’s own contemporary version of his life then was much different. He told Playboy:

So it was some very pretty boy in class in some school or other that I took home and neatly fucked on my bed upstairs.

As he grew older, such talk became less a part of his public life. In the 1980s he told Rolling Stone he was a “closet heterosexual,” and, as all the obituaries noted, he was married to his second wife, the model Iman, the last 20 years of his life.

A few outlets took the time to put his sexuality into context—like this story in the New York Daily News, and this one, if somewhat backhandedly, in the Washington Post.

Later in the day, Slate posted another article discussing the singer’s sexuality from the point of view of gender studies.

Bowie’s openness and his gender-bending dress were a hugely important part of  music’s—and society’s—evolution. This would seem to be worth noting in an obituary.

It was also one other thing: illegal. (How relevant that can be?)

Britain’s attitude toward homosexuality has been historically severe. It was punishable by death into the 1800s. Oscar Wilde, a flamboyant celebrity much like Bowie, had been imprisoned and had his life destroyed for being gay.

Bowie was born in 1946. Even then, homosexual acts between men were still a good way to get thrown into prison. Alan Turing, the noted cryptologist who helped Britain win the Second World War, was chemically castrated for homosexuality. He committed suicide in 1954.

By midday on Monday, The New York Times posted a link to tributes to Bowie from around the world, including encomiums from “Madonna and the archbishop of Canterbury.”

‘The archbishop acknowledged,’ ” I cracked on Twitter, ” ‘that many of his predecessors would have enjoyed drawing and quartering Mr. Bowie.’ “

The country’s laws began to be relaxed in the mid-1960s, but homosexual acts were still criminalized when Bowie came out. They weren’t entirely decriminalized until 2000.
Embed from Getty Images
Rock and roll, for all its supposed honesty and thumb-in-your-eye attitudinalism toward societal mores, was never particularly open about being gay. Leaving aside ’50s rock pioneer Little Richard, whose sexuality might best be described as boundless, Bowie seems to have been the first major musician to talk publicly in a straightforward way.

A few years later, Elton John declared himself bisexual in a Rolling Stone interview; but, leaving aside certain disco performers, coming out still wasn’t seen as a good career move. One of the biggest bands of the 1970s and 1980s, Queen, had a closeted lead singer, Freddie Mercury; he died of AIDS in 1991.

His sexual orientation wasn’t mentioned in his Times obituary. A memorial concert held the following year with an impressive lineup of stars was billed as benefiting AIDS research, but during the actual show the disease, much less Mercury’s sexual orientation, was barely mentioned.

There were, of course, gay rockers along the way—Janis Joplin is widely thought to have been bisexual—but it was not spoken of at the time. In the last few decades, a few stars, notably the Who’s Pete Townshend and Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, have said they were bisexual during their early careers.

However rushed their obituaries might have been, journalism shouldn’t take pride in the work that resulted.

The coverage of the acclaimed life of David Bowie is one of those cases where ignorance and some misplaced niceties left a historic piece out of a celebrated life—and out of a much-persecuted group as well.

Correction: The original version of this story had the wrong name for the author of the USA Today piece.

Bill Wyman is a cultural critic for Al Jazeera America (currently closed or shut down), and the former arts editor of NPR and

No more physics and maths, Finland to stop teaching individual subjects

The future is all about learning by topic, not subject.


Finland, one of the leading educational hotspots in the world, is embarking on one of the most radical overhauls in modern education.

By 2020, the country plans to phase out teaching individual subjects such as maths, chemistry and physics, and instead teach students by ‘topics’ or broad phenomena, so that there’s no more question about “what’s the point of learning this?”

What does that mean exactly? Basically, instead of having an hour of geography followed by an hour of history, students will now spend, say, two hours learning about the European Union, which covers languages, economics, history and geography.

Or students who are taking a vocational course might study ‘cafeteria services’, which would involve learning maths, languages and communication skills, as Richard Garner reports for The Independent.

So although students will still learn all the important scientific theories, they’ll be finding out about them in a more applied way, which actually sounds pretty awesome.

