Daily Archives: April 28, 2013


Burnes the Polymath

Can anyone find a full online version of K.M. Lyell’s 1881 Life, Letters and Journals of Charles Lyell, Bart. ? Normally google books or similar have such out of copyright books online free if of any interest, but all I can find is this limited preview of a Cambridge University Press edition. It is in my chain of thought today and I don’t want to break off and come back.

I have been struck quite frequently in both manuscript and published writings that Alexander Burnes plainly was no creationist and had a strikingly “modern” world view for someone born in 1805. Some of his observations of animal life take evolution as read, and his understanding of geological processes seems almost solecistic. One reason he survived journeys which Gerard, Moorcroft and Trebeck did not was that he dosed himself with quinine when the British army treated malaria with leeches. Burnes and Gerard contracted malaria together in Balkh and Termez – still malarial today – precisely where Moorcroft and Trebeck had done so fatally a decade previously. Gerard, a medical doctor, refused Burnes’ offered quinine for more traditional treatment (camomile!) and eventually died of his malaria.

Burnes was very directly a child of the Scottish Enlightenment and his range of knowledge across a wide variety of academic disciplines is truly striking. I early made a transcript of an account of a dinner in the Shalimar gardens near Lahore around 1837 with two eminent British palaeontologists, whom I find described in encyclopaedias as among the founders of the science. I can’t immediately put my hands on the transcript to give you their names, but Burnes plainly could discuss the subject intelligently. He was a friend and correspondent of Charles Lyell and sent him fossils. Burnes is quoted at length in Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a book as ground-breaking in its time as The Origin of Species and very much part of the same intellectual movement. (Yes, I know Lyell was building on Hutton). Lyell and Darwin were close and their relationship is a field of study in itself.

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“The Project” in Kazakhstan

A week ago Wikileaks released the transcript of a meeting between Julian Assange and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, together with a number of other liberal establishment figures from the USA. This transcript is an important read. Assange has been portrayed in the media as a crazed pantomime villain. The reflective and thoughtful person who emerges from these transcripts is not perhaps what people accept. I also find it encouraging that a major CEO like Schmidt himself comes over as a genuine thinker, with liberal instincts.

But I want to focus rather narrowly on one point. Assange talks at length of his disappointment at the presentation of the State Department cables by Wikileaks’ mainstream media partners. In relation to the Guardian, among other things he says this:

“The Guardian redacted two thirds of a cable about Bulgarian crime, removed all the names of the people who had infiltrated – the mafioso – who had infiltrated the Bulgarian government. Removed a description of the Kazakstan elite, which said that the Kazakstan elite in general were corrupt, not even a particular name, just in general! Removed a description that a an energy company out of Italy operating in Kazakhstan was corrupt, so they have redacted for naming of individual names of people who might be unfairly put at risk, just like we do–that is what we require of them. They have redacted the names of mafioso, individual mafioso because they are worried that they might get sued for libel in London by this mafioso. They have redacted the names… they have redacted the description of a class of Kazakhstan elite, a class has been corrupt, and they have redacted descriptions of individual companies being corrupt because they don’t want to expose themselves to any risk at all.”

This is true, but not the whole story. At that time, I was trying without success to persuade Wikileaks to let me in to the cables in my are of expertise pre-publication, to assist with editing those on Africa and Central Asia to remove any risk to individuals. I was not able to do this because of Wikileaks’ exclusive deal with the newspapers, whom I thought they trusted to a remarkable degree.

A very senior figure ar the Guardian once said to me that “It should not be underestimated how far Rusbridger saw himself as an intrinsic part of The Project ” – The Project being Tony Blair’s plan to move the old Labour Party to a neo-con position and continue the Thatcher revolution (not that they called it that, even to themselves. Modernisation, Third Way etc.) Rusbridger, Michael White, Polly Toynbee, Andrew Rawnsley remain to this day fully paid up Blairites, and the Guardian continually, to this day, give a platform to Blair and Alistair Campbell, and publish article after article about how great is his legacy and how much he still has to contribute. I can’t bring myself to the emetic task of looking any of the offending articles up – perhaps people can kindly link to some in comments!

For several years now, a major stream of the massive Blair income has come from advisory and PR work for the murderous dictatorship of Kazakhstan – a government which massacres striking miners, which might be of interest to Blair’s former constituents. When I met Alistair Campbell in November he had recently come back from Kazahstan.

Julian Assange was quite right to infer that protecting themselves from possible libel suits had caused The Guardian to redact accounts of corrupt individuals. But that can hardly have accounted for the Guardian redacting a US Embassy observation that the ruling elite of Kazakhstan are corrupt as a class. Now what concern for the image of Kazakhstan might have led Alan Rusbridger to do that?

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