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In the memory of the forest

1 September 2014

In the Memoryof the ForestIn the Memoryof the Forest by Charles T. Powers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Occasionally one comes across a book by pure serendipity, and this is such a book. My wife picked it up in the library, just to see what it was like, and when she had finished reading it she passed it on to me.

It is set in a village called Jadowia in Poland just after the fall of communism, and in a way is a kind of biography of a village. It is a time of transition, and so people are caught between two worlds, one of their recent history, and a new world that is coming. But the change and lifting of restrictions makes at least some of the people in the village aware of an older history, of things that had been suppressed, and had faded from consciousness — that in the past people had lived there who were no longer there, that the Jews had simply vanished, and were no longer mentioned.

In some ways the story is almost familiar, because though I have never been to Poland, South Africa was going through a similar transition in the same period, between 1990 and 1994. I also visited other countries that were undergoing similar transitions — Russia, Bulgaria and Albania. Part of the attraction of such a story is that it has some familiar echoes.

The story starts off quite slowly, and at first it is not clear where it is going, and it picks up as it goes along when the author gets into his stride. Amd then it gets quite lyrical, with what I thought were inspired descriptions, that captured the atmosphere of of time and place. Here, for example, is a description of two of the main characters, from neighbouring farms, going to the nearest town to try to get a battery for an old lamp. They walk down a street where street vendors are selling an amazing variety of goods

This spray of color, this wonderland of stuff that was almost-but-not-quite trash, things that you didn’t want but might use, things that you might buy and take home and offer as a present, a toy, a novelty, a small bright newness. Powierza stopped, fingered a pile of plastic knit gloves, and chose a pair for his wife, borrowing bills from me to pay for them. He folded them into his pocket and walked on, pausing in front of a store window offering pornographic videotapes from Germany and Holland, along with a display of electric can openers and kitchen mixers. Powierza ducked inside, received a curt response to his inquiry about a battery for the flashlight, then lingered to look at the illustrations on the videocassettes, ripe thighs tantalizingly imprisoned behind locked glass doors.

How very 1990s. How very Eastern Europe.

As I read it I had a vivid image of a lantern my father used to own, which took a battery like the one described in the book, a square cardboard-covered one. It had a big reflector on the side, for throwing a powerful focused beam, and a smaller inspection lamp on top, with a hemispherical glass cover, and a wire grill, to protect it, presumably, from dropped spanners. I haven’t seen it for 60 years, but the book brought back a clear memory of it.

All this made me wonder about the author, Charles T. Powers. How did he know all this stuff? Was he Polish? Had he lived in Poland? Had he written any other books? It turned out that he was an American journalist who had once been stationed in Poland, and that this is his only published novel. So there are no more books like this, no more where this one came from. This book is unique, and so is a uniquely good read.

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Christ the Conqueror of Sin

23 August 2014

Originally posted on Fr. Ted's Blog:

“Death is always evil and terrifying, whether it be the death of an old man or that of a child, of a just man or of a sinner. Death is always the victory of the devil, a temporary victory, yet a victory. Our body which was created for immortality, submits to the evil law of death, is separated from the soul, disrupted, stricken with decay, turned into nothing. Through sin, death has entered the world; it enters into us from our very childhood, traces the lines of sin on our faces, extinguishes the living fire in our eyes, disables our body. But Christ is the conqueror of sin and hell, and Christ’s task is chiefly the victory over death through His resurrection: ‘if Christ be not risen again, your faith is also vain.’ (1 Cor. 15,14)”  (Father Yelchaninov in A Treasury of Russian Spirituality by G.P. Fedtov, p 481)

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Are we too soft on terrorism

20 August 2014

This morning I had a look at Twitter and Facebook, and was struck yet again by the depressing world we live in.

On Twitter I saw this:

Criticise the wrongs of and of . Softness has led to a frenzy of beheading. Appeasement is a disastrous policy. End it. (from )

But who is it addressed to? Who must do the criticising?

Is it addressed to the government of the USA in its self-appointed role as the world’s policeman?

But is the USA qualified to be the world’s policeman when it allows things like this?