“What we need now is a different kind of education to prepare people for working life,” Pasi Silander, the Helsinki’s development manager, told Garner.

Young people use quite advanced computers. In the past the banks had lots of bank clerks totting up figures but now that has totally changed. We therefore have to make the changes in education that are necessary for industry and modern society.”

The new system also encourages different types of learning, such as interactive problem solving and collaborating among smaller groups, to help develop career-ready skills.

“We really need a rethinking of education and a redesigning of our system, so it prepares our children for the future with the skills that are needed for today and tomorrow,” Marjo Kyllonen, Helsinki’s education manager, who is leading the change, told Garner.

“There are schools that are teaching in the old fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginnings of the 1900s – but the needs are not the same and we need something fit for the 21st century,” she added.

Individual subjects started being phased out for 16-year-olds in the country’s capital of Helsinki two years ago, and 70 percent of the city’s high school teachers are now trained in the new approach.

Early data shows that students are already benefitting, with The Independent reporting that measurable pupil outcomes have improved since the new system was introduced.

And Kyllonen’s blueprint, which will be published later this month, will propose that the new system is rolled out across Finland by 2020.

Of course, there is some backlash from teachers who’ve spent their entire career specializing in certain subjects.

But the new blueprint suggests that teachers from different backgrounds work together to come up with the new ‘topic’ curriculums, and will receive a pay incentive for doing so.

Finland already has one of the best education systems in the world, consistently falling near the top of the prestigious PISA rankings in math, science and reading, and this change could very well help them stay there.

Source: The Independent

Note 1: Need to have mathematicians able to model the phenomenon that the student are learning. Math is but the reflection of how the universe and human behave . Physics, chemistry, biology… are modelled mathematically.

Note 2: Fundamental to this new educational approach is instituting the experimental mind early on and encouraging working in labs and setting up experiments for everything they are learning.



18 books Warren Buffett thinks you should read

Nov 4 2015

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider.

When Warren Buffett started his investing career, he would read 600, 750, or 1,000 pages a day.

Even now, he still spends about 80% of his day reading.

“Look, my job is essentially just corralling more and more and more facts and information, and occasionally seeing whether that leads to some action,” he once said in an interview.

“We don’t read other people’s opinions,” he said. “We want to get the facts, and then think.”

To help you get into the mind of the billionaire investor, we’ve rounded up 18 of his book recommendations over 20 years of interviews and shareholder letters.

1. ‘The by Benjamin Graham

When Buffett was 19, he picked up a copy of legendary Wall Streeter Benjamin Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor.”

It was one of the luckiest moments of his life,he said, because it gave him the intellectual framework for investing.

“To invest successfully over a lifetime does not require a stratospheric IQ, unusual business insights, or inside information,”Buffett said. “What’s needed is a sound intellectual framework for making decisions and the ability to keep emotions from corroding that framework. This book precisely and clearly prescribes the proper framework. You must provide the emotional discipline.”


2. ‘Security Analysis’ by Benjamin Graham and David L. Dodd

Buffett said that “Security Analysis,” another groundbreaking work of Graham’s, had given him “a road map for investing that I have now been following for 57 years.”

The book’s core insight: If your analysis is thorough enough, you can figure out the value of a company — and if the market knows the same.

Buffett has said that Graham was the second most influential figure in his life, after only his father.

“Ben was this incredible teacher; I mean he was a natural,” he said.


3. ‘Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits’ by Philip Fisher

While investor Philip Fisher — who specialized in investing in innovative companies — didn’t shape Buffett in quite the same way as Graham did, Buffett still holds him in the highest regard.

“I am an eager reader of whatever Phil has to say, and I recommend him to you,” Buffett said.

In “Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits,” Fisher emphasizes that fixating on financial statements isn’t enough — you also need to evaluate a company’s management.


4. ‘Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises’ by Tim Geithner

Buffett says that the former US secretary of the Treasury’s book about the financial crisis is a must-read for any manager.

Lots of books have been written about how to manage an organization through tough times. Almost none are firsthand accounts of steering a wing of government through economic catastrophe.

