December 17, 2014

Ignorance Usually is not a Good Defense, Unless You're a Conservative Running for Office and Appealing to Idiocy

"I'm not a scientist," it's the excuse many politicians use to avoid answering controversial questions, like climate change, evolution, age of earth, etc. Of course, most of us aren't scientists, but use the products of science every day. And, most of us are alive, because of science. We doubled human life expectancy in the last 100 years, cured diseases, reduced infant mortality (and mothers' mortality at childbirth), went to the moon, understand a lot more about the universe, and we made our lives more comfortable because of science. So, science works.

What works actually it's the method of discovery, acquisition of knowledge, forming and amending scientific theories, and seeking the facts and the truth. Unfortunately, many Americans don't really understand what the scientific method is. There are several reasons for this. One is the strong influence of religion, which is much higher here than in other advanced countries. In addition religion has been meddling in education. Another reason is the failure of schools to teach what science and the scientific method is.

Education has to be knowledge, but what kind of knowledge? Memorization & repetition without understanding isn't the goal. Education, like science, should be a tool for knowledge. In this sense, it's more important how you thing than what you think about.

We may not be scientists but we must understand what science is and what it does. Democracy depends on the people's understanding of issues, engagement, and prudence. It's obvious that the quality of a system depends on the quality of the people involved. Ignorance doesn't serve the good political life--nor life in general.

"I'm not a scientist"

It's tiresome, to say the least, that leaders use this lame line. They are either ignorant or lying or both. If they're ignorant, they should recuse themselves from making public policy on issues they don't understand. They should stop promoting idiocy like, there's got to be two sides to the story, or teach the controversy, or there's no unanimity... Please, stop this nonsense. As leaders they should try to elevate public discourse by speaking carefully about science, the facts, and reality than by appealing the lowest common denominator.

Here's an ignorant person, a former governor of Florida and a member of the Bush clan, who is seriously exploring running for president of the U.S.


 Let the circus of the Republican/conservatives/tea partiers begin. It'd be hilarious if it didn't have serious implications on our public discourse.

December 10, 2014

CIA (and not only) Torture is Not Appropriate for Our Country if We Want to Champion Human Rights and Uphold the Rule of Law & International Treaties

I just read that royalty watchers were stunned by a basketball star's touching her royal highness, the breeder of a future king of Britain. Horrors. What's next? Pitchforks, tar and feathers? Frankly, I don't understand why there's so much media coverage for such a banal scripted activities of some of the most boring people on this planet. Anyway, I guess people need a circus show.

Meanwhile, the US Senate released a report about the CIA's torture practices. Yeah, pretty bad stuff. Torture is illegal and--I know I'm trending into controversial territory--immoral. No matter how it's labeled--like "enhanced interrogation--it's barbaric, unworthy of a society that wants to claim it abides by the rules of law, international treaties it has signed, and a champion of human rights.

What's interesting, and buried in the report, is that torture did not produce actionable information. Of course, many of our own experts had said that many times in the past. The torturers copied the brutality of some of our enemies. I imagine that if we watched a movie of Americans being treated the same way by some foreign language speaking torturers, we'd be calling for the annihilation of those savages and their organizations or countries.

From the Think Progress site, here are 17 facts in the Senate's report on torture. By the way, this is just about the CIA. There were other US agencies, including the military, that used torture. Remember Abu Graib prison in Baghdad?  