Georgia officials refuse to pay medical bills of toddler hurt in SWAT raid:

Officials in Habersham County, Georgia, have said they will not pay the medical bills of a toddler seriously injured when a flash grenade exploded in his face during a SWAT raid in May, local media has reported.

The child, Bounkham Phonesavanh, then 19 months old, was struck with the weapon when the county’s SWAT police conducted a so-called “no-knock” raid on a home in the early hours of May 28, throwing a flash grenade into the baby’s crib. The devices – also known as flash bangs and stun grenades – are often deployed in raids and protests to temporarily disorient suspects.

It seems that if the USA acts as the world’s policeman, all we will have is a world-wide police state.

Has softness really led to a “frenzy of beheading”?

Marikana5Perhaps the same “softness” that has led to children being bombed from drones, the same “softness” that led to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson? The same softness that led to the Marikana Massacre? The same softness that has led to the killing of over 2000 people in the Ukraine civil war in the last couple of months, and an almost equal number in Gaza during the same period?

Exactly who is it who is being too soft?

Just who is “appeasing” whom?

No, the problem is not too much softness and too much appeasement.

The problem is not enough softness and not enough appeasement.

It seems that the leaders of the governments of the world major in antagonism rather than appeasement.

And then this appeared in the Progressive Orthodox Christianity group on Facebook:

Tackling the PROBLEM OF EVIL: why would a good God allows evil?
http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/the-problem-of-evil-revisited-by-lothars-son/

What are your own thoughts on this topic?

And after reading all this stuff, I think that is yet another evasion.

We love to discuss questions about why a good God would allow evil, because by doing so we can block our ears to God’s question to us, of why we do.

Why do we allow people to be beheaded, or children to be maimed by police who then refuse to pay their medical bills?

There’s an Anglican hymn that goes like this:

New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life, and power, and thought.

And fifty years ago Paul Dehn published a parody, which is just as true today:

New every morning is the love
with which our ministers approve
devices new and up to date
for fostering the same old hate.

No, the problem is not that we are too soft; it is that we are too hard-hearted.

The most vexing question is not why a good God would allow evil, but why we do.

 

A taste for horror

12 August 2014

Busman's Honeymoon (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #11)Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished reading this book a couple of days ago, and it’s a classic whodunit combined with a love story. In this particular edition the foreword was written by Elizabeth George, whose crime novels also feature an aristocratic detective and his love life.

In this story the amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, has married Harriet Vane, and their honeymoon is complicated by the discovery of the corpse of the previous owner of the house they have just bought.

I’ve read a couple of other whodunits by Dorothy Sayers, and while I’ve enjoyed them, I would not say that they are the best detective fiction I have read. Sayers is sometimes linked with the informal literary group the Inklings, and though not actually a member, she was a friend of some of the members, and they sometimes read her work at meetings.

When I read Sayers’s novels, I am very conscious of the period they are set in, and in which they were written, and so I’m also very aware of it being another age, another world. It is the world of Downton Abbey. Indeed, perhaps seeing Downton Abbey enables one to appreciate her stories more.

By contrast, when reading books by Inklings Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis I’m not so conscious of the period in which they are set. Though Lewis’s descriptions of Mars and Venus are nothing like what we now know them to be, one can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. And even though Williams’s novels are set on earth, there is nothing quite as dated as the descriptions in Sayers, perhaps because she gives more details of everyday life — characters smoking, ordering food, taking care of wine and the like.

There’s also a lot of erudite literary wordplay between the amateur and the professional detective, which is a bit spoilt by the slightly patronising tone. Of course back then being patronising was regarded as a good thing, noblesse oblige and all that. But there’s another thing — the characters keep breaking into French, with no hint of a translation. I suppose in that era educated Englishmen (of both sexes) could be expected to converse freely, if not fluently in French, but that too just makes one aware of how much times have changed.