“This wasn’t just a little problem on the fringes of the U.S. mortgage market,” Geithner writes. “I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I knew what financial crises felt like, and they felt like this.”


5. ‘The Essays of Warren Buffett’ by Warren Buffett

If you want to get to know the way Buffett thinks, go straight to the sage himself.

In this collection, he keeps it real — in his signature folksy-intellectual fashion.

“What could be more advantageous in an intellectual contest — whether it be chess, bridge, or stock selection — than to have opponents who have been taught that thinking is a waste of energy?” he asks.

Buy it here »

6. ‘Jack: Straight from the Gut’ by Jack Welch

In his 2001 shareholder letter, Buffett gleefully endorses “Jack: Straight from the Gut,” a business memoir of long-time GE executive Jack Welch, whom Buffett describes as “smart, energetic, hands-on.”

In commenting on the book, Bloomberg Businessweek wrote that “Welch has had such an impact on modern business that a tour of his personal history offers all managers valuable lessons.”

Buffett’s advice: “Get a copy!”

Buy it here »

7. ‘The Outsiders’ by William Thorndike Jr.

In his 2012 shareholder letter, Buffett praises “The Outsiders” as “an outstanding book about CEOs who excelled at capitalallocation.”

Berkshire Hathaway plays a major role in the book. One chapter is on director Tom Murphy, who Buffett says is “overall the best business manager I’ve ever met.”

The book — which finds patterns of success from execs at The Washington Post, Ralston Purina, and others — has been praised as “one of the most important business books in America” by Forbes.

Buy it here »

8. ‘The Clash of the Cultures’ by John Bogle

Bogle’s “The Clash of the Cultures” is another recommendation from the 2012 shareholder letter.

In it, Bogle — creator of the index fund and founder of the Vanguard Group, now managing upward of $3 trillion in assets — argues that long-term investing has been crowded out by short-term speculation.

But the book isn’t all argument. It finishes with practical tips, like:

1. Remember reversion to the mean. What’s hot today isn’t likely to be hot tomorrow. The stock market reverts to fundamental returns over the long run. Don’t follow the herd.

2. Time is your friend, impulse is your enemy. Take advantage of compound interest and don’t be captivated by the siren song of the market. That only seduces you into buying after stocks have soared and selling after they plunge.

Buy it here »

9. ‘Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street’ by John Brooks

In 1991, Bill Gates asked Buffett for his favorite book.

In reply, Buffett sent the Microsoft founder his personal copy of “Business Adventures,” a collection of New Yorker stories by John Brooks.

Gates says that the book serves as a reminder that the principles for building a winning business stay constant. He wrote:

For one thing, there’s an essential human factor in every business endeavor. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfect product, production plan and marketing pitch; you’ll still need the right people to lead and implement those plans.

The book has become a media darling in recent years; Slate wrote that it’s “catnip for billionaires.”

Buy it here »

10. ‘Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?’ by Fred Schwed

“The funniest book ever written about investing,” Warren Buffett proclaimed in his 2006 shareholder letter, “it lightly delivers many truly important messages on the subject.”

First published in 1940, the book takes its title from a story about a visitor to New York who saw the bankers’ and brokers’ yachts and asked where the customers’ were. Obviously, they couldn’t afford them — the people providing the financial advice were in a better position to splurge than the people who followed the advice.

The book is filled with irreverent wisdom and colorful anecdotes about Wall Street, and remains compelling even today.

Buy it here »

11. ‘Essays in Persuasion’ by John Maynard Keynes

This collection of writings by the legendary economist has remained a staple of financial literature since it was published nearly a century ago.

In Buffett’s opinion, it’s required reading.

“Reading Keynes will make you smarter about securities and markets,” he told Outstanding Investor Digest in 1989. “I’m not sure reading most economists would do the same.”

The collection includes the famous essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which Keynes predicted that today’s generation would only work 15 hours a week.

You can read the full text online.

Buy it here »

12. ‘The Little Book of Common Sense Investing’ by Jack Bogle

In his 2014 shareholder letter, Buffett recommended reading this book over listening to the advice of most financial advisers.