Below are just some of the most damning findings from the Committee’s report:
1. Torture did not lead the CIA to the courier who ultimately helped capture Osama bin Laden.
“The most accurate information on Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti — facilitator whose identification and tracking led to the identification of UBL’s compound and the operation that resulted in UBL’s death — “obtained from a CIA detainee was provided by a CIA detainee who had not yet been subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques; and CIA detainees who were subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques withheld and fabricated information about Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.” [Page 379]
2. CIA personnel objected to torture techniques, but were “instructed” by the CIA headquarters to continue.
“The non-stop use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques was disturbing to CIA personnel at DETENTION SITE GREEN. These CIA personnel objected to the continued use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques against Abu Zubaydah, but were instructed by CIA Headquarters to continue using the techniques…”Several on the team profoundly affected.. .some to the point of tears and choking up. [Page 473]
3. The two psychologists who helped the CIA create the torture techniques earned over $81 million.
“In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.” [Page 11]
4. Colin Powell was not briefed on CIA interrogation methods because he would “blow his stack”.
“At the direction of the White House, the secretaries of state and defense – both principals on the National Security Council – were not briefed on program specifics until September 2003. An internal CIA email from July 2003 noted that “… the WH [White House] is extremely concerned [Secretary] Powell would blow his stack if he were to be briefed on what’s been going on.” Deputy Secretary of State Armitage complained that he and Secretary Powell were “cut out” of the National Security Council coordination process.” [Page 7]
5. The CIA used rectal feeding on detainees.
“At least five CIA detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. …Majid Khan’s “lunch tray” consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins was “pureed” and rectally infused. [Page 4]
6. CIA leadership refused to punish an officer who killed a detainee during torture session.
“On two occasions in which the CIA inspector general identified wrongdoing, accountability recommendations were overruled by senior CIA leadership. In one instance, involving the death of a CIA detainee at COBALT, CIA Headquarters decided not to take disciplinary action against an officer involved because, at the time, CIA… In another instance related to a wrongful detention, no action was taken against a CIA officer because, “[t]he Director strongly believes that mistakes should be expected in a business filled with uncertainty,” and “the Director believes the scale tips decisively in favor of accepting mistakes that over connect the dots against those that under connect them.” In neither case was administrative action taken against CIA management personnel.” [Page 14]
7. The CIA tortured innocent people.
“Of the 119 known detainees that were in CIA custody during the life of the program, at least 26 were wrongfully held. Detainees often remained in custody for months after the CIA determined they should not have been detained….Other KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] fabrications led the CIA to capture and detain suspected terrorists who were later found to be innocent.” [Page 485]
8. The CIA held an “intellectually challenged man” to use as leverage against his family.
“[A]n “intellectually challenged” man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information, two individuals who were intelligence sources for foreign liaison services and were former CIA sources, and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” [Page 12]
9. The CIA intentionally mislead the media to “shape public opinion.”
“The CIA’s Office of Public Affairs and senior CIA officials coordinated to share classified information on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program to select members of the media to counter public criticism, shape public opinion, and avoid potential congressional action to restrict the CIA’s detention and interrogation authorities and budget.” [Page 8]
10. CIA officers threatened to kill and rape detainees’ mothers.
“CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families—to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee's] mother’s throat.” [Page 4]
11. The CIA dismissed information that wasn’t obtained through torture, even though it proved to be true.
“KSM’s reporting during his first day in CIA custody included an accurate description of a Pakistani/British operative, which was dismissed as having been provided during the initial “‘throwaway’ stage” of information collection when the CIA believed detainees provided false or worthless information.’” [Page 82]
12. CIA torture techniques included mock burials and use of insects.
“(1) the attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap, (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivation, (9) waterboard, (10) use of diapers, (11) use of insects, and (12) mock burial.” [Page 32]
13. Some interrogators had previously admitted to sexual assault.
“The Committee reviewed CIA records related to several CIA officers and contractors involved in the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, most of whom conducted interrogations. The Committee identified a number of personnel whose backgrounds include notable derogatory information calling into question their eligibility for employment, their access to classified information, and their participation in CIA interrogation activities. In nearly all cases, the derogatory information was known to the CIA prior to the assignment of the CIA officers to the Detention and Interrogation Program. This group of officers included individuals who, among other issues, had engaged in inappropriate detainee interrogations, had workplace anger management issues, and had reportedly admitted to sexual assault.” [Page 59]
14. One interrogator played Russian roulette.
“Among other abuses…had engaged in ‘Russian Roulette’ with a detainee.” [Page 424]
15. The CIA tortured its own informants by accident.
“In the spring of 2004, after two detainees were transferred to CIA custody, CIA interrogators proposed, and CIA Headquarters approved, using the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques on one of the two detainees because it might cause the detainee to provide information that could identify inconsistencies in the other detainee’s story. After both detainees had spent approximately 24 hours shackled in the standing sleep deprivation position, CIA Headquarters confirmed that the detainees were former CIA sources. The two detainees had tried to contact the CIA on multiple occasions prior to their detention to inform the CIA of their activities and provide intelligence. [Page 133]
16. The CIA tortured detainees in a dungeon.
“Conditions at CIA detention sites were poor, and were especially bleak early in the program. CIA detainees at the COBALT detention facility were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste. Lack of heat at the facility likely contributed to the death of a detainee. The chief of interrogations described COBALT as a “dungeon.” Another seniorCIA officer stated that COBALT was itself an enhanced interrogation technique.” [Page 4]
17. The CIA spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the torture program.
“CIA records indicate that the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program cost well over $300 million in non-personnel costs. This included funding for the CIA to construct and maintain detention facilities, including two facilities costing nearly $X million that were never used, in part due to host country political concerns. To encourage governments to clandestinely host CIA detention sites, or to increase support for existing sites, the CIA provided millions of dollars in cash payments to foreign government officials.” [Page 16]