But Dorothy Sayers nevertheless had a great influence on my literary tastes and preferences, not through her detective fiction, which I only began reading in this century, but through a collection of short stories she edited:

Great Short Stories Of Detection, Mystery And HorrorGreat Short Stories Of Detection, Mystery And Horror by Dorothy L. Sayers

When I was a child we had this work on our bookshelves, in three volumes, just like the one in the illustration, but they disappeared in several moves, when my mother got rid of a lot of surplus possessions. I read many of the stories, but my favourites, the ones I reread many times, were those in the “horror” section, and it was this book that gave me a taste for horror stories.

It was more than fifty years ago now, but the stories that made the biggest impression on me, that I read and re-read, were “The Wendigo” by Algernon Blackwood and “Couching at the door” by D.K. Broster. After the books disappeared I sometimes wanted to read them again, but I could only remember the titles of some of the stories, and not the names of the authors, and I thought I would never find them again.

And then along came the Internet, with its access to knowledgeable people, and other resources. A web search engine quickly found the authors of both these stories, and “The Wendigo” was available in downloadable form. And so I discovered the author of …

Couching at the Door (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural) (Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural)Couching at the Door (Wordsworth Mystery & Supernatural) by D.K. Broster

… which immediately went on to my “want to read” list.

The collection, Detection mystery and horror by Dorothy L. Sayers gave me the taste for horror stories, but also determined the kind of horror stories I would like. I greatly enjoyed Dracula, but that spoiled all other vampire stories for me. Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s lot was a bit of a let-down, and Anne Rice’s vampire stories horribly boring. I doggedly read through Interview with the vampire just to be able to say that I had read it, but the experience was even worse than reading Ayn Rand. I suppose the one merit of the story was that it was shorter than Atlas shrugged.

Stephen King did, however, write a half decent story that features the Wendigo, Pet Sematary, not as good as Blackwood’s story, but good in its own way.

So, thanks to Dorothy Sayers, I like a good horror story. It’s just a pity that there are so few good ones about, and so much dreck. Sayers collected the best that was available at her time, but I came across another collection of stories, contemporary with hers, called The abominartions of Yondo, edited by Clark Ashton Smith. The collection seemed to be full of the genre of horror writers who tried to create an effect by piling epithet upon epithet, until the words wore out and lost their meaning. “Eldrich” seemed to be a particular favourite, with “nameless” a close second. H.P. Lovecraft sometimes seems to have c ome close to joining this school, but not quite.

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Tuesday 4 August 1914

4 August 2014

Tuesday 4 August 1914Tuesday 4 August 1914 by Ian Ribbons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been reading this book to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War.

The war could be said to have started a week earlier, on 28 July 1914, with the Austria-Hungarian Empire’s declaration of war on Serbia. Hostilities actually commenced on 29 July, with the Austrian shelling of Belgrade, but it was only on 4 August that German troops crossed the Belgian frontier, and only on 12 August that Austria actually invaded Serbia. German troops invaded neutral Luxembourg on 1 August, but the Luxembourg army did not resist, and German occupation was accepted under protest, but without fighting.

So 4 August 1914 was the day that rhetoric became reality, the start of the war that would be fought all over the world, and would last four years.

So this book, illustrated by the author, is a dramatic hour-by-hour account of the events of that day — diplomatic, military and civilian.

The book was first published in 1970, a little over 50 years from the end of the war, and thus shortly after many of the restricted archival documents dealing with the war were released for public viewing. Thus the author can reveal not only Germany’s public stand for peace and moderation with the deterioration of Austrian-Serbian relations following the assassination of the Archduke, but also that Germany secretly encouraged Austria to attack Serbia, in the belief that it would be a quick local war. When Russia began mobilising in support of Serbia, the Germans began to get cold feet, and urged restraint on Austria, but having been told that such peaceful utterances were for public consumption only, and were to be ignored, Austria went ahead anyway. German miliary planning required that France, Russia’s ally, be attacked first, and the pathway to France lay through neutral Belgium, and so the fighting began, and brought Britain into the war. Many declarations of war preceded and followed this day, but this was the day on which serious fighting began.

Ian Ribbons bases his chronology on Greenwich mean time, so that one can see events that were happening almost simultaneously in widely separated places, and that only adds to the drama of the day. It would be a good read at any time, but on this day it is especially poignant.

