Wednesday, September 10, 2008
OPINION: The US presidential candidate's
rhetoric is intoxicating - but what would he do if elected? asks Tony
THE MORE I read about and watch Barack Obama, the more
I am reminded of Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians,
13:1: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have
not love, I am but an empty gong or a clashing cymbal."
With his soaring rhetoric, Obama speaks with "the
tongues of men and of angels", but it is unfair to suggest he lacks
love. He clearly loves his family and has many friends. And it is, after
all, not he but his wife who has trouble with the concept of loving
America. But the talk of "an empty gong or a clashing cymbal" strikes a
chord, so to speak.
Even after more than a year of vigorous campaigning,
it is impossible to know what he would actually do if elected. Not that
he hasn't told us, he has told us plenty, but he keeps telling us
different, contradictory stuff. So what are people supposed to believe?
Does he even know himself what he believes?
Is he for unconditional talks with Iran, anywhere,
anytime, or not? Does he want to pull out of Iraq regardless of what
happens, or does it depend on circumstances? Is he for Nafta (North
American Free Trade Agreement) or against it, or indeed free trade in
general? Does he love business or hate it? Is Jerusalem to be undivided
or separated? Does he respect the white grandma who raised him or
despise her as a racist?
Over the long campaigning months, his uplifting
speeches and (rarer) debates and interviews have at different times
adopted both sides of these questions, and many others, in what almost
amounts to Orwellian doublespeak.
His big nomination speech during the Democratic
Convention didn't add much light, and for much the same reason. For
example, how long will it be before he "clarifies" what he means by,
say, his trumpeted tax cuts for 95 per cent of working families, or
whether ending US dependence on Middle Eastern oil in 10 years means
making the current two and a half million daily imported barrels vanish?
Let's see whether other aspects of his life
any light. Views about people are often
formed by what they have
achieved in their
lives. But Obama's career before this
has thrown up no accomplishments
of note, other than two
books that are earning him millions of
though this seems to be more
because of his rock-star status
He began his working life as something called a
"community worker", but no one ever explains what that means, and if he
had left a legacy, you can be sure we would have been told about it. He
then lectured on law at the University of Chicago Law School, but
published not a single piece of academic work - unusual for someone
termed a professor.
He was elected a two-term senator in Illinois with
another term in the federal Senate, but without being the primary
sponsor of any legislation of significance, and in the latter forum, his
voting record last year placed him as the 100th most left-wing senator
out of 100.
So you certainly can't evaluate him by his
achievements. Is he therefore "but an empty gong?" How about the people
he mixes with, then? They say you can judge a man by the company he
keeps. But some of Obama's friends look decidedly odd.
There are the America-hating, toxic pastors Jeremiah
"God damn America" Wright and Michael "Hillary mocker" Pfleger; the
unrepentant "weather underground" terrorist leaders Bernardine Dohrn and
her husband Bill Ayers - about whom the Obama campaign is trying to
suppress a YouTube video reminding us that he tried to blow up the
Capitol in 1971, and a fascinating interview with Stanley Kurtz, a
Hoover Institute Fellow, about the murky Obama/Ayers relationship.
Then there is that pair of Obama fundraisers - Rashid
Khalidi, an Israel-hating supporter of Palestinian terror, and property
developer and convicted fraudster Tony Rezko.
These are the kind of people he likes to hang out with
and who have helped him in his career and life to date, which includes
bolstering his campaign. So what does that tell us about the future
judgment, sympathies and behaviour of a President Obama?
Anyone can make a mistake by choosing a friend who
turns out to be a knave. But six of them? Then, contrast this motley,
awkward and embarrassing coterie of buddies with his intoxicating
speeches. Does this make him a "clashing cymbal"?
Extraordinary oratory; flip-flopping policies;
accomplishment-free; dodgy company. That to me is Obama. A handsome but
empty shell which makes a pleasing noise, along the lines described by
Of course, it's too early to say with conviction
whether Sarah Palin is any different, though her fellow Alaskan, Mary
Mullen in Galway, writing in this newspaper the other day, clearly
thinks she's not.
But you be the judge. In fact here's a better idea.
Let the American people be the judge this November.
Tony Allwright is an engineering and industrial
safety consultant, and blogs at www.tallrite.com/blog.htm
© 2008 The Irish Times
Published column as PDF
Published columns as JPG
Further details in a blog post
The Empty Gong”;
alternative link -
case against letter-writer Daragh McDowell
Madam, - Tony Allwright's column on Barack Obama ("Obama
is a triumph of style over substance", Opinion, September 10th)
is both misleading and of questionable accuracy on several key
Every factual statement can be backed up with
evidence in the public domain.
Barack Obama worked as a "community organiser" after he
left college, with the organisation Project Vote, which worked
to register and empower poor African-Americans in the south side
of Chicago. He did this for little pay, and even less prestige,
after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, where he
was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Such a resumé would have granted him almost instant access to
any high-paying corporate law firm, but he chose to give back to
the community instead.
Still a pretty vague description, and activity
that left no legacy of note, which is all I alleged.
