RIP October 2018

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me." This adage should be remembered by everyone who supports one of the most precious freedoms we have: free speech. You don't like what he writes, she reads, I say? Then walk away. It's easy.

October’s obituary columns were dominated by one man for virtually the whole month – Jamal Khashoggi (pictured below). Khashoggi, a  Saudi Arabian journalist who was aged 59, entered the Istanbul consulate of Saudi Arabia on 2 October and has not been seen since. Unless he was spirited away by a UFO, he’s most certainly dead. Those are the only  established facts in his case; the rest is all rhetoric and – given that the rhetoric comes from two of the world’s most unpleasantly mendacious regimes, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – isn’t worth a tinker’s cuss. Bits of him may well be found in various woods around Istanbul, or down the city’s drains.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s President, has been stirring the Khashoggi pot for his own reasons, drip-feeding information concerning the journalist into the public domain. Of  Erdoğan, who fabricated a ‘coup’ against himself in July 2016 in order to silence the country’s free press and render impotent hundreds of thousands of Turks who dislike his Islamification of the country, the least said the better. Or safer.

Information from the Saudi side has been positively ludicrous – whoever does their PR should be fired. First they said Khashoggi was alive. Then two weeks later they said he had died inside the consulate in a punch-up. Then Saudi Arabia’s attorney general said on 25 October that his murder was premeditated. By the end of the month Istanbul’s chief prosecutor said Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered the consulate building, and that his body was dismembered and the bits dispersed. Some reports suggest that the power-saws wielded by a cohort of Saudi hit-men (including a forensics’ expert), who flew into Istanbul a day or so before 2 October, started on Khashoggi before he stopped breathing. His body was then dumped in acid, according to the Turks.

Information from the Saudi side has been positively ludicrous – whoever does their PR should be fired

But who was really responsible for his grisly murder? All fingers point towards Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia (who likes to be known as “MBS”) and the de facto ruler (for now) of that miserable country. Without the say-so of MBS not  a camel farts in Saudi Arabia. MBS has brazened this debacle out so far and ordered that those ‘responsible’ should face investigation – in Saudi Arabia, of course. Whether he has overplayed his hand time will tell, but he has some powerful allies, including the US and the UK, both of which are up to their ears in Saudi riches, thanks to arms deals, oil supply considerations, and other similar factors.
Jamal Khashoggi

Indeed, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, confirmed this to KMOX radio in St. Louis. Khashoggi’s killing is unacceptable he said – why unacceptable? why not just wrong? – but he also added that “President Trump has made very clear not only do we have important commercial relationships, but important strategic relationships, national security relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we intend to make sure that those relationships remain intact.” As usual, money talks louder than morals. (And people call us cynical).

Khashoggi wasn’t just any old hack. His grandad was personal physician to King Abdulaziz Al Saud, the founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia; he was a nephew of the extremely dubious and rich Saudi Arabian arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi; he was a first cousin of Dodi Fayed, who was with Diana, Princess of Wales, in the car crash in Paris. Jamal had been editor-in-chief of the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Watan a couple of times. He was a mover and shaker in the Saudi world, although not much liked apparently. It is difficult to place him – at once a Muslim and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, he was also a critic of the illiberal policies of his country’s leadership, particularly its part in the despicable Yemen war, a bloodbath that is close to the heart of MBS. Khashoggi’s ‘crime’ was his refusal to knuckle under the rule of MBS. His death was a botched job by a ham-fisted regime and it will be swept aside; he was swatted like a fly in the US/Turkey/Saudi Arabia/Iran big-power games. Anyone interested in this messy complexity should watch the powerful documentary Bitter Lake, one of the best efforts I know to try to make sense of the twisted reality we are living through, and why US politicians will overlook/ignore/sweep aside anything Riyadh does.

Image result for Ana González de Recabarre

In Chile, Ana González de Recabarren (pictured above) died on 26 October at the age of 93. Her two sons and one daughter-in-law were arrested in April 1976 during the Chilean military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. They disappeared and when her husband, Manuel, went to look for them he too was arrested and vanished. So she bravely joined the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared Detainees (AFDD) and soon became one of its leaders, taking part in hunger strikes and other protests. She fought to find out what had happened to her family until the bitter end – but never found out. Earlier in the month, on 5 October, another valiant opponent of Pinochet’s dictatorship died. He was Victor Pey, who lived to 103. Born in Spain, Pey fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, was captured and imprisoned in France, and went in exile to Chile, thanks to an intervention by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. There he worked as an engineer and met Salvador Allende, who was elected President of Chile in 1970, and became a close adviser to Allende. Pey bought the newspaper El Clarin but when Pinochet usurped Allende in 1973 El Clarin was shut down, and Pey once again headed into exile.