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So much for the book itself, but there are more thoughts on this day than can be sparked off by a single book, and more thoughts sparked off by that book than can be encompassed by a single review. Ribbons starts his story with the observation that “five times within eight years a crisis has pushed the Great Powers of Europe to the brink of war.”

Probably no one now alive remembers much of it. A few years ago the last people who fought in it died, and and anyone still alive now who was born before it ended would have been an infant, and would not have remembered much.

Prof Edgar Brookes, historian

Prof Edgar Brookes, historian

Fifty years ago, when I was a student, I attended a lecture by Professor Edgar Brookes, emeritus professor of history at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. It was a public lecture to mark the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and the 25th anniversary of the start of the second. He recounted some of his own experiences in the war; back then it was still within living memory.

Now there are still people around who knew people who had been through it, but soon they will be gone too. So I recall stories that people told me at second or third hand.

About the same time my mother told me about her uncle in Scotland, Tom Hannan, was jailed as a conscientious objector during WWI. Being a pacifist, I was eager to know more about this heroic kinsman, who I pictured being confronted by angry ladies wanting to show him a white feather. My mother laughed, and said that he wasn’t a pacifist, he was a socialist, and refused to fight because it was an imperialist war. A couple of years after that met his son, Willie Hannan, then Labout MP for Maryhill in Glasgow, my mother’s cousin. I asked him about his father, and he said yes, he remembered them coming to arrest his father, who was a respectable man, and hadn’t done anything wrong. I got the impression that cousin Willie was embarrassed by the whole thing, and thought the less said about it the better.  Tom Hannan’s brother, Stanley Livingston Hannan, however, was a Captain in the Royal Artillery, and was killed at Cambrai in 1917.

So our second and third hand memories will gradually coalesce into a vague picture and then disappear into the past as a story told only in history books. But some things remain:

The sun that bids us live is waking
Behind the cloud that bids us die
And in the murk fresh minds are making
New plans to blow us all sky-high.[1]

As one bishop puts it:

The one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War is unlikely to prompt an ardent international response. Some places will build monuments to the heroes, others will clean up the memorial cemeteries, and festivities will be held elsewhere. But will the war anniversary become a reason for rethinking its outcomes on the global scale? Will the outcomes of the two world wars be a lesson to global leaders on whom it depends whether the third one will begin (Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk).

____
Notes

[1] from Quake, Quake, Quake: a leaden treasury of English verse by Paul Dehn.

The Gadarene rush to war

21 July 2014

As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, and the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second, politicians are using the same sabre-rattling rhetoric as was used by politicians back then. I Googled for “MH17″ five minutes ago, and what did I get?

  1. MH17 plane crash: Kerry points finger at Russia

  2. Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: What we know today

  3. Cameron tells Putin shooting down of MH17 was

Two of the first three hits focus on the utterances of belligerent war-mongering politicians.

As for Putin, he points a finger at Poroshenko, and says if he sought a peaceful solution to the Ukraine conflict, the downing of the flight MH17 would not have happened.  If one compares the recent rhetoric, Putin’s is actually the least belligerent and most peaceful. He calls for peace in Ukraine, and for an independent investigation of the airliner crash. His accusation of Poroshenko is indirect, for allowing the conflict to develop and spread.

A different, and, in my view more sensible comment on this comes from Peter Hitchens: Mourn the victims… but don’t turn one tragedy into a global catastrophe | Mail Online:

One thing we should have learned in the past 100 years is that war is hell. We might also have noticed that, once begun, war is hard to stop and often takes shocking turns.

So those who began the current war in Ukraine – the direct cause of the frightful murder of so many innocents on Flight MH17 on Thursday – really have no excuse.

There is no doubt about who they were. In any war, the aggressor is the one who makes the first move into neutral or disputed territory.

And that aggressor was the European Union, which rivals China as the world’s most expansionist power, swallowing countries the way performing seals swallow fish (16 gulped down since 1995).

Ignoring repeated and increasingly urgent warnings from Moscow, the EU – backed by the USA – sought to bring Ukraine into its orbit. It did so through violence and illegality, an armed mob and the overthrow of an elected president.