August 20, 2014

Stop the Militarization of Law Enforcement and the Brutalization of Our Society! [Yes, in the USA]

There's a saying, the treatment or medicine should not be worse than the disease. We don't have to go to extremes to find safety and establish a decent, pluralistic, open, democratic society. We don't need to carry guns everywhere to guard against someone who's armed with bad intent. We don't need to be locked up, or locked down to be secure. The safety of the solitary confinement is undesirable. 

America the home of the brave should not be a militarized zone. America the land of the free should allow free speech even if it's part of a demonstration. Yes, liberal democracy can be inconvenient at times. It's the price we pay for such. Same with free speech--you will be offended; you will be exposed to stuff you don't like, you don't agree with, or even to hate speech. But, there are huge advantages to a liberal society...

>>>The following video contains graphic violence. The police shot dead a man who's apparently distraught. What makes it appalling is that the police first lied about what actually happened, and secondly they were very trigger happy. This is what I call very excessive violence that many police are prone to. This must change. We should not allow our society to be militarized and brutalized!<<<

As far as the recent events whereas the police have shot or mistreated people that led to protests, there's a justified outrage. I want to believe that most police are decent human beings, but there are many who are just tools; many that need lots of training--in sensitivity and skills. These law enforcement tools need to be taught that their job is protecting the public, our institutions, people's liberties, and our civil rights. They're hired to do a job that does not include combat duty. They should be dressed for the job they have not the job they may want. What's up with the military camo outfits? This is not the jungle or the desert! This is not warfare. Isolate the violent elements and deal with them appropriately, like police do in any country that wants to be civil and democratic.

What's up with the tanks, mine-resistant vehicles, machine guns, snipers, and use of brutal often lethal force? It's abhorrent. I resent going to a block party, a county fair, 4th of July fireworks, and other public event only to be greeted by military police with all sorts of heavy equipment. Why small peaceful towns all over the country that have a few dozen police officers need SWAT teams and military equipment? The Homeland Security Dpt [by the way, what an awful name this is] was the creation of a hysterical nation, a belligerent neocon administration and a immature Congress. I doubt more than a handful of people actually read the Patriot Act which was voted and signed summarily into law.

When a person is being watched and loses a sense of privacy, he is changed; he does not behave as a free person. When people demonstrate and are treated like criminals by law enforcement, democracy suffers. When the whole society is militarized and brutalized civil liberties/rights wither.

I was asked by a reporter recently to comment on the events in St Luis. I reiterated the points I'm making here in this post, plus I added that many people don't seem to separate events. Robbing a store is a thuggish act, a criminal behavior, but as long as it's no life-threatening there is not need to use lethal force to a) protect or recover property and b) to stop the perp by killing them.  Apparently the idiotic leaders in MO thought that by releasing a video of a person stealing stuff from a convenience store makes it easier to pull the trigger! Watch the video above, from another recent incident, and tell me why the trigger-happy police had to kill that person.

I also don't approve of the looting. Undoubtedly there are some individuals who thrive in mayhem and exhibit unlawful if not violent behavior. Some find the opportunity to personally profit. But, I can understand the rage when confronted by military force or brutalized by the police. I've seen it and experienced it first hand during the Occupy movement. There's no shortage of tools, poorly trained, and/or psychologically unfit law enforcement that sadly are allowed to do what they want not what their job is. This has to stop now.


