July 27, 2012

Guns Don't Kill People! Therefore, All Guns, Any Weapon, to All People! Yeehaw!

Those who don't like gun control now--after the theater massacre in CO--say "let's not politicize it". I say, we shouldn't if no aspects of this outcome are related to political decisions. Of course, we all know that the prevalence of gun violence in our society isn't because of our culture but also because of laws which are the result of political considerations, lobbying, and leadership.

Short on something?
Speaking of leadership, the president failed to lead, again, on this issue. He may lead, from the rear, in the near future if the country moves ahead on this issue and demands sensible gun controls. This issue is like so many others--oh, "controversial"--so Obama is cautious. Like he was with the Don't Ask Don't Tell, same sex marriage, taxes, etc. First the country moved, then this president followed instead of providing leadership.

Even most NRA members agree that sensible gun laws, better and more complete ones we have now, are needed! So, when will this president and Congressional leaders take on this issue? Why isn't there a federal law prohibiting assault weapons, certain ammo, and requiring background checks and waiting periods? 

Not turn-the-other-cheek fellow.
One of the stupidest arguments is that "the Gov will take away our freedom if it takes away, or knows about, our guns!" Oh, really? IF it comes to that, it will be too late indeed; the GOV always has more and bigger guns. We would have lost our fundamental freedoms well before that. And, we'd lose those freedoms by being idiotic, apathetic, and having a bumper-sticker mentality!

Modern societies have progressed from the days when justice and protection was up to each person--if they could afford it. Disputes are better solved without violence and if there's violence deadly weapons aren't used. We tried the method of everybody carrying a gun to defend themselves and we, at least most of the advanced societies, decided to change that. 

Draw and make my day!
Sure, it's possible that the Colorado incident might have turned out differently had most of the theater audience packed guns. How different, I'm not sure. On campus where I work we've talked about the V Tech student massacre few years ago--when one person walked on campus and killed 30+ people. Maybe that would have happened if faculty, staff, and students had been carrying guns. However, what would happen every other day?! And, what would the atmosphere be when everybody knows a dispute can escalate into bullets flying everywhere?!

The Notion of Freedom 

I will not tire repeating that freedom is not just the absence of restraint! Yet, this is how most Americans define it, but this is rather inadequate nowadays. Obstacles to freedom include poverty, illiteracy, prejudice, tyranny of the majority, disease, lack of opportunity, etc.  

From my perspective, having the freedom to carry a gun and use it for protection is not as important as having health care, education, and be in an environment that allows me to reach my potential.  I cannot understand why having limits on the types of weapons I can buy, the types & amount of ammunition I can obtain, or restrictions on how and where to use certain weapons is limiting my true freedom. 

If guns don't kill people, then why have any limits? How about licensing nukes, armed fighter planes, and dirty bombs? Don't we need such weaponry for hunting or target practice? Obviously no one needs this weapons or huge ammo clips that attach to machine guns. If then it's about the effects οf weapons, then reasonable restrictions are necessary.

Necessary gun control plus some common sense enhance everyone's freedom and the quality of life.

Update, 7/23

The NYT has an editorial today reflecting many of the points here. Both candidates for president, but especially the sitting president failed to take this opportunity to lead and push for sensible gun laws.  On the other hand,  NYC mayor Bloomberg has been right on this issue all along. 

Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country.”Mayor M. Bloomberg

As much as Obama has been lukewarm on many important issues, GOP flag bearer Mittens Romney is ridiculous. When he was one-term Gov of MA, he advocated all sorts of good things--health care, gun control, same-sex unions, abortion rights, etc. Of course by vying for the leadership of a lunatic party he changed his tune completely. 

And, this is my argument with people who say voting for Romney will not make much of a difference and that maybe he'll be more effective than the siting president. This is wrong on so many counts. Romney will have to govern with this Republican party, with its extreme policies and backward party line. He has flipped-flopped from his centrist positions and he'll most likely won't go back to them if elected. Plus, he'll be running for reelection which will make it even harder to adopt centrist policies.