I warned then that this would lead to terrible conflict. I wrote in March: ‘Having raised hopes that we cannot fulfil, we have awakened the ancient passions of this cruel part of the world – and who knows where our vainglorious folly will now lead?’

Now we see. Largely unreported over the past few months, a filthy little war has been under way in Eastern Ukraine.

Many innocents have died, unnoticed in the West. Neither side has anything to boast of – last Tuesday 11 innocent civilians died in an airstrike on a block of flats in the town of Snizhne, which Ukraine is unconvincingly trying to blame on Russia. So PLEASE do not be propagandised by Thursday’s horrible slaughter into forgetting what is really going on.

Powerful weapons make it all too easy for people to do stupid, frightful things. Wars make such things hugely more likely to happen.

In September 1983, the Soviet air force, inflamed by Cold War passions and fears, inexcusably massacred 269 people aboard a Korean Airlines 747.

In July 1988, highly trained US Navy experts aboard the cruiser Vincennes, using ultra-modern equipment, moronically mistook an Iranian Airbus, Iran Air Flight 655, for an F-14 Tomcat warplane. They shot the airliner out of the sky, killing 290 innocent people, including 66 children.

All kinds of official untruths were told at the time to excuse this. In October 2001, bungling Ukrainian servicemen on exercise were the main suspects for the destruction of Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 over the Black Sea. Whoever did it, they killed 78 passengers and crew en route from Israel to Novosibirsk – though Ukraine has never officially admitted guilt.

Complex quarrels about blame for such horrors are often never resolved. I am among many who do not believe that Libya had anything to do with the mass murder of those aboard Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in December 1988, very likely an Iranian-backed retaliation for the Airbus tragedy. All the evidence points to a terror group operating from Syrian-controlled territory, and none points to Libya.

But at the time of the prosecution, we were trying to make friends with Syria, which has since gone back near the top of our enemies list but may soon be our ally again, against the fanatics of Isis. Confused? You should be.

So, let us just mourn the dead and comfort the bereaved, and regret human folly and the wickedness of war. Let us not allow this miserable event to be fanned into a new war. That is what we did almost 100 years ago, and it is about time we learned something from that.

I don’t usually regard the UK Daily Mail as a reliable source, and in this case Peter Hitchens follows this article with a lot of twaddle that undermines his own credibility, but in this affair nobody has much credibility. In the remainder of his article, Hitchens is clearly looking for any excuse to bash the EU, just as Kerry, Cameron & Co are looking for any excuse to bash Putin.

What we see is what Orwell predicted in his novel 1984, where the propaganda of politicians about perceived enemies is echoed by the media, and everyone is expected to believe it.

MH17aBarely three years ago the UN Security Council, at the urging of Western governments, imposed a “no-fly zone” over Libya, to stop Gaddafi from “bombing his own people”. If this was their honest concern, honestly expressed, should they not be imposing a similar “no-fly” zone over Ukraine, to stop Poroshenko from bombing “is own people”? And should the UN Security Council not be imposing a no-fly zone over Gaza?

But, we are told by the Western media, “separatists” are good when Western leaders approve of them (as in the case of Croatia and Slovenia in 1990, and Kosovo in 1999), but bad when Western leaders do not approve of them (as in the case of South Ossetia a few years ago, and of the eastern Ukraine now). Whether they support separatists or don’t support them, however, they always blame someone else for the resulting violence, and in doing so they make people like Putin, with his calls for peaceful solutions and independent investigations,  look good.

RonPaulThere was, however, at least one Western politician who attributed the disaster to the same causes that Putin did. Ron Paul is a bit of a maverick, rather on the periphery of his own party, but I believe his analysis of the situation comes a lot closer to the truth than the disingenuous bluster of Cameron and Kerry.

The time to point a finger at Putin, and to blame him, will be if it is ever discovered who actually shot down the Malaysian airliner, and who was responsible for giving the order that shot it down. If Putin then gives a medal to those responsible, as the US Goverrnment gave a medal to Captain Harris of the Vincennes for shooting down an airliner, then will be the time to point a finger at Putin, and tell him that it is “unacceptable”. As it is, Cameron and Kerry are as much to blame as Putin, is not more so, because they have consistently fanned the flames of the conflict and have done nothing to try to extinguish them.