August 11, 2014

Religion Guides Conflict in the Middle East. History Shows that Solutions & Peace Come when Religion is Put Aside not when Combadants are Informed by it.

Why people take important actions or why they choose to believe certain myths is fascinating to me. Often it's not about evidence and reason, but it's about culture, purpose, and wishful thinking. If it were about reason and ascertainable facts, there would be lots more consensus on reality!

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague about the role of religion in the many conflicts in the Middle East. I argue that religious beliefs dictate to a great extent what's been happening there. This is not to say that there aren't other causes and factors, but if the participants were not religious, I bet they'd behave much differently. There wouldn't be a Jewish state or dreams of a caliphate or that God clearly has taken sides in the conflict and rewards his believers.

More traditional societies are more affected by religion. Modern states, especially the ones that have adopted liberalism, have been increasingly separating church-state; not so the regimes in the Middle East, though Israel is the only state that has strong elements of a secular democracy. Unfortunately, the Israeli government caters too much to the conservative Orthodox, who are motivated by strong religious dogmas. But, the vast majority of Jews don't take their Bible too literally. Like most Xtians have already done so. It would be reprehensible, and immoral--according to our modern sensibilities--to act as the Bible prescribes, especially in the Old Testament. Apparently many Muslims are still very fundamentalists and are in favor of theocracy.

As to the latest conflict, there's no easy or agreeable timeline of responsibility. Several peoples live in small contested land for thousands of years. The Balkans used to be like this, but it was easier to form countries with fixed borders. There were wars, exchange of populations, genocides, and religious conflict. But also there was more room to move and adjust the borders. Palestinians, Jews, and Christians all lay claim to this relatively small parcel of land in the Middle East.  Hamas began to fire rockets into Israeli civilian territory a few weeks ago. We have to ask, why did Hamas do so and what did they hope to achieve?

Those rockets couldn't seriously hurt Israel but certainly did provoke a violent reaction. Hamas knew that lots of innocent Palestinians would die if Israel retaliated--which it did. Are we closer to a solution today? I wonder. I am not excusing Israel's heavy hand, before and during the war. Let's say, however, that Hamas was in charge--with a big military force--and there was a Jewish minority. I don't think it'd take much guessing as to how Hamas would deal with the problem. 

I took the trouble to pour through Hamas' Chapter (Covenant). There isn't one paragraph that doesn't mention religion. The whole point of it is to eradicate the Jewish population from Palestine and establish a strict theocracy! A few days ago, NPR had a story about a young Hamas fighter who was killed. His mother kept saying “praise God” and that her son asked her to “pray for him” (before any mission). He had saved a few thousands of dollars “to get a bride” and if he was killed before that he asked his mother to spend the money on a hadj to Mecca! Praise God. This is a motivating factor for so many people. If they’re convinced that God is on their side and they’re going to heaven, especially as martyrs, even if it means killing infidels or fellow Muslims who don't have the correct version of God….

ISIS--the fanatics from Syria who have spread in Iraq is a prime example of religious lunacy. ISIS' public executions, the practice of a barbaric understanding of religion, and the fanaticism of its fighters is so extreme that even Al Qaeda rejected them. ISIS rose because those crazies are well armed, and financed, so such people tend to do well against corrupt, inefficient states, armies, etc.  If ISIS were smarter, they should copy Hezbollah, go into territories and instead of absolute terror they would improve the lives of citizens by providing needed services the Syrian or Iraqi state hadn’t. Now the US is using air strikes to push them back.

There are stark differences between those who recognize no limits to their armed struggle--anything goes at any price--and those who have the power but recognize restraints. For me at least this is important. Furthermore, I do not like theocracies of any kind. Humanity deserves better. Like I. Kant said sometime ago, this can be an age of enlightenment.... but only if we want it, because we choose to leave our immaturity behind.

June 28, 2014

M. E Boundaries are Inviolable.

Exactly 100 years ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed in Sarajevo on June 28 , 1914. His assassination set off a series of actions and counter reactions that ended up in one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, World War I. This tragedy is relevant to us in more than one way. Obviously the most basic reason for recognizing this day is the hope that the more we think about these tragic events the less likely humanity will be subjected to them again. But another important reason for us is the idea that WW I was a perfect example of unintended consequences. No one wanted to start a world war but the assassination spiraled out of control and ended up in a war that lasted for over 4 years , and resulted in an estimated 37 million casualties.. But there is another reason for us to think about this issue and that is that it culminated in freeing the ME from 400 years of Ottoman rule.