True, Senator Obama did
not publish any academic papers while he was lecturing in
constitutional law at the University of Chicago. This is because
at the same he was working at Miner, Barnhill Galland, a law
firm specialising in civil rights litigation and neighbourhood
economic development, and later as a legislator in the Illinois
state senate. It is not surprising that while teaching, giving
legal aid, being a state senator, and serving on the boards of
several charitable foundations, Obama did not find the time to
publish. Perhaps being an academic just wasn't his primary
Even though he was a professor he published no
academic work – because he was too busy? Show me a professor
who says he only publishes academic work because he’s not busy.
Mr Allwright is incorrect when he claims Obama has not
sponsored any significant legislation in the federal Senate.
What about the Lugar-Obama arms control legislation, or the
Coburn-Obama Transparency Act, which has allowed citizens to see
directly where their tax dollars go? Do these count as
insignificant in his eyes?
I claimed that Mr Obama was not “the
primary sponsor of any legislation of significance”. In
Mr McDowell’s examples he is the junior sponsor; that’s
why his name appears second.
He also recycles the
National Journal's claim that Obama is the most left-wing
senator in the US. Really? More left-wing than self-styled
socialist Bernie Sanders? Or progressive icon Russ Feingold?
Even more left-wing than the senator the National Journal
to be the most left-wing in 2004, Democratic presidential
nominee John Kerry? One might be tempted to question the
Journal's methodology (as several academics have, and
concluded that ideologically Obama is slightly to the left of
the median Democratic senator).
I said “his [Senate] voting record last year
placed him as the 100th most left-wing senator out of 100”.
This refers only to the votes he cast in the Senate and only to
2007; and it’s on the record. Mr McDowell’s refutation wanders
beyond both of these limits.
Mr Allwright then simply lists various people Obama has
known at some point or another as if this is somehow damning
evidence. Obama did serve on two non-profit boards with William
Ayers - not surprising, given that they were both professors at
the University of Chicago at the time. And while Mr Allwright
might describe Rashid Khalidi as an "Israel-hating supporter of
Palestinian terror", many others would call him an
internationally respected academic and director of the Middle
East Institute of Columbia University, New York.
The six I listed were not merely “various people Obama
has known at some point or another”. They were very close
associates who raised campaign money for him, entertained him in
their homes, put him on boards. In the case of Rev Wright, Mr
Obama and his family sat in his church for twenty years and also
gave it money. The reprobate behaviour of these six people, and
Mr Obama’s ties to them, are all on the public record.
One can certainly criticise Senator Obama's policies, but
practically every second sentence in Mr Allwright's article is a
distortion, a smear, or a mischaracterisation
It is the rebuttal that is rife with “distortion” and
assertion that Senator Obama believes his grandmother to be a
On 18th March 2008, he
described Grandma as “a woman who once confessed her
fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on
more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes
that made me cringe”.
It does not reflect well
on Senator Obama's opponents if this is the best they can throw
at him. - Yours, etc,
Drummartin Terrace, Goatstown,
Is this the best rebuttal that can be thrown at
US presidential election campaign
- 12th September 2008
Madam, - The shallowness of Tony Allwright's analysis of Senator
Obama's capacity to lead (Opinion, September 10th) is
encapsulated, inter alia, in his denigration of Rashid Khalidi,
the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia
University, as an "Israeli-hating supportor of Palestinian
terror". His article tells us little about Senator Obama but
lots about Mr Allwright. - Yours, etc,
SHAY DUFFY, Sutton Park, Dublin 13.
Note: I said Israel-hating not Israeli-hating,
and also spelt supporter correctly.
Redoubtable Sunday Independent columnist Senator
points out that my article
“has some home truths for
Barack Obama supporters. Five of Obama's former friends have
either terrorist footprints or hold extreme anti-American views,
while a sixth is a convicted fraudster. Mark my words,
McCain will beat him by a very big margin”.
[4th November 2008 hindsight: Better
not to mark
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What I've recently
“The Lemon Tree”, by Sandy
is a delightful novel-style history of modern Israel and Palestine told
through the eyes of a thoughtful protagonist from either side, with a
household lemon tree as their unifying theme.
But it's not
entirely honest in its subtle pro-Palestinian bias, and therefore needs
to be read in conjunction with an antidote, such as
This examines events which led to BP's 2010 Macondo blowout in
the Gulf of Mexico.
BP's ambitious CEO John Browne expanded it through adventurous
acquisitions, aggressive offshore exploration, and relentless
cost-reduction that trumped everything else, even safety and long-term
Thus mistakes accumulated, leading to terrifying and deadly accidents in
refineries, pipelines and offshore operations, and business disaster in
The Macondo blowout was but an inevitable outcome of a BP culture that
had become poisonous and incompetent.
However the book is gravely compromised by a
litany of over 40 technical and stupid
errors that display the author's ignorance and
It would be better
to wait for the second (properly edited) edition before buying.
As for BP, only a
wholesale rebuilding of a new, professional, ethical culture will
prevent further such tragedies and the eventual destruction of a once
mighty corporation with a long and generally honourable history.
