The Sunday Times: Right now, America’s Liberty likes her lemmings gluten-free

Photo: Daria Nepriakhina

Photo: Daria Nepriakhina

Is America a nation of gullible nitwits? For the record, there is no country on earth that can cast the first stone. Still, judging by the blind faith in loopy science that has turned the gluten-free diet into a $23bn movement, it is a valid question.

Gluten is a “gluey” protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It makes cakes go fluffy and bread taste moist. Wheat was one of the first domesticated food crops and is a staple food around the world. Nevertheless, a third of Americans now avoid gluten in the belief that it causes a range of ills from diabetes, obesity, autism and Alzheimer’s to joint pain, flatulence and diarrhoea.

A minuscule market that once served the 1% of Americans who have coeliac disease (and must avoid gluten) now commands the top shelves in the food aisles. Of all the egregious examples of corporate welfare, our paying huge premiums to Kraft and Kellogg’s for non-existent health benefits must take the gluten-free biscuit.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When Summer Is a Bummer

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Summertime has officially begun. But is it really true, as the George Gershwin song claims, that “the livin’ is easy”?

Benjamin Franklin advised his fellow Americans against seasonal complacency, observing, “Some are weather-wise, some are otherwise.” For many people, summertime means either the threat of floods and hurricanes or the pain of wildfires and droughts. Nothing easy there.

In Britain, however, summertime has always posed a somewhat different problem—more existential than experiential. As with invisible protons, being certain of the existence of the British summer requires a leap of faith. Lord Byron wasn’t convinced, writing, “The English winter—ending in July, to recommence in August.”

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The Sunday Times: One Kardashian bum selfie and Occupy Wall Street is history

Photo: @KIMKARDASHIAN ON INSTAGRAM

Photo: @KIMKARDASHIAN ON INSTAGRAM

It was mid-September, three years ago, when a small group of protesters gathered by the raging bull sculpture in Lower Manhattan and formed the Occupy Wall Street movement. They had a grievance and a slogan: “We are the 99%”. A few weeks earlier Kim Kardashian, the world’s most successful reality-TV star, had held a lavish televised wedding to a basketball player named Kris Humphries.

Less than four months later OWS had transformed itself into a global movement with offshoots from Toronto to Tel Aviv. It had even received the ultimate accolade in the form of a message from President Barack Obama. That’s right; the White House had issued a statement assuring Americans that their president was working for the 99%. No other movement in history had enjoyed so enormous an impact in so short a time.

In Los Angeles, however, where the bodaciously vapid Kim and her sullen hunk of a husband Kris were back in the bosom of the Kardashian family reality show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, things were not so rosy. With great fortitude and no doubt inhuman levels of personal sacrifice, they managed to keep the marriage going until October. On the 31st it was announced that they were filing for divorce.

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The Wall Street Journal: Literature: The Tragic Poets of World War I

Photo: THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

Photo: THE GRANGER COLLECTION, NEW YORK

In the early 1940s, the English man of letters Robert Graves observed that patriotic verse had always been written in time of war—but only in World War I did the terms “war poet” and “war poetry” come into use, and both were “peculiar to it.” The soldiers in the trenches included enormous numbers of highly educated young men from nonmilitary backgrounds, who brought a new and different sensibility to the experience of war.

The first notable war poet to emerge was the young Rupert Brooke. His 1915 poem “The Soldier” captured the early spirit of duty and sacrifice: “If I should die, think only this of me; / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.”

But the Brooke model was short-lived. Later poets challenged the idea that patriotism had any connection with such slaughter. Two in particular, Wilfred Owen (“Dulce et Decorum Est”) and Siegfried Sassoon (“How to Die”), came to symbolize the disillusionment of an entire generation. Where Sassoon was sarcastic, Owen was blunt, as in “Anthem for Doomed Youth”: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When a Monarch Calls It Quits

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Abdication fever is sweeping the royal palaces of Europe. Recently, Spain’s King Juan Carlos became the third monarch in just over a year to renounce his crown. In January 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands declared that she was stepping down in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. King Albert II of Belgium followed six months later.

Abdication in the old days was usually a prelude to execution. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud (who ruled from 534 to 509 B.C.), is one of the earliest recorded examples of a monarch who was forced to abdicate and still lived to tell the tale. Tarquin was the seventh and last king of the Romans. Burdened by heavy taxes, the aristocracy was already wishing to be rid of Tarquin when his son raped the pious Lucretia. The crime proved to be the catalyst for the birth of the Roman republic.

Tarquin eventually retired to the court of a neighboring tyrant. There, bored and angry, he plotted endlessly to reconquer Rome. Today, if Tarquin is remembered at all, it is by the generations of British schoolchildren who grew up learning to recite “Horatius at the Bridge,” Thomas Babington Macaulay’s stirring ballad on Tarquin’s defeat: “Lars Porsena of Clusium, / by the Nine Gods he swore, / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more…And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds / For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods.”

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The Sunday Times: Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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The Sunday Times: Stay silent and soon Amazon will be telling the world what it can read

Photo: Glen Noble

Photo: Glen Noble

One of the greatest monopolies in history was the medieval Catholic Church. Its religious and temporal power was absolute until confronted by an even more potent rival: the printed book. Today, print is once more at the centre of a cultural revolution. Only this time it is not the challenger to a global monopoly but its most successful weapon.

Amazon, founded and controlled by Jeff Bezos, used the humble book to leverage itself into becoming the world’s largest online retailer. It took 20 years for Amazon to emerge as a monopolistic power. Last week, by creating an effective blacklist of authors for use as a bargaining tool against Hachette Book Group, the company showed us how far it would go in its abuse of that power.

The public has only recently become aware of the long shadow war between Amazon and the publishing industry. In February Amazon began quietly “disappearing” certain authors in an attempt to force Hachette into giving larger discounts on its books.

What the public does not know is that the real fight is about kickbacks. How can Amazon make up for the fact that it sells almost all its books at a loss?

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Great Swindlers

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Great swindles used to have a face or at least a name to vilify. By contrast, our current financial scandals seem diffuse, transnational and as incomprehensible as their acronyms. Libor, ISDAfix and now HFT, or high-frequency trading—all were once regarded as harmless instruments that facilitated the movement of capital. But there was more to them than met the eye. As the best-selling financial writer Michael Lewis, author of the recently published “Flash Boys,” recently said on “60 Minutes,” “The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism, is rigged.”

Though computers have increasingly replaced humans and business methods have grown more arcane, what links today’s scandals with those of yesteryear is the hypnotizing power of confidence. Violence can force people to act against their instincts, but only confidence can make us override them. Charles Ponzi, whose fraudulent postal-coupon scam in 1919 gave rise to the term “Ponzi scheme,” exuded such confidence that he was still able to attract investors even after he brought down six banks, lost about $20 million and spent 3½ years in prison.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When Justice Drowns in the Law

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

Photo: ARTHUR GIRON

In “The Federalist Papers,” No. 62, James Madison warned his readers against drawing up laws that were unnecessarily dense or complicated: “It will be of little avail to the people…if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.”

Congress largely heeded Madison’s advice until World War II, when the average bill was still only 21/2 pages long. But today, 1,000-page spending bills routinely pass through Congress. President Bush’s 2007 budget bill counted 1,482 pages, while the 2010 Affordable Care Act ended up at almost 1,000 pages.

According to Philip Howard, the author of “The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government,” the chief problem with laws that rival “War and Peace” in length is that the rule of law suffers. Instead of being the facilitator for civil society, he warns, the law can become an instrument of paralysis.

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The Sunday Times: The Ugly American inside Obama is wagging his finger at the world

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Barack Obama began his recent four-nation tour of Asia by having dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Japan’s renowned sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.

The restaurant has three Michelin stars but only 10 seats and it can take years to get a reservation. The set meal consists of 20 exquisite sushi pieces, each personally cut by 88-year-old chef Jiro Ono. According to a witness, Obama decided he was finished after the 10th and put down his chopsticks.

There are three possible reasons why Obama stopped eating halfway through the meal. 1) The 44th president is severely allergic to raw fish. 2) Obama was frightened of pulling a George HW Bush and throwing up in Abe’s lap. 3) He was, well, kind of full, you know?

I have a strong suspicion that the answer is No 3. Obama has a political tin ear whenever he has to hobnob with foreigners — such as the time he bowed to the Japanese emperor in 2009 only to ruin the gesture by simultaneously shaking hands. Whether it was ignorance or arrogance or a combination of the two, the gaffe pandered directly to the stereotype of the “Ugly American”.

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