So many articles and thinkers have written about how is it that we might be witnessing the end of Sykes Picot, an agreement that is often described in negative terms by Arabs and many even go as far as to claim that all our problems, and there are so many, can be traced to the political subdivisions that were drawn after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

I do not subscribe to that vision except in one detail. One can argue very convincingly that had it not been for WWI, the resulting Mandate and the Sykes Picot agreement then possibly the Balfour declaration/Promise might not have been issued and the ME would have been spared the last seventy years of instability related to the establishment of the state of Israel. But if we are to set aside the Balfour Declaration then I cannot find much that is at fault with Sykes Picot.

Note that  Figure1 is a map that would make it clear that the whole of the Arab world, including
North Africa, was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for four centuries . Roughly1516-1916.
                            Figure 1: Ottoman Empire Arab World was under Ottoman Rule of Selim I
 Then in 1916 the infamous Sykes Picot subdivided part of the Ottoman Empire into two regions of influence, one British and one French. (figure 2) .
                  Figure 2: Note that Sykes Picot did not establish boundaries but only spheres of influence

The Sykes Picot agreement resulted in about 25 years of the
 Mandate Figure 3.

         Figure 3: The Mandate powers proceeded to carve out the current countries.(The French gave away Alexandreta to Turkey and initially planned an Alawite Republic as well as a Druze one).

 The two Western powers of France and Great Britain divided the area taken away from the Ottoman Empire into the current major countries of the M.E. Figure 3.
After Sykes Picot gave each of the two European powers an area of influence they then proceeded to carve up the countries that make up the current Middle East. But each of the countries created was able to become independent by the mid 1940’s. Figure 4.
                                     Figure 4: The current boundaries and dates of independence

This is an important point since it makes it clear that the mandate which created the boundaries between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel lasted only for 25 years.  
Based on the above and the accompanying maps one needs to ask again whether it was the 25 year mandate or the 400 year Ottoman rule that played a more crucial role in shaping the identity and culture of the people in this region.

If, as it is often claimed, that the current political borders created by the mandatory powers after the Sykes Picot agreement created political divisions that are not acceptable then why weren’t there any major movements to correct that flaw and redraw the borders. It is easier to protest a perceived injustice but is more difficult to prove that such an injustice has taken place. Would it have been better to the inhabitants of the mandated areas had these artificial boundaries not been created? Is there a shared national identity between the residents of these countries in question and are they ready to accept the other and accept the demands of democracy and responsibilities of citizenship that would be required in an efficient modern state? Even if the answer is yes then wouldn’t it be better to create a federation where each of the member states can control its own internal affairs.

I am willing to be a Giraffe ;put my neck out J; by saying that the “death of Sykes Picot has been exaggerated” and that the current map of the ME would hold with very little changes , if any. Ideally the most important radical change would be the settlement of the Israeli Palestinian question. The Kurdish issue would not be so much of a problem had Syria, Iran and Turkey been able to treat all their citizens equally, an autonomous Kurdish region might be the only other alteration of the current inviolable boundaries. I imagine that I am saying that ISIS will not fulfill its wish. No backward thinking group of people ever do.  

Figure 4 The mandate was relatively short lived.

June 10, 2014

Democracy Depends on a Consensus. Often, non-Optimal Choices May Be Acceptable and Even Very Prudent

I had an interesting conversation with colleagues during lunch today and at least one said that they won't vote for Hillary Clinton should she run for president. Some of the reasons cited was that she's openly for big business, that she didn't do anything while at the State Department, and that it's not appropriate to have an oligarchy of the Bushes and Clinton.

Well, I get all that, but in a democracy--as many times in life--we, personally, don't have the ideal choice. We may not have great choices either. We often take the "lesser of the two evils" and it makes sense, especially when one is truly evil, as I believe any serious Republican contender has been in my lifetime and will be in 2016.