On the other hand, Obama might be freer to pursue sensible policies (more) boldly after November thinking of his legacy and not of reelection in 2016.

July 25, 2012

The Inveitability of the Arab Spring

The uprisings in the Arab world did not take me by surprise. I am not implying that I knew, with any precision, when these uprisings would erupt but I am merely referring to the fact that I have been predicting such an upheaval for decades. This does not make me a seer but it does make me a member of the group of people in the world who would rather base their views about the future on an analysis of facts about the forces that exist in societies at a particular point in time. Whenever I was asked about while was not surprised that an Arab uprising has taken place my simple answer has always been; the real surprise would be if no uprising has taken place since the societal structure of the Arab world was and still is ripe for a radical change.

Let us review some of these facts:

(1)All Arab regimes can be looked upon essentially as continuations of colonialism. With very few exceptions the systems in power in each country was installed by the colonial powers and in a few examples some minor revolutionary changes took place, revolutionary changes based often on the promising idea of Pan Arabism, a concept that is dead for all intensive purposes. It is with this in mind that the Arab Spring may be viewed as the beginning of the post colonial era as Professor Hamid Dabashi argues in his latest book.

(2) Political pluralism was (and still is in many places) practically nonexistent in the Arab world. Political parties are either banned outright or if not banned then the formation of one required all sorts of permits and governmental approvals that made the process Kafkaesque.

(3)Constitutions or whatever passed for constitutions were not documents about the aspirations of the citizens since these citizens ever played a major role either in their formulations or in their adoption.

(4)Conditions for a free press, arguably one of the most important institutions in a vibrant dynamic democracy were made very difficult. Most Arab countries; 17 out of 19 according to one count; required special permits for the establishment of a newspaper. In many cases the number of permits was fixed, as in Lebanon, while in others no free press was allowed. A permit inhibits the behaviour of the recipient under the best of circumstances.

(5)Political succession was either mandated as in the Kingdoms and the GCC emirates or became quasi dynastic as in Tunis, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Syria. Even the Lebanese had no problem in amending the constitution to accommodate desire by Presidents to stay in power unconstitutionally.

(6) Many ruled by giving themselves emergency powers (Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Sudan to name a few) that have been in effect for decades. The justification was usually the false claim or blackmail if you will that it is either the regime or disintegration and chaos without it. This appears to be, at the moment, the favourite explanation by the Syrian regime supporters about the need to put down the uprising so brutally.

(7) State security was given almost free hand to apprehend torture and spread fear among peaceful citizens who might wish to object and dissent. Civil liberty was an alien concept in most countries.

(8) Economic performance among the non oil exporting countries was close to dismal. Unemployment was high, economic growth was low, wealth distribution was inequitable, food insecurity was rampant, educational opportunities very limited

(9) Modern technology has made it difficult to keep the abuse, the inequities and the underperformance hidden. The world did shrink as a result of inexpensive transportation but essentially as a result of telecommunication revolutions that allowed individuals to make telephone calls overseas, communicate with friends and relatives in more prosperous parts of the world and the ability to learn that other people in other countries do not have to put up with the daily abuse to their personhood. They have had enough.

As all of you now the above brief list could be expanded into many other areas as corruption and cult of personality. But I trust that the above is enough to make it clear that no people will willingly choose to live under these unjust, unfair and abusive conditions. It was only a matter of time before people would rise and demand their freedom: an inalienable right. That is how history unfolds. All people are destined to be free and all dictators, authoritarian regimes and tyrannical rulers will ultimately fall. This you can count on it is a law as valid as that of gravity. The entire Arab world will ultimately be free.   

July 20, 2012

Is The Arab Destined To Watch The World Go By?

