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16 March 2012

How Sad is Assad?

Today’s Daily Telegraph carries an article by the great Theodore Dalrymple on the psychology and musical taste of President Assad of Syria. I am one of Dr Dalrymple's staunchest admirers because of his attacks on the political correctness which has so disfigured the English language in recent times, especially in the period when Tony Blair was on the throne. One of the great joys of life in Moscow is the absence of both political correctness and Tony Blair. But, in the unsparing, bullet-biting spirit of Dalrymple himself, I feel I must object to this passage from today’s piece:
“When you look at pictures of Assad you see a weak man, whom you would expect to be a pettifogger rather than a brute. But push a pettifogger to the wall and he is capable of the greatest obduracy, which is the strength of the weak. A cornered rat, that normally resides incognito, is a ferocious and dangerous beast, even if he remains in essence weak and highly vulnerable.”
     First, why can a “pettifogger” not be a “brute”? Himmler was; Captain Blythe was said to have been; Norman (now Lord) Tebbitt tried to be.
     Secondly, “obdurate” cannot be very widely understood as “the strength of the weak” if the Royal Navy has named at least two ships HMS Obdurate, the more recent of which took a prominent part in the Arctic convoys that brought desperately needed supplies to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
     Thirdly, rats do not “reside” anywhere. The word is a synonym for “live” and is generally used these days to suggest pomposity. I don’t think it is possible for a rat to be pompous. Who ever heard of a rat having a “residence”—outside The Wind in the Willows, that is?
     Fourthly, rats cannot live “incognito”, as that implies a concealed identity. To conceal an identity, you have to have one to conceal. Does a rat, in any meaningful sense, have an identity? And to compare President Assad with a rat really adds nothing to the sum of human understanding. That’s lazy.
     Finally, there is no need to state the obvious. Surely we all know a “ferocious and dangerous beast” can sometimes “reside incognito”? Lenin lived incognito in Finland after the July Days in 1917. Adolf Eichman lived—possibly even “resided”—incognito in Argentina for fifteen years. And, for how many years did the people of Dewsbury fail to notice that that Peter Sutcliffe living round the corner was the Yorkshire Ripper incognito?
     It is a shame Dr Dalrymple writes so sloppily because he makes some excellent points, especially when comparing Assad’s “rat-like” whining to that of the blood-thirsty self-righteousness of Tony Blair: “You can just hear Assad saying, Blairishly, ‘Surely you can’t think that I ordered the deaths of all those people, at least not unless I thought it was really necessary for the good of my country and the rest of humanity.’”
     More importantly still, Dalrymple describes President Assad’s musical taste. Apparently, the great dictator ordered Don’t Talk Just Kiss by Right Said Fred through a fake iTunes account in the middle of the shelling of Homs. And he spent much of the time in the run-up to Christmas watching Harry Potter films he had just bought in the same way. And here’s the kicker: on New Year’s Eve last year, Assad downloaded A Tribute to Cliff Richard! Is it humanly possible: Cliff Richard?
     I had always wondered why, in the context of Russian coolness towards Islam, Presidents Assad and Medvedev looked so pleased with each other when they met in Sochi four years ago. Now I know. They were wired for sound and swapping tracks on their iPods. Ever since he did that dance on YouTube to American Boy, I have been following the evolution of Mr Medvedev’s musical taste with close interest. I have asked my spies in the Kremlin to find out if he is a Cliff fan, but so far to no avail. While reading Dr Dalrymple’s article it occurred to me how I can definitely establish the facts. I will wait for the 1st  May, and see if, when he walks up to the newly inaugurated President Putin with outstretched hand, Medvedev does a coy little shake of his head and says, “Congratulaaaaaaations! And celebraaaaaations! I want the world to know I’m happy as can be!”
     If that does happen, it will be almost as sad as Assad.

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