Plus, elections have consequences as they can steer the country in a certain direction, elevate certain priorities, and articulate ideas. Successful policies, despite their flaws, convince people about their merits. Let's not forget, many people are conservative--can't imagine in the abstract or analyze ideology. There are many narratives out there. Sure, leadership matters, and that's why we have so many people choosing the ridiculous and want a society more fit for the Dark Ages. However, once they see that, say, Obamacare is generally good, that same-sex marriage doesn't destroy a state, etc, they accept it.

In the same light, I don't think most people readily accepted the ideas of the Enlightenment, of liberalism, or of civil rights for everyone. But, once those took hold (often imposed by elites like Jefferson, Madison, et al), people accepted them. We can see this today in our own country, from state to state--different sub-cultures with very opposing views on, say, gun control, religion, sex, political parties choice, etc. This also shows that most issues aren't decided on their merits, on evaluating the facts, because otherwise we wouldn't still be debating whether humans are responsible for global warming, evolution (and science in general), and the age of the Earth!

In yesterday's NYT, C. Blow's oped titled, "Religious Constriction," makes a similar point about the religiosity of our citizens--highest among affluent countries. You have to look to Greece, Italy, and the oil-rich Gulf countries to find higher religiosity. I maintain that--for most domains, issues, ideas, morality--if religion informs opinion then, most certainly, it's wrong, and imprudent. It is precisely because such opinions are held by so many of our citizens that we don't see the progress we could get nor do we solve many of our own problems.

I have to give another shout to a favorite, Paul Krugman, who he recently wrote [link] along the same lines of my argument:

"The fact that climate concerns rest on scientific consensus makes things even worse, because it plays into the anti-intellectualism that has always been a powerful force in American life, mainly on the right. It’s not really surprising that so many right-wing politicians and pundits quickly turned to conspiracy theories, to accusations that thousands of researchers around the world were colluding in a gigantic hoax whose real purpose was to justify a big-government power grab. After all, right-wingers never liked or trusted scientists in the first place.

So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed."

February 17, 2014

Some Thoughts on President(s)' Day

President(s)' Day today honoring... well, whatever states want, though the federal holiday is about George Washington who was born not today (2/17th but on the 22nd). Several states mark the occasion differently. Guess what? Lincoln's birthday (2/12) is included in this except in the South. I wonder why. So the third Monday in February is set for "president(s)" to sell all sorts of consumer stuff and some patriotic version of history.
The General with a maid in his headquarters, Newburgh, NY

I feel patriotic, so stop the caustic emails. But, this doesn't prevent me from trying to learn about the truth--as much as it can be ascertained--and examine causes and effects. Let's start by asking, what is patriotism? And, where, why did it start? The notion of patriotism begins with the notion of patris--country. So, how did the British citizens in the 13 colonies see themselves in the 1770s?

Musket warfare
Under the mercantile economic system, there was a zero-sum game: for every winner it had to have a loser. The colonies were a source of wealth for the then empires, and under imperial policy, the colonies were there to exploit the local resources and populations for the benefit of the mother country. It was forbidden for the colonies to trade with anyone else. But, that didn't prevent the American colonists from breaking the law to enrich themselves. When Britain turned the screws, they rebelled. Yes, the economic elites in the colonies had an economic reason for self-governance and thus a revolution.

The Tea Party rebellion? Well, it was triggered by Britain's decision to give the East India Co. the monopoly of the tea trade, thus crippling American economic interests, not withstanding that the EIC tea was cheaper and of better quality. The colonies had enjoyed a relative independence to conduct their own "internal" affairs and the New World had unique conditions, like the reality of the expanding frontier. All these factors made for a different breed of a citizen. 
Harbrouck House, New Paltz, NY.

Yet, even at the break of the revolution, most Americans in the colonies [let's not forget they were other "Americans" in the continent too] were British citizens. Even the Declaration of Independence demonstrates that the colonists believed they were denied their British rights of life, liberty and property, and, therefore, had a right, indeed a duty, to replace a government after a "long train of abuses."

The ideology of liberalism with its "natural rights for every man" that came out of the Enlightenment was used as the foundation of the regime of the new country to be. But, it would take a long time to turn those Americans into patriotic United States of America citizens. Patriotism primarily evolved along with the formation of the modern state in the last 2-3 centuries. Allegiance was to one's own tribe, ethnic or religious group, and later to a city-state or a larger state, like New York. Most Americans then identified their loyalties to their particular states, not the US. Fully 1/3 of the colonists remained loyal to Britain; most were expelled, many were killed, a few remained.

Class System, Order of the Universe

The belief that the universe had an ordained, divine order was widespread. A rigid class system prevailed too. Yes, it was possible for merchants to elbow their way into the upper caste--like the despised nouveau riche by the "old money" aristocracy--but everybody "knew their place." Old Europe operated on this scheme, so it's amazing that the ideas of liberalism sprouted and even used as ideals for a new state/country. Of course, anyone who has watched docudramas of the last 200 years or has visited the mansions of the rich knows how society worked those days.

The elites often went to war against each other for power and wealth, but they had their code of honor which meant that death would be visiting primarily the lower-class soldiers and civilians. It was against military honor to shoot at officers of the opposing army! George Washington could have been killed by British snipers on a couple occasions but he was spared because he was an officer. The Americans didn't shoot at British officers either...  Well, some American riflemen, often despised by both sides, broke this code by indiscriminately killing British infantry and officers. Nowadays, taking out the enemy command is standard military strategy; not back then, which is incredible if you think about it. The thinking, I'm going to let the enemy generals be so their army can be more effective against me and my side, is totally crazy unless....

At first, it seems natural that the French would side and aid the American colonists in their war of independence. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as they say. But, it was a troubling decision since rebelling against the crown was a no-no among all royal houses of Europe. Yes, royal factions could engage each other, even in civil war, but challenging the notion of monarchy was evil. 

George Washington could have been king after the revolution, though to his credit he did not wish it and admonished those who proposed a monarchy for the new country. While in Newburgh, NY, he communicated with many domestic leaders and urged for a constitutional republic. The constitution of 1787 provided a blueprint for a federal country, which is still evolving today. Many of the good changes and ideas come from the top, the educated elites, but also as the result of bloody conflicts.

The country the presidents we're celebrating today knew is much different today, and I think for the better. It's OK to appreciate the effort and the good ideas of past leaders, but I don't think we need to idealize-idolize them. Some were very progressive while most were trapped in their time & culture. There's no divine order in human society; it's what we make of ourselves, our understanding of the important issues, and the policies we can muster for a good life for every citizen, indeed a human being.
Fictional rendition of the Delaware river crossing. (note the American flag)

January 20, 2014

"The Problem We All Live With" Some Thoughts on Martin Luther King Day, 2014

Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With"
On the occasion of the MLK day, I've read and heard several speeches of the slain civil rights leader and, of course, most of us today wonder why American society was so opposed to equal rights, or more specifically to blacks having equal treatment under the law and equal opportunity like anybody else.

It's conservatism! Being conservative is a disposition--an attitude towards change and something new. Conservatives exist in all political parties. This was particularly true in the 1950s and 1960s in the Democratic party. Many of the opponents to the Civil Rights acts, most from the old South, left the party and joined became Dixiecrat Republicans. President Lyndon Johnson said that the South would be lost for his party after he signed the CRA. It's been certainly true, but a couple states like Virginia and North Carolina may be trending the other way now.

There's a difference in disposition between conservatives and liberal-progressives. I think we have a better imagination and we are more confident over all. Why is imagination necessary? To evaluate abstract scenarios, to imagine change, whereas a conservative prefers the "tried and true," tradition, familiarity and can't imagine a different world. Blacks having same rights as whites? Oh, goodness, traditional society would collapse, a way of live (which included either slavery or later discrimination and separation of the races) of the old was preferable to a new order.

PBS's documentary, Slavery By Another Name, is a must-watch *

Confidence? Well, sameness is comforting. Confirmation bias, solidarity of thought and action is soothing to a conservative.  We all have this trait to some extent. We like to see our choices, thoughts, beliefs, customs, etc, confirmed; it validates our life...   Yet, some of us are willing to accept correction; we're open to revision, and seek the truth even if it's uncomfortable. Confidence doesn't mean stubbornness of a closed mind, but it means that the new, the different doesn't necessarily make us uncomfortable. And we can image a world with all races, creeds, and sexual orientation.