Based on his own experience working with Vanguard clients, Bogle attempts to help readers use index investing to build wealth.

Fans say it’s far from boring, and the stats and charts are balanced with anecdotes and advice.

Buy it here »

13. ‘Poor Charlie’s Almanack’ edited by Peter Kaufman

This collection of advice from Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, got the ultimate shout-out in Buffett’s 2004 shareholder letter.

“Scholars have for too long debated whether Charlie is the reincarnation of Ben Franklin,” Buffett wrote. “This book should settle the question.”

The book includes biographical information about Munger as well as summaries of his philosophy on investing and talks Munger gave at Berkshire Hathaway meetings and elsewhere.

One such talk is called the “Psychology of Human Misjudgment,” in which Munger writes about the cognitive traps that trip up investors.

Buy it here »

14. ‘The Most Important Thing Illuminated’ by Howard Marks

Marks, chairman and cofounder of Oak Tree Capital, intended to wait until he retired to write this book, as noted in a 2011 Barron’s review. But Buffett so admired Marks’ client memos that he offered to write a dust-jacket blurb if Marks would publish the book sooner.

The result is “a rarity, a useful book,” Buffett reportedly said.

Marks aims to help investors achieve success by putting more thought into their decisions, drawing heavily on his own mistakes and what he learned from them.

Buy it here »

15. ‘Dream Big’ by Cristiane Correa

Here Correa tells the story of the three Brazilians who founded 3G Capital, an investment firm that joined Buffett in purchasing HJ Heinz in 2013.

Buffett recommended the book at the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting.

In an interview with The New York Times, Correa highlighted the main principles of 3G’s management style — meritocracy and cost-cutting — that paved the way for their current success.

“They trust in people and they let their teams work,” she said.

Buy it here »

16. ‘First a Dream’ by Jim Clayton and Bill Retherford

Jim Clayton grew up the son of a sharecropper in Tennessee and eventually went on to found Clayton Homes, currently the largest producer and seller of manufactured housing in the US.

Buffett credits Clayton’s autobiography with inspiring him to invest in Clayton Homes in 2003. In his 2003 shareholder letter, he wrote that the book was a gift to him from students at the University of Tennessee. Buffett told the students how much he enjoyed the book, and they urged him to call Kevin Clayton, Jim’s son and the company’s CEO, to deliver the praise directly.

“Soon thereafter, I made an offer for the business based solely on Jim’s book, my evaluation of Kevin, the public financials of Clayton,” and his experience buying “distressed junk” from Oakwood Homes, a retailer of manufactured homes that he later purchased after it filed for bankruptcy.

It’s worth noting that Fast Company reported the deal between Berkshire Hathaway and Clayton Homes was a little more complicated than that.

In his “rags to riches” tale, Clayton shares lessons on business and leadership for current and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Buy it here »

17. ‘Take on the Street’ by Arthur Levitt

In Buffett’s 2002 shareholder letter, he explains “how accounting standards and audit quality have eroded in recent years.” Specifically, he cites the downfall of Arthur Andersen accounting.

“The details of this sordid affair are related in Levitt’s excellent book, Take on the Street,” Buffett writes.

A former chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Levitt not only includes candid anecdotes, but also offers everyday investors ways to protect themselves from Wall Street.

Buy it here »

18. ‘Nuclear Terrorism’ by Graham Allison

According to Allison, founding dean of Harvard’s modern John F. Kennedy School of Government, a nuclear attack on the US is inevitable — unless we change our political strategy.

He argues that the new international security order must be built upon “three No’s”: no loose nukes, no new nascent nukes, and no new nuclear states.

In his 2004 shareholder letter, Buffett called it a “must-read for those concerned with the safety of our country.”

Buy it here »

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Shana Lebowitz is a strategy reporter for Business Insider. Drake Baer is the ideas editor at Tech Insider.

Image: Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett talks to reporters.REUTERS/Rick Wilking.