Earl Bakken

Earl Bakken (pictured above) was one of those persons who have had a disproportionate influence, far in excess of their relative obscurity. He died on 21 October aged 94 but his life should be celebrated for having invented in 1957 the first external, battery-operated, transistorised, wearable artificial pacemaker. While he was at school in Minnesota he designed and built a very simple electroshock weapon, which he would use against bullies, ‘tasering’ them if they tried anything. In 1949 he established a company with his brother-in-law, Palmer Hermundslie, which he called Medtronic. The kick-start for the company arrived during a power cut on 31 October 1957, when a child who depended on a large, cart-mounted, mains-powered pacemaker – the only sort then available – died as a result. Bakken was asked by the doctor in charge if he could create a battery-powered transistorised pacemaker. Which he did, in double-quick time.

His career with São Paulo football club came to an abrupt end at the age of 24

The Brazilian footballer Daniel Corrêa Freitas was found almost decapitated on a street in Parana where corpses are frequently dumped; his genitals had been cut off, a gesture of extreme contempt. His career with São Paulo football club came to an abrupt end at the age of 24. Violence also ended the short life of Theodore Jones, an American rapper better known by his stage name ‘Young Greatness’; he was shot dead outside a Waffle House in New Orleans aged 34. Robert Faurisson lived to 89. He was British-born but thanks to a Ph.D thesis on the French poet Lautréamont became professor of French literature at the university of Lyon between 1973-90 – from which position he became a prominent Holocaust denier, including questioning the truth of Anne Frank’s Diary, and ending up in the French courts, where Holocaust denial was and is considered a crime. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave Faurisson an award for “courage” in Tehran, Iran on 2 February 2012. Noam Chomsky courageously defended Faurisson’s right to free speech, while denying that he supported Faurisson’s views – an obvious position to take but yet one which landed Chomsky in plenty of hot water from people who could not see this might have been a reasonable position to adopt.

Pik Botha

Roelof Frederick “Pik” Botha (pictured above), kicked the bucket at the age of 86. He gained his nickname because of his early fondness for dressing in dark suits, resembling, so his friends thought, a penguin or pikkewyn in Afrikaans, which was his mother tongue. The last Foreign Minister under the last apartheid regime in South Africa, Pik was always a bit of a maverick in the Afrikaner-dominated National Party – not least for predicting in 1986 that one day there would be a black President. His reputation for being a bit of a liberal annoyed the National Party’s hardliners; when he said in 2000 that he was thinking of joining the African National Congress all the top brass could all say to one another, “told you so”, though some whispered that Botha was simply exercising his right to “Pik and choose”.

Centenarians who fell from the perch in October included Walter Dalton (101), a columnist on the Columbia Daily Tribune in the US; Elder Roma Wilson (107), a US gospel harmonica player; Max Webb (101), who survived Auschwitz concentration camp and several others and left for the US once the war was over, where he developed a large real estate company; Pyotr Moryakov (104), a Russian poet and journalist; Willaim Coors (102), of the US brewing family; Bill Corey (101), an Australian soldier and one of the 14,000 Australians who fought at Tobruk, and became the so-called ‘Rats of Tobruk’; Đỗ Mười (101), the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam; and Moi-Yo Miller (104), the stage name of Mona Loretta Miller, the Australian assistant to the magician Dante in his show Sim Sala Bim. Miller’s career peaked in the 1930s and 40s; she reckoned she had been sawn in half around 11,800 times. Todd Herbert Bol, who should be much better remembered than he is, died at the early age of 62 from pancreatic cancer. Bol founded the Little Free Library, a wonderfully simple yet powerful idea, a free book exchange which now has more than 75,000 ‘outposts’ in 88 different countries. The idea is simple – you take a book, and you return a book, without the intervention of anyone. Its success is a fine example of the trustworthiness of people.

Mary Midgley

Mary Midgeley, picture above, was 99 when she died, and I record a personal sadness at her passing as she taught me Philosophy at Newcastle University, where she worked during 1962 to 1980. Newcastle was not a fashionable place to study Philosophy but the staff, small in number but great in intellect, made it a very special time and place and the University was wrong to close the department down. Midgeley published her first book, Beast and Man, when she was 59, a great example to all late starters and about which she said “I wrote no books until I was a good 50, and I’m jolly glad because I didn’t know what I thought before then.” She grew to become one of the strongest proponents of the view that not everything can be reduced to materialism, particularly savaging Richard Dawkins (77), correctly attacking him for his view that the universe lacks purpose and is, as he has written, “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”. No-one can know this, she argued: the universe is “full of organisms, beings that all steadily pursue their own characteristic ways of life, beings that can be understood only by grasping the distinctive thing that each of them is trying to be and do”. Another of her 17 books (she made up for lost time) was an autobiography, The Owl of Minerva, which is in its own gentle and self-deprecating manner a classic. The world is a lesser place without her robust and determined commonsense.

Until November’s RIP array, stoke up the fire and pour a glass of something warming.