Until such time as that happens, let everyone involved see the conflict as “unacceptable” and do their best to reduce and mitigate it, rather than fanning the flames, as the belligerent rhetoric of many politicians is doing at the moment.

 

The right to be forgotten

8 July 2014

There has been increasing discussion of “the right to be forgotten” in various quarters, though you will not find it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I’m not sure where the phrase originated, but it seems to be spreading quite rapidly, and just to make sure we don’t forget it, we were reminded of it in a recent article in the Mail & Guardian, Google and the right to be forgotten:

On May 13, the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), the highest court in the EU, ruled in favour of Costeja González and against Google. González asked the search engine giant to remove some unflattering links from the results that appeared when anyone searched for his name. Google refused, and so he took the company to court.

We can all sympathise with González. When his home was repossessed in 1998, a notice appeared in a local paper and on its website. Most people would want to forget such an unpleasant and embarrassing event as soon as possible. But Google’s results continued to remind the world of the repossession more than a decade later.

With its ruling, the ECJ effectively created a new legal right – the right to be forgotten. Since the ruling, tens of thousands of requests for removals have been pouring into the system that Google built for their handling. But the current solution is both deeply problematic and impractical.

Regardless of the merits of the Google case referred to, I think the term “the right to be forgotten” is a singularly unfortunate one, because if such a right really existed, it would be the right to end all rights. If taken literally, it could mean the end of all history.

In the Orthodox Church, when someone dies, we say “May his memory be eternal.” It is part of our humanity to remember people. There is no such thing as a “right” to be forgotten, and if people want to invent such a right, will they develop a device to wipe the memories of all those who might remember them? If so, tampering with other people’s memories would be the biggest violation of human rights of all. And saying that people have a “right” to be forgotten implies that they therefore have a right to tamper with other people’s memories.

I find it hard to believe that the European Court of Human Rights intended to create such a right in the Conzalez case or any other. Whatever right they may have created, I don’t think it was the right to be forgotten.

But perhaps this is just wishful thinking on my part, because according to no less an authority than The Stanford Law Review that is precisely what they did intend to create: The Right to Be Forgotten – Stanford Law Review:

…the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, announced the European Commission’s proposal to create a sweeping new privacy right—the “right to be forgotten.” The right, which has been hotly debated in Europe for the past few years, has finally been codified as part of a broad new proposed data protection regulation.

If we are to take that at face value, and there is nothing to suggest that Viviane Reding did not intend us to take it at face value, then if someone would not or could not forget someone who wanted to be forgotten, the European Court of Human Rights could order them to have a lobotomy or other brain surgery until the memory was excised, because that is what the phrase “the right to be forgotten” implies. If that is not what Viviane Reding or the European Human Rights Commission intended, then they should not use that phrase. Perhaps they should cloak it in a more vague and comforting form of words like “final solution”.

There are, for example, people who say that we should forget how bad apartheid was, and move on. Should the history of that period be excised from the history books because some people, especially those who connived at it, prefer to forget it?

When I read about the Gonzales case, I can sympathise, and say yes, there is a problem. But the problem is not one that can be solved by creating a spurious right that will erase history from public memory. And I doubt very much that Gonzales really wants to be forgotten. Does he want to be buried in an unmarked grave, where the grave-diggers are killed immediately afterwards to prevent them from ever disclosing its location? Because that is what the term “the right to be forgotten” implies.

No, I am sure that what Gonzalez wants is not to be forgotten, but not to have his face perpetually rubbed in one incident from his past as if that was the most significant thing about him. I think that that is a not unreasonable desire, but it is not “the right to be forgotten”. If that is the kind of problem that the European Commission for Human Rights is hoping to solve, then creating a “right to be forgotten” is using a proverbial steamroller to crack a walnut.

The right to be forgotten is thoroughly evil, and the sooner we forget about it, the better.

 

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