Obama’s cringe-worthy line claiming Middle East conflicts “date back millennia”

The highest political leader in the world decided to talk as a history emeritus buff on Islam history instead of admitting that the US was the main culprit for this current wave of Islamic extremism in the last 3 decades.

Even Saudi Arabia, the most obscurantist of monarchies, admitted during the latest Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo that before Iran became an Islamist regime in 1979, the were no Sunni-Shia conflict in any Islamic State.

Sure, Saudi monarchy is lying through its teeth since it knows that the Shah of Iran was a greater threat at the time on the Arabic Peninsula.

In that Cold War period, nobody allied to the US would dare get out of line: Either you are in or out and borders were supposed to be respected and wars totally controlled.

If President Obama had any hopes of running for a third term, then he lost the international relations scholar vote on Tuesday night.

In the course of his State of the Union address, he repeated one of the biggest canards about how the Middle East works. Here’s the line that launched a thousand “actually”s:

As someone who begins every day with an intelligence briefing, I know this is a dangerous time. But that’s not because of diminished American strength or some looming superpower.

In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states. The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

As I pointed out on Twitter, before realizing that every PhD in my feed had beat me to it, the idea that Middle East conflicts “date back millennia” is straight-up factually wrong.

The Middle East’s conflicts almost all date to within the past century, and many have their roots within Obama’s own lifetime.

For example, most scholars date the start of today’s Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict not to the seventh century but rather to various events from 1979 onward.

Islamist extremism is mostly a modern revisionist phenomenon that is a reaction to specific modern-day events such as the Arab-Israeli conflicts and the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And so on.

But Obama’s line was worse than incorrect.

It risked perpetuating the widespread “ancient hatreds” myth that feeds two dangerous and mistaken beliefs about the Middle East:

1) that these people just hate each other because that’s how they are “over there,” and

2) that the problems run so deep that they can’t be solved and we shouldn’t bother trying.

It’s reductive and cynical because it paints a picture of the Middle East as perpetually at war because people there are just different.

Those are the kinds of ideas that lead people to fear Syrian refugees, to embrace bigotry against Muslim Americans, and to call, as Ted Cruz did, for “carpet bombing” vast civilian areas as the only solution to Mideast conflicts.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of thinking that Obama spent so much of his speech trying to counteract.

It was a very bad and regrettable line.

That said, I suspect it’s not just a coincidence that it seemed to contradict the entire rest of Obama’s speech. I’ve had many conversations with senior White House officials about the Middle East and heard them repeatedly and voluntarily rebut the “ancient hatreds” canard, making clear they see these conflicts as modern developments rooted in specific and modern day forces, not as “dating back millennia.”

I don’t know enough about the speechwriting process to explain how this line slipped through, given that it does not, based on my understanding, seem to reflect the White House’s or the president’s understanding of the Middle East. But it’s too bad that it did.

Behind Saudi Arabia’s bluster is a country that feels under grave threat

John Jenkins Jan. 9, 2016

Everybody suddenly seems to have an opinion about Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, until his execution on Saturday an obscure Saudi Shia cleric.

Once his death was announced, the airwaves exploded. As a former British ambassador to Riyadh still active in the region, I was asked several times to comment. On Monday morning Nick Robinson on the BBC’s Today programme suggested I might like to stop explaining what was in Saudi minds and simply condemn the act.

I understand the point of the question. But I have been wondering since then what exactly it is that I and others are being invited to condemn.

The fact of an execution, its nature, the Shia identity of the victim, his status as a cleric, that the Saudis still practise capital punishment, the nature of their judicial system, the timing of the act, the suspicion that it might undermine the peace process in Syria or infuriate Iran – or perhaps all of this and more?

Yet condemnation without understanding is futile. It is not enough to say that this is simply the result of the ascendancy of a new set of inexperienced senior princes. The reasons for Saudi – and Iranian – actions are structural.

Consider the context.