Judged by practically every single ranking in the world Arab countries in general do not rank very high; 
neither when measured by the HDI (Human Development Index) nor when measured by the Democracy Index, the Corruption Index or that of Failed State. Why is that so? If you ask Arabs most will never tire of recounting the fact that Algebra, Medicine and Philosophy were the most developed in the world about 1200 years ago by Arab speaking scholars and Moslem believers. They have a point. The relatively common explanation of “backwardness’ in terms of language, geographical location , natural resources and religion does not stand the rigors of serious investigations. So what is it that makes nations fail? In a relatively new book that has become an instantaneous reference on the subject the two authors James Robinson of Harvard and his colleague Daron Acemoglu from MIT suggest that ultimately it is institutions, social, economic and political. They describe at length, in “Why Nations Fail”, the divergent development of North and South Korea, two countries inhabited by the same people who speak the same language and share the same peninsula. One of them has become one of the most vibrant economies in the world while the other is one of the poorest. It is clear that this offers as close to a laboratory experiment in the social field as one can imagine. One country was split into two; one adopted an open democratic system and free enterprise while the other opted for state planning and a command economy. The former prospered while the latter stagnated. What are the lessons in this to the Arab world? Create institutions that value personal freedom and liberty, encourage education and risk taking by offering protection of personal property i.e. Encourage responsible citizenship and educated population that does not fear failure since that is the dynamic force behind innovation. Creative destruction is not a phrase to be feared as much as an idea to be embraced.

Unfortunately each of the above basic attributes of this modern society that can keep reinventing itself and moving forward rests on education and on an  open mind above everything else. This is our failure in the Arab world. In many of our countries the literacy rate is rather low and even then it is barely above 6-8 years of education. Combine that with the dominant culture of a traditional society , a culture that does not question the reasons for the way things are but merely accepts the status quo for what it is and you get the conditions for stagnation, lack of research and entrepreneurship.

The above is not based on speculation but facts as collected , catalogued and presented by a prestigious research center, Arab thought Foundation. Its latest report reveals the damning evidence that Arabs, in general do not read, do not study and do not do research in any meaningful way. The figures are astonishingly alarming as the following will illustrate.

The average Arab child reads only 6 minutes a year compared to the 12000 by the Western counterpart. The average Arab adult reads the equivalent of a quarter of a page each year compared to the 11 books read by the American and the 7 books read by a resident of the UK. Such results should not be surprising when very few if any of our villages, towns and cities have public libraries and when the 4.5 million Lebanese buy every day less than 100,000 newspapers.  It is rare to visit an Arab home that has a bookshelf of current books besides the Quran or possibly the Bible. When we complain, as we must, that even in nominally democratic Lebanon, citizens do not vote for ideas as much as traditional feudalistic leadership, we must not forget that very few of the citizens have had the opportunity to read and learn about different ideas and different ways of thinking.

As bad as the above might be in preventing the rise of responsible government it pales in significance when compared to the utter lack of interest that our society shows in research and experiments. Arab countries on the average devote 0.2% of their GDP to scientific research when countries such as Sweden and Japan spend 17 times more; 3.4%. This lack of interest in science is also seen in the number of researchers per 1 million citizens. The highest such ratio in the Arab world is found in Egypt: 650 researchers out of every 1 million people when South Korea has 4600 researchers for every 1 million Korean.
And the lack of performance goes on. It can be seen clearly in the rankings of the top 500 universities in the worlds according to the University of Shanghai, the most popular such ranking. Only 2 Arab universities make the cut; King Saud University and the King Fahd University for Petroleum and minerals. Alas all of these low rankings are reflected in something concrete, the whole of the Arab world had registered only 475 patents all across the world in the period of 2005-2009.

So what is the lesson if any? The dismal educational record in addition to the lack of any interest in research manifested them in a rigid dictatorial political system that is ripe for revolution. You cannot keep them on the farm once they have seen Paris, as the US saying goes. The Arab Spring should not have been a surprise in a society that has abused its citizens and refused to let modern institutions develop. The Arab Spring is not over yet, even if the Assad regime falls tomorrow. We still have to deal with the rigidities of the GCC, Jordan and half of North Africa. Revolution is inevitable, and if governments are smart then they can prevent the collective pain or at least minimize it by modernizing and creating open institutions.

If any of you has the courage to read the full report (359 pages) then have a go at it: