FLAT EARTH

Junking the Net

REMEMBER the exciting news that you could now e-mail the US Secretary of State for an explanation of any points of American foreign policy that escaped you? Your message might not be scrutinised by Madeleine Albright herself, we were told, but you would get an answer.

At last, it seemed, the democratising qualities of cyberspace were bringing government closer to the people. I fired off some questions, aimed at discovering how a dinosaur like Jesse Helms could be obstructing US ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and what Mrs Albright intended to do about it. Alas, the reply was no more than an electronic equivalent of the form letter.

"The Secretary receives so much mail that she cannot personally review each message," it said. "Your foreign policy opinions and concerns are regularly given to the Secretary with a representative sampling of the mail . . . Your continued interest and participation in foreign affairs is very important to her."

So far, so bland. But then there was a sinister postscript: "This is the only electronic message you will receive from secretary@state.gov. No other message claiming to be from this address is authentic. This . . . is an automated response."

A friend who grew up in New Zealand recollects that the Prime Minister's home number was in the Wellington phone book, and that his father regularly rang up the PM to tell him where he was going wrong. We are still some way from achieving that on the Net, I'm afraid.

Shooting licence

WATCHING a rerun of Cry Freedom! the other night, I found myself irritated at the re-enactment of the start of the Soweto uprising. As someone else commented, the black pupils doing the toyi-toyi looked more like a chorus line than an angry crowd, but a more serious distortion was to show a unit consisting only of white policemen pouring long bursts of automatic fire into them.

In fact most of the policemen on duty that day were black. The shooting was sporadic and motivated mainly by panic, as at Sharpeville 16 years earlier. Although there were deliberate attempts at other times to mow down protesters in cold blood, the film captured none of the deadly confusion which I witnessed on 16 June 1976.

It might be argued that this does not matter, but I wonder. It is the details we remember, and they may be purely imaginary. Did a bullet loose a mother's grip, causing her baby's pram to careen from top to bottom of the Odessa steps? The Battleship Potemkin makes us believe it must have been so.

Belgian question

IT'S hard to say why, but somehow one's awe for Vaclav Havel is slightly diminished by the news that the Czech president is taking his honeymoon in Belgium. The widowed playwright and statesman is at a health resort near Spa with his new wife, the former actress Dagmar Veskrnova. The somewhat unromantic destination is probably due to Havel's recent operation for lung cancer, but for Belgium, which is swamped by political corruption and paedophilia scandals, the association can only help.

The Bruno Magli company is not happy about its connection with OJ Simpson, though. Sales might have shot up since he was proved to have worn a pair of its shoes, but the Magli people fear the reflected fame may rebound, especially since Simpson tried to deny owning such "ugly-ass" footwear.

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