Saudi Arabia feels with good reason more threatened than at any time in its modern history, at least since the subversive Kulturkampf of the 1950s and 1960s from Nasser’s Egypt. This stems from five sources:

1.  first, the challenge of Sunni and largely Salafi jihadism;

2. second, the sustained ideological and material challenge of the Islamic Republic of Iran;

3.  third, the collapse of large parts of the Middle East state system following the Arab spring;

4. fourth, a sharp fall in global energy prices; and

5.  fifth, a sense that historical alliances – notably but not only with the United States – are fraying.

These threats are real.

A decade or so ago, the heirs to Juhaiman al-Otaybi’s 1979 Grand Mosque attackers, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, launched a terror campaign within the kingdom with the aim of inspiring a general Sunni insurgency. The Saudis were slow to realise what they were facing. Once they did, they mobilised and ruthlessly crushed the terrorists. But they did not go away.

The remnants regrouped in Yemen and from there plotted, recruited others (including the American imam Anwar al-Awlaki) and directed further attacks, against Western and Saudi targets. More recently there has been a wave of attacks, claimed by Islamic State, mostly on Shia targets – but also on security forces and a Sunni mosque at a military base near the Yemeni border.

The threat from Iran is of longer standing but has waxed and waned over time. Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed that the revolution of 1979 was not just Iranian or Shia but Islamic and global, come to rescue Frantz Fanon’s damnés de la terre – suffering subaltern humanity – from their oppressors. There was widespread unrest fomented by Tehran in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

A variety of revolutionary Shia groups emerged across the Middle East, including the Islamic Action Organisation, the Front for the Islamic Revolution in the Eastern Arabian Peninsula, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, Hezbollah in the Hejaz and, most notoriously, Hezbollah in Lebanon. An attempt was made on the life of the Kuwaiti emir, Kuwaiti airliners were hijacked, the French and US embassies in Kuwait, and in Beirut the US embassy and US and French barracks were attacked by suicide bombers.

This eventually calmed down under the pressures of real-world politics. The Saudis liked it when pragmatists such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami became president in Iran. But experience confirmed that security policy remained in the hands of hardliners. And the apocalyptic populism of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad brought back the threat of an exported revolution.

The disturbances in Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, the Eastern Province in 2011 confirmed for the Saudis that whether they started it or not (probably not), the Iranians would always be willing accomplices to social and political unrest in the Sunni states of the Gulf. Tehran’s rather clumsy attempts at a rapprochement with Mohammed Morsi’s government in Cairo in 2012/13 alarmed the Saudis further (needlessly, as it turned out) because it raised the possibility of a renewed alliance between Shia and Sunni Islamists in the region’s two most populous countries.

They saw further proof of the threat in Iranian support for the Houthi insurrection in Yemen and the capture of large parts of the Iraqi state by Iranian agents of influence. The cap was the direct Iranian/Hezbollah intervention on the side of the murderous Assad regime in Syria.

This has all contributed to the sectarianisation of political conflict in the Middle East. This is not a product of recent Saudi state policy, as some have suggested. As we see from its rapid and visible reaction to attacks inside the kingdom on Shia targets, the government sees domestic sectarian division as a national security concern. Nor is it the inevitable result of age-old enmities (an idea that is generally tripe). There is undoubtedly deep popular anti-Shia prejudice. And Shias have indeed been disadvantaged in many Sunni states and communities. Iran has claimed to be their protector since the 17th century.

Arguments about precisely what role Shiaism and Shia mujtahids (jurisprudents) should play in the regulation of the righteous state go back even further. But this usually produced communal quietism and the defence of religious, not political rights. The critical inflection point was the dramatic political mobilisation of the Iranian Revolution, which gave life to a thousand forms of adversarial, transnational and often violent Shia activism, including those that seem to have inspired Sheikh Nimr.

Now the Saudis face a period of sustained low energy prices at a time when the costs of a newly interventionist and expeditionary foreign policy are rising dramatically and when the need to restructure the economy to create perhaps an extra four million new jobs by 2020 has become urgent. At the same time they know that a small but significant section of the Sunni population of the kingdom is vulnerable to the dark seductions of Islamic State, because they regard it as more legitimately Islamic, or as the only organised Sunni group pushing back against Iran, the Shia, or both. There is no clear link between economic deprivation and radicalisation. But the former doesn’t help if it leads to idle hands and claims of social injustice.

