The death of Tariq Aziz has affected people in different ways. George Galloway — an old friend of the former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq — naturally mourned him. Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow felt that Aziz had been a “nice guy in a nasty situation”. Nobody much seemed to recall that Aziz had been at the heart of a regime which killed more Muslims than any other in modern times. But apart from that, his death brought only one other thing to mind — an object lesson in misreading your opponents.
After his capture Aziz was questioned by both coalition and Iraqi representatives. Segments of these sessions were released years ago and included a nugget of Aziz’s surprise at the UK joining the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. One reason for his surprise was that he knew the Archbishop of Canterbury had opposed the war. You can see how he got there. Leading cleric of the established church: how could any government ignore such a force? Everyone now knows how much the US and UK misread the Iraqi regime in 2003. But the misreading was regrettably mutual.
I recently signed up to Netflix in the hope of finding things to watch when wishing to relax. Inevitably I go straight to “documentaries” and watch a newish film called The Last Nazis. The filmmakers — youngish men and women — are ostensibly in search of the few remaining Nazi criminals and on their “journey” find one old man who tells them that he can remember nothing while plying them with drink and another who gives them a meal while playing a sweet old man act. They fail to discover anything about their subjects and — ill-briefed and apparently unwilling to ask any probing questions — they plainly cannot do their job. The film is a dud, a wash-out: they didn’t get the story.
Except that then you realise that in their view they did. For this is not about the Nazis, it is all about them. A young woman does a piece to camera saying how freaky it is sitting in a room with someone who may have done all of these terrible things. One of the filmmakers says they almost felt sorry for one of the men but know they shouldn’t have. This is utterly typical of the zeitgeist. “How sitting in a room with an ex-Nazi affected me” is the sort of thing which now makes copy. Worming your way down to the truth by comparison seems not just a lot more work but so dated.
If there is one place on earth still running something analogous to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany it is North Korea. Satellite images and a tiny number of surviving defectors have proven the existence of these camps. Yet consider two recent, randomly selected examples of the day-to-day coverage of North Korea. The Daily Mail headlines a piece: “Summer’s here . . . and the Un has got his hat on! North Korean dictator dons jaunty headgear for farm visit.” The next day’s Telegraph showed more new photographs of the leader with the headline insight that “Kim Jong-un appears to be losing his personal battle of the bulge, with new photos released by state media showing the North Korean dictator straining the seams of a pinstripe suit.”
North Korea is not an easy problem to solve. But is the transformation of Kim Jong-un into an ugly minor celebrity, whom everyone can laugh at, our way of coping with this fact — or a demonstration of an absolutely barbarous flippancy?
Speaking of flippancy, if there is one thing we must now never be flippant about it is transsexualism. The transformation of a reality show celebrity and former Olympic gold medallist called Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner seems to have brought the issue of “T”s to the fore. Anyone who has read Jan (formerly James) Morris’s description of his sex-change operation in Morocco in the 1970s will know that these are not things people go through lightly. But as so often, in an effort to “catch up” public opinion goes too far and the opinion-enforcers become impossibly demanding. It currently seems to have become wrong not just to question anything about Jenner’s decision, but to refer to his previous name or put “her” in quotation marks even for when “she” was a “he”. One Guardian writer put Jenner’s “fathering” of children in scare-quotes as though it was fictional. Strangest of all is that everybody, from the US President down, is meant to find the new Caitlyn Jenner beautiful.
But what about those people who have neither the money nor the bone structure to be transformed in this way? What about people who transform into rather plain or even dowdy women instead of these Annie Leibovitz-airbrushed beauty pageant queens? Will we celebrate them? Must it be forbidden to joke about them? Ought it to be considered bad form not to find them attractive? I see minefields ahead.