Isn't the same approach and the also the difference between the conservatives and liberals when it comes to same-sex marriage? My heterosexual makeup isn't threatened by homosexuality. My heterosexual marriage or relationship isn't threatened by homosexual unions or marriages. The right to marry a person of your choosing is having equal opportunity and treatment under the law. End of story (for a liberal).

Speaking the Tongue of the Natives

MLK was a great leader and even a better orator and thus motivated lots of people to meaningful action for civil rights. He spoke like a preacher, which, for me, isn't my favorite elocution. I don't want to be preached at. I don't want to be told that a certain action is good because it has the blessings of a god, or the God.  However, MLK spoke the language of religion in a deeply religious land, whereas both sides had used religious language to justify their positions.

But, many people on both sides were practicing confirmation bias--using the Bible to justify their positions. Guess what? The Bible has a little for every one. Am I glad that MLK's Bible quoting and religious messaging worked to help bring about change? Certainly! Because, this was a much-needed change. 

However, it should be noted that the Bible condones slavery! [source]  I would expect a messiah to preach against the evils of slavery, but Jesus didn't. The Gospels in the New Testament don't advocate for a slave-free world. On the contrary. Women's status? Subservient. We're talking about divine morality here. The word of God, good then, good today, and unalterable in the future!

Anyway, we have a long way to go despite our advances, many of which have been forcefully opposed by conservatives of all types. We're still very primitive in how act, think, and often treat each other. 

 * This PBS documentary examines the conditions of servitude that existed until the second part of the 20th century in the US. It's definitely worth a watch.

January 15, 2014

Net Neutrality Dead? Who Cares? We Are The Greatest, Free-est (ish?) Country in the Globe and the Internet Confirms This! {at least the sites I'm allowed to visit}

This past Tuesday a US Court of Appeals closed the door to the free internet and gave a huge victory to the telcos, which now could control the flow of information and commerce on cyberworld. But, this situation can be reversed if enough citizens mobilize and pressure the FCC and Congress to change this. Net Neurality ought to be the platform for the internet; common carriers shouldn't be monopolies or oligopolies.

Amazingly this is an issue--for net neutrality--that has attracted a very diverse coalition, from the conservative to the liberal side, because most people appreciate the equal access to the world wide web, without restrictions. In the past, there has been such large coalition that beat back the telcos efforts, but due to the lax and politicized FCC, the issue wasn't settled in favor of the consumer and for the citizens.

It is about good citizenship when anyone could go to any site at the same speed, through the same toll road. I could even argue why access to the internet should be completely free--as it is in some cities who have such networks. Nowadays, the internet is essential to finding a job, being informed, communicate, organize, know what our government is doing, and enhance the notion & practice of citizenship.

Tolls, bridges, roads

Imagine if a bridge is built, especially with government initiative, subsidies, and other beneficial regulations. Now the bridge is private and the owner can allow certain vehicles/people to cross it. And, that if you're allowed on the bride, you're put on a very sloooooooooow lane. Oh, yes, much, much slower that any other place in the advanced industrialized world. [the US lags way behind other countries in internet speed & infrastructure]

Let the free market operate, is the mantra of many talking heads on Fox and CNBC (and I'm sure elsewhere). How would companies invest if they don't know how much they'll make because of regulation?... they add. Bullshit, I say. Unregulated capitalism leads to monopolies (NO competition), child (slave) labor, no consumer protection, etc. It's been tried before you know. Any serious advanced country regulates the market place. American sports franchises do this to ensure competition. The NFL divides its huge media profits in 32 equal ways--a communist practice if you asked me. But, it works!

Imagine if you were told that once you paid the toll to get on the highway, you couldn't just take any exit, or that some exits cost more than others. Or, that you could travel on certain roads as a package. You know, like when you have the choices (not) of cable tv. It's an oligopoly at best--whereas there are two choices available. Where I've lived in the last several decades when cable tv was available, I had NO choice. One provider, and an expensive one at that.

Free Press has more information and course of action, but be alert in the near future. We have to retake this freedom from the telcos, so please mobilize and engage in active citizenship. It is about freedom, political and consumer. Everybody who uses the internet is affected.