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Now that The King's Speech is the prohibitive favorite to win Oscar best-picture glory, the attacks on the film have begun in earnest.
I came away from the movie thinking it a wonderfully told story of a relationship between a man with a disability and a newfound friend who helped him overcome it. Period.
Christopher Hitchens, who tried his best to convince the world that Kissinger is a war criminal to no avail, has laid into The King's Speech as only he can - with a battering ram, wrecking ball and barrel of acid. You would think in HItch's obsession with historical inaccuracies in The King's Speech that the film is as dangerous and execrable as D.W. Griffth's The Birth of a Nation.
Hitchens reminds us of what many filmgoers would have known going into the cinema, that George VI's older brother, Edward VIII, was a quasi-Nazi (to put it charitably). And that Churchill did himself no favors arguing behind the scenes for Edward VIII's continuance on the throne after the nascent monarch had committed to marriage with a foreign, commoner divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson. This would rank among Winnie's many significant errors of judgment, along with Gallipoli, Dieppe and Churchill's fixation with colonial India - as any Churchill student would know.
Where the critics themselves err is in neglecting the historical context. Churchill's impotence in having his warnings about Hitler go unheeded until just months before the Battle of Britain derived far less from his ill-advised patronage of Edward VIII, than from his stubborn and very public insistence that Britian cling to India as a vassal state that the Exchequer could simply no longer afford. Long after its parting with Canada and Australasia, India alone remained as a gigantic colonial outpost in a 20th-century om which anti-colonialism was a defining theme.
So hidebound and overtly jingoistic was Churchill on this point - one that he made at public halls across England for most of the 1930s - that the British intelligensia had written Winnie off as something of a loonie in the years when storm clouds gathered over the Continent.
Detractors of The King's Speech who obsess over accuracy also err in declining to note that, in both the U.K. and America, the prospect of a second world war so soon after the catastrophic "war to end all wars," which claimed an unprecedented 8 million lives, was profoundly unpopular. Thus Chamberlain was greeted as a hero on return from his Munich capitulation. And it wasn't at all odd - though Hitchens would have it otherwise - that George VI would shower Chamberlain with public praise. For that matter, even the 1936 abdication was greeted on both sides of the pond more as a riveting entertainment than a crisis for the Church of England, British parliamentary tradition and the legitimacy of the House of Windsor. How romantic that a king would forsake the throne "for the woman he loved."
The King's Speech is true, if not entirely accurate. And that so often is the case with superb storytelling. The film isn't, nor was meant to be, a Barbara Tuchman tour-de-force on the folly of man stumbling into a war, this time a conflict that would take more than 50 million lives.
In watching and listening to George VI open the 1938 Empire Exhibition at Ibrox Park, Glasgow, one can see the truth of how greatly improved his oratory had become thanks to his work with his pioneering speech-therapist friend from Australia. And it occurs to me that, in best serving the King, his speechwriters should have kept George VI's addresses to about four minutes' length. It's a bit unnerving, I must say as an occasional public speaker myself, to talk at length without interruption by applause or appreciative laughter. One's confidence soon enough erodes, and the quality of the oratory with it. But as in a house of worship, where one does not applaud even the most compelling sermon or eulogy (the African-American church excepted), it was not the done thing to show appreciation for The King's Speech. Though on Oscar night, an exception might be made.
The King's Speech: Let the backlash begin. (L.A. Times)
The U.S. alone has 22 official intelligence agencies, plus the ones we know nothing about. There are scores of intelligence operations worldwide, from the venerable MI6 to Mossad to the personal national-security advisor to Robert Mugabe.
And what do they have in common, along with their diplomatic-service comrades-in-arms?
They failed to forecast the uprising in Egypt - hard to miss, you would think, since it's taking place not just in Cairo and Alexandria but throughout that country.
And, once again, the "great powers" have no idea how to react. Which plainly reveals they hoped no such thing would happen. The West has benefited from the political and economic stability ensured by decades of dictatorial rule throughout the Mideast (democratic Israel obviously excepted), and from Washington to Tokyo to Ottawa to Berlin, we've liked the status quo.
Egypt is Israel's one quasi-ally in the region, save for tiny Jordan. It keeps the Suez Canal and its 6% of total world shipping open and safe. It even committed a sizeable contingent of troops to the explusion of Saddam from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War.
Odd thing, the student-based unrest percolating in Iran has been an object of fascination in Western capitals for years. Yet not so the growing youth-led dissident movement in Egypt. With the biggest population (84 million) and armed forces in the Arab world, you would think Egypt bears watching.
Why that disparity?
Because we want the theocracy in Tehran toppled. Mubarak, by contrast, is our friend - even if he has long been a repressive thug. Shimon Peres, the Israeli PM, went so far yesterday as to reassert his continued respect for Mubarak. That was a rare bit of candor piercing the latent cynicism throughout the West, which may have its moral qualms about Mubarak's regime but has never doubted his importance in holding the line against an upheaval that might destabilize the entire region and translate into soaring pump prices for Ohioans. That would be the outcome with a rise to power of a new regime in Cairo not to the West's liking.
All of which is drenched in hypocrisy.
But putting that aside, why do the world's ultra-sophisticated intel agencies, hugely expensive to maintain, keep missing the game-changing events of our times? The ouster of the Shah of Iran in 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that same year, and Moscow's humilating defeat there a decade later. The implications of a Taliban regime in Kabul, including its sheltering of a new terrorist group calling itself The Branch, or al-Qaeda. The Tiananmen Square protests and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Rwandan genocide, and the eruption of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans. The 9/11 attacks. The terrorist attacks on Madrid and London. The rise of Hamas in Palestinian Authority elections that Dubya and Rice surely would not have urged on the Palestinians had they correctly guessed the outcome. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The global financial maelstrom that same year, triggering the Great Recession and lingering sovereign-debt scares across Europe.
If the Egyptian army eventually sides with the dissidents, Mubarak's secular, pro-Western, Israel-benign regime may give way to an agreeable status quo embellished by a movement toward democracy, income and gender equality, and other stuff of which "Partridge Family" episodes were made.
Then again, religious and/or nationalist extremists may replace the incumbent autocracy with an even more disagreeable one. An anti-West, anti-Israel theocracy, perhaps, and no less intent on acquiring nuclear weapons than its counterpart in Tehran. What's our response to that? Have we war-gamed it?
The fall of Mubarak, no spring chicken at 82, was to be anticipated. And also the consequences. But it appears neither was.
So here we are with no contingency plans for a Mubarak-free Egypt except scrambling to get our nationals out of the Arab world's largest country. It follows that unpopular dictatorial regimes throughout the region are now in a state of high anxiety, coping with milder but disturbing uprisings of their own. Who knows in what dangerous ways they might react - dangerous to their own people and to the region? Israel, of course, is terrified at the sudden possibility of a virulent anti-Jewish state emerging in Egypt and won't be passive about a threat across the Sinai.
All this we were not prepared for. Which, if you're the sort who worries about Big Brother, should be at least mildly reassuring. Big Brother most decidedly has not been watching.
Just the same, I want a refund on that portion of my tax dollars that goes to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). I'd have been better prepared by monitoring Twitter traffic between Port Said and Aswan this past year.
Anti-American sentiment beginning to surface among demonstrators, angry at Washington's long-time support of Mubarak. (L.A. Times)
I long ago learned, over 30 years of working in business journalism, that the one thing businesspeople hate is uncertainty. That's it.
Natural disasters, coup d'etats, abrupt and drastic changes in regulatory regimes about which they've had no warning, that's nerve-wracking. An onerous status quo, not nearly so much, as long as they know what they're dealing with.
Businesspeople can cope with tax regimes that ask them to pay their fair share, with stiffer board of directors oversight of the CEO, with having to give state enterprises a cut of the action (usually 50%) and a whack of their proprietary technology in order to crack Chinese and other offshore markets, and with regulations. Indeed, for the sake of obliging all players to follow the same rules, business leaders generally crave regulation. And, of course, many regulations create new business. For example, requirements that power utilities upgrade their facilities to be less polluting is a boon for makers of "smokestack scrubbers" that remove toxins from power-plant emissions.
Regulatory reform - the creation of new regulators and revamping of existing ones to perform more effectively - is so much a part of the Obama agenda that Bloomberg BusinessWeek sees profit to be had from launching a quarterly magazine insert on the topic, called The Regulator. Which asserts that:
Executives complain about unelected bureaucrats complicating their lives and siphoning profits. Yet most large corporations long ago learned to live with regulation. Sometimes they even demand it. "Everyone thinks the business community hates regulations. Not only is that not true, it couldn't be further from the truth," says R. Bruce Josten, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's top lobbyist...
Companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill are asking regulators to rename as "corn sugar" the oft-maligned sweetner known as "high-fructose corn syrup." Industrial consumers of electricity such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical and Alcoa want Washington to re-regulate power markets. And utilities Duke Energy and PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric] last year backed climate change legislation to dispel the uncertainty complicating multibillion-dollar investments in new plants.
To be sure, industrial polluters lobby for the right kind of regulations, and the Sierra Club, for its part, also lobbies for the right regulations. That's how Norman Augustine, then-CEO of defense contractor Martin Marietta Corp., itself a major lobbyist, could ask "How did Washington end up with more lobbyists than Cairo has flies? Cairo got first pick."
So, business whinging to the contrary, regulations are dearly sought in hopes they will benefit one special interest or another, or at least "level the playing field" for all participants in an industry. Far worse to most businesspeople are regulations that are enforced sporadically (which makes their occasional enforcement seem arbitrary) or are enforced selectively - on certain polluters, while others are given a free pass for reasons unknown. Far worse, also, are "anything goes" zones in the economy where there are no regulations, and competitors are constantly blindsided by rivals operating according to rules of their own creation.
"Regulation" has come to mean protecting consumers from price-gouging and defective products, protecting the natural environment for the welfare of all living things, protecting employees from unsafe workplaces, and so on. Regulation, dating from pre-Colonial days, has also always meant protecting businesspeople from each other. It has also meant carving out special advantage for certain industries through lobbying and campaign and other payoffs - corruption, in other words, that must vigilantly identified and eradicated. But regulations themselves - or "regs" - have always been principally a safeguard for all participants in a free market.
As any candid businessperson will tell you.
Well, that didn't take long. Obama last Tuesday hinted at pushing for a reduction in America's 35% top corporate tax rate, calling it "ridiculous" in comparison with more competitive, lower rates elsewhere.
Yes, but as we all know, few corporations pay the 35% tax rate, or they wouldn't have all those phalanxes of corporate tax lawyers on the payroll.
Bloomberg Business Week was fast to report that "U.S. multinationals paid 26% on average, slightly more than the global average of 25%." That's based on a University of North Carolina study of U.S. multinationals' effective tax rates between 2003 and 2007. Effective meaning taxes after credits, subsidies, deductions, shifting profits to tax havens and other loopholes.
To bring it home, here's the effective tax rate for some giant U.S. firms averaged over 2005-2009:
General Electric Co., 11.5%; Pfizer Inc., 18.7%; Cisco Systems, 21.6%; Johnson & Johnson Inc., 22.8%; Bank of America Corp., 24.7%; Caterpillar Inc., 24.7%; Microsoft Corp., 26.7%; United Technologies, 27.5%; Apple Inc., 28.5 %; and Wells Fargo & Co., 30.9%.
Count on Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE and now moonlighting as a top Obama economic advisor, to strongarm Obama's economic team into still lower corporate tax rates. Lower, presumably, than the meagre 11.5% rate applied to GE through much of the past decade, during Immelt's watch.
Oh, you were wondering about the supposed lower, more advantageous, tax regimes for America's offshore corporate rivals? Well, BP PLC paid at a 33.8% rate, French grocery superstore operator at a 32% rate, and GE's European archival Siemens AG's effective tax rate was 31%.
Wish I was taxed at 11.5%.
This handy NYT chart tells the story of why reforming a tax code so heavily favoring Corporate America will be near impossible. Note that the official corporate tax rate of 35% doesn't apply to any of these firms.
About 10 years ago, there was an incident in the GTA in which a house was broken into with the occupants present. There followed a few months' worth of media reports about a trend in "home invasions."
About seven years ago, we were put on alert about "swarmings," in which gangs of malcontents mobbed unsuspecting pedestrians. About five years ago, a young girl on a street near mine in High Park was abducted and murdered. This tragedy was the talk of the city for about a year, as the case made its way to trial, accompanied by a multitude of broadcast and print reports about a child-abduction spectre.
For the past few years, the NYT has been front-paging about one dubious "trend" to readers per week. And Jack Shafer, media critic at Slate, has made something of a career of punching holes in them.
Here in the GTA, it has yet to be subsequently reported that the rate of home invasions, swarmings and child abductions in the GTA has not, in fact, increased from its rate prior to those isolated incidents. But then, the MSM rarely if ever does follow-up stories on false truths we have reported (with a megaphone) in order to correct a falsehood we disseminated that has diminished our readers' sense of personal and communal security. To say nothing of learning how we commit to these terrible judgments in the first place.
New "trends" are hatched every day by the MSM. The ones that resonate with us are the ones that scare us. We in the media do a great job highlighting fake trends, trends that will affect very few people, or are trivial. See the fashion and decor pages for the latter. All I know for sure about this year's it color is that it won't be next year's, which casts doubt on the world committing to the new shade, in turn knocking down the Style section's breathless front-page assertion that taupe is marshalling its forces on the horizon.
I expect the "tiger mom" trend of wise parents driving their children to academic proficiency, and other parents worrying they should follow suit, to be more durable than most. And it is healthy to debate where the line is between unrealistic expectations of children and irresponsible laxity in parenting.
Bear in mind, though, that this too shall pass. Just five years ago, the "new" conventional wisdom was that we were coddling our kids and obsessing overly about their academic and athletic achievements. We were smothering our kids with far too much attention, packing them off to science camp and enrolling them in enough structured extracurricular activities, from music lessons to ballet to soccer leagues, to leave them little time to take an unmonitored breath. And why not, given the undeniable phenomenon of the one- or two-child family? Our affluent society was turning out fewer kids per capita, so of course we paid each precious child more attention than perhaps we got as kids.
I recently was reminded of the inevitable backlash, or counter-trend, to that over-doting trend in updating my files. Specifically, I came across Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, interviewed by Maclean's editor-in-chief Kenneth Whyte, in the Sept. 11, 2006 edition of that national current-events journal. Among other observations, Kohn said:
Overwhelmingly, the research shows no academic advantage to homework, particularly for younger children. In fact, for younger children there isn't even a correlation between the amount of homework done and any measure of academic achievement...
At the high-school level, there is a correlation between homework done and standardized achievement measures, but the correlation is weak. It tends to fall apart when you use more sophisticated statistical methods, and in any case it doesn't show that homework was responsible for the increased achievement...
Is it justifiable to take kids who have just spent six or seven hours in school and force them to work a second shift, or should they have the right to get some rest, or get some exercise, or hang out with friends? The assumption that kids will be up to no good unless they have their free time structured for them represents a very dark and cynical view of kids and helps explain why so much busy-work is given to them.
As every family is different, so is every child. Some kids need an extra push, some need a sense of trust in them that comes from being left largely to their own devices. Some respond well to more than the average amount of positive reinforcement; others find a full measure of parental attention to be oppressive.
Again, this is debate worth having. But the only certainty about this issue is that Amy Chua, the Yale professor who wrote the recently released Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, is already one rich author. And that a counter-trend already is brewing somewhere to Chua's near-apocalyptic thesis that parents are allowing a generation of kids to be unprepared for the hyper-competitive 21st century.
Despite the youth-obesity spectre overlaying this newest one, I'm pretty sure the kids are okay. I'm not quite as sure about parents who carry so much guilt about their supposed failings even in the absence of unsolicited advice.
In amusing fashion, BBC America promotes itself in pre-show spots on its DVDs sold stateside. For starters, subscribing to the BBC America channel will teach you how to pronounce words correctly, and provide quality programming "to which you are no longer accustomed." Dating from the proliferation of reality TV, presumably.
David Olive is a business and current affairs columnist at the Star, which he joined in 2001 after stints at the Globe and Mail, National Post and Financial Post.
"If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion."
- George Bernard Shaw