Note: I wrote
my own reports on Macondo
A horrific account
how the death
penalty is administered and, er, executed in Singapore,
the corruption of
Singapore's legal system, and
enthusiastic embrace of Burma's drug-fuelled military dictatorship
More details on my
nonagenarian Alistair Urquhart’s
incredible story of survival in the Far
East during World War II.
After recounting a
childhood of convention and simple pleasures in working-class Aberdeen,
Mr Urquhart is conscripted within days of Chamberlain declaring war on
Germany in 1939.
From then until the
Japanese are deservedly nuked into surrendering six years later, Mr
Urquhart’s tale is one of first discomfort but then following the fall
of Singapore of ever-increasing, unmitigated horror.
After a wretched
journey Eastward, he finds himself part of Singapore’s big but useless
Taken prisoner when Singapore falls in
1941, he is, successively,
part of a death march to Thailand,
a slave labourer on the Siam/Burma
railway (one man died for every sleeper laid),
regularly beaten and tortured,
racked by starvation, gaping ulcers
and disease including cholera,
a slave labourer stevedoring at
shipped to Japan in a stinking,
closed, airless hold with 900 other sick and dying men,
torpedoed by the Americans and left
drifting alone for five days before being picked up,
a slave-labourer in Nagasaki until
blessed liberation thanks to the Americans’ “Fat Boy” atomic
distraught and traumatised on return to Aberdeen yet disdained by the
British Army, he slowly reconstructs a life. Only in his late 80s
is he able finally to recount his dreadful experiences in this
There are very few
first-person eye-witness accounts of the the horrors of Japanese
brutality during WW2. As such this book is an invaluable historical
“Culture of Corruption:
Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks, and Cronies”
This is a rattling good tale of the web
of corruption within which the American president and his cronies
operate. It's written by blogger Michele Malkin who, because she's both
a woman and half-Asian, is curiously immune to the charges of racism and
sexism this book would provoke if written by a typical Republican WASP.
With 75 page of notes to back up - in
best blogger tradition - every shocking and in most cases money-grubbing
allegation, she excoriates one Obama crony after another, starting with
the incumbent himself and his equally tricky wife.
Joe Biden, Rahm Emmanuel, Valerie Jarett,
Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Steven Rattner, both Clintons, Chris
Dodd: they all star as crooks in this venomous but credible book.
ACORN, Mr Obama's favourite community
organising outfit, is also exposed for the crooked vote-rigging machine
This much trumpeted sequel to
Freakonomics is a bit of disappointment.
It is really just
a collation of amusing
little tales about surprising human (and occasionally animal) behaviour
and situations. For example:
Drunk walking kills more people per
kilometer than drunk driving.
People aren't really altruistic -
they always expect a return of some sort for good deeds.
Child seats are a waste of money as
they are no safer for children than adult seatbelts.
Though doctors have known for
centuries they must wash their hands to avoid spreading infection,
they still often fail to do so.
Monkeys can be taught to use washers
as cash to buy tit-bits - and even sex.
The book has no real
message other than don't be surprised how humans sometimes behave and
try to look for simple rather than complex solutions.
And with a final
anecdote (monkeys, cash and sex), the book suddenly just stops dead in
its tracks. Weird.
A remarkable, coherent attempt by Financial Times economist Alan Beattie
to understand and explain world history through the prism of economics.
It's chapters are
organised around provocative questions such as
Why does asparagus come from Peru?
Why are pandas so useless?
Why are oil and diamonds more trouble
than they are worth?
Why doesn't Africa grow cocaine?
It's central thesis
is that economic development continues to be impeded in different
countries for different historical reasons, even when the original
rationale for those impediments no longer obtains. For instance:
Argentina protects its now largely
foreign landowners (eg George Soros)
Russia its military-owned
businesses, such as counterfeit DVDs
The US its cotton industry
comprising only 1% of GDP and 2% of its workforce
The author writes
in a very chatty, light-hearted matter which makes the book easy to
However it would
benefit from a few charts to illustrate some of the many quantitative
points put forward, as well as sub-chaptering every few pages to provide
natural break-points for the reader.
This is a thrilling book of derring-do behind enemy lines in the jungles
of north-east Burma in 1942-44 during the Japanese occupation.
The author was
a member of Britain's V Force, a forerunner of the SAS. Its remit was to
harass Japanese lines of
command, patrol their occupied territory, carryout sabotage and provide
intelligence, with the overall objective of keeping the enemy out of
is admirably yet brutally frank, in his
descriptions of deathly battles with the Japs, his execution of a
prisoner, dodging falling bags of rice dropped by the RAF, or collapsing
in floods of tears through accumulated stress, fear and loneliness.
He also provides some fascinating insights into the mentality of
Japanese soldiery and why it failed against the flexibility and devolved
authority of the British.
The book amounts to
a very human and exhilarating tale.
Oh, and Irwin
describes the death in 1943 of his colleague my uncle, Major PF
Click for an account of this momentous,
of March 2009
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