To cap it all, the Iranian nuclear deal angered the Saudis not because it was a nuclear deal but because it was simply a nuclear deal, failing in their view to address malign and subversive non-nuclear Iranian activities in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and rewarding Iran prematurely. They have felt very abandoned by the US and other Western states. And they believe the apparent pragmatism of the Rowhani government is a façade, offering privileged access in return for the suspension of any critical faculty.

That makes the issue of the Vienna peace talks on Syria secondary. There will certainly be an impact. Yet it is not as if the Saudis had disguised their deep scepticism. They had been pressured to sit with the Iranians, but they had also insisted on continuing to support opposition forces in the field and have not wavered in their insistence that Assad needs to go.

You might think this is all special pleading. But before you say that the matter is a straightforward one of a benighted justice system administering medieval punishments to dissidents, reflect on this. Sheikh Nimr advocated the destruction of the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the secession of the Eastern Province. His version of a righteous Islamic state is not a thousand miles from that of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (and a long way from the non-takfiri, non-caliphal, neo-Westphalian pragmatism of the Saudi state). He called for wilayat al-faqih, the heterodox Guardianship of the Jurisprudent espoused by Khomeini.

The vengeful early years of the Islamic Republic, when clerics who previously would not have hurt a fly enthusiastically participated in the judicial murder of thousands in the name of righteousness, show some of the consequences. So does the arrest and humiliating mistreatment in 1982 of the venerable Ayatollah Shariatmadari, who stood up to Khomeini and dared to object to the implementation of any Islamic hudud punishments in the absence of the Hidden Imam. So does the continued rate of executions in Iran (nearly 700 by July last year, according to Amnesty International) and the Islamic Republic’s own treatment of dissidents – and, indeed, of the ordinary protesters of 1999, 2009 and 2011.

The signals the Saudi state sought to send by executing 43 Saudi Sunnis convicted of terrorism at the same time as Sheikh Nimr and his three fellow Shias reflected all of this. To their own citizens the message was: we shall enforce the judgment of the courts on all those who seek to undermine the stability of the kingdom and the legitimacy of its government, irrespective of sect, and on your behalf we shall resist Iranian expansionism and Islamic State predation with equal vigour. To Iran it was: Saudi citizens owe loyalty in tribal fashion to their king, not to foreign religious leaders or to some ideal of transnational Islamism, and we shall not tolerate interference. To the rest of the world it was: we shall not bend in the face of the storms raging round the region, if necessary alone.

Even allowing for all that, you might still think the execution of Sheikh Nimr unconscionable and that it should be condemned as a symbolic act of state brutality, visiting on one man and his three companions the fears of a community which might be better allayed by acts of patient policy. That would be a perfectly ethical position to hold. But it is not a policy. And understanding must still come first.

If we think that a large part of the reason for states lashing out is the fear in which they exist, then doing something to address that fear is a large part of the answer. In this case, that principally demands showing that we mean to enforce the Iranian nuclear deal rigorously – not hold off on additional measures against provocative missile testing (for instance) because the Iranians won’t like it (that’s the point); supporting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Iraq as he seeks to capitalise on success in Ramadi, slowly bring alienated Sunnis back into the fold and reduce the pernicious influence of the Shia militias; and push back firmly against Iranian meddling in Bahrain and Yemen, which may be exaggerated but exists.

Middle Eastern security won’t fix itself and stability needs sponsors. It won’t be easy. Iran is an important state and its reintegration into the regional state system would be a huge achievement. But this reintegration depends on its own actions. In the meantime we need to recognise where our real interests lie. We have huge interests at stake in the Sunni states of the Gulf. And the state system in the region will be the basis of any conceivable future political stability.

So, we need to engage with the likes of Saudi Arabia as these states search for ­solutions to the challenges they face. We can’t simply stand back, wring our hands, say it’s all too messy and in any case it’s their own fault – and then profess to be appalled by the consequences.

John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He is now executive director (Middle East) of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is based in Bahrain





January 2016

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