BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, anarchist, atheist who likes the letter A
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Cops Break up NSA Spying Press Conference

June 14, 2013 By: Mel Category: Change

I interrupt my regularly scheduled post to share what happened today at a tiny press conference and rally about the NSA spying.

Capital police decided that we did not have the proper permit to be there. The speakers kept speaking. The cops warned us that we would be arrested. They then started harassing media. Cameras started shutting down. Speakers started cutting their speeches short. After the second warning, as I don’t think anybody was prepared for arrest threats at a press conference, everyone split up so that no group was more than 25 people.

The last protest that I went to was in Guatemala. You know that Central American country that people refer to as “third world” or “developing.” The place many people only know about because of civil war and genocide. That place. Well, I imagine we had a permit for being in the central plaza. But I seriously doubt we had a permit to block the road and door in front of the presidential palace and then drum annoyingly.

Amazingly, nobody was threatened with arrest.

Aren’t you estadouidenses glad that you live in a country that is a beacon of freedom for the world?

I’m tempted to go into a long diatribe about the protest, prisons, criminalization, social control, and our shrinking spaces. But I’m going to have to save it for a day when I have more time. I will just say this.

There are risks involved with doing the right things, the necessary things. The system has been increasing those risks. I think that means we are all going to need to so some serious thinking about what risks we can take and then be willing to take them. Because their plan can backfire. They are counting on us to not make sacrifices. But if we all take the risks, thoughtful and strategic risks, then we can crash the justice system and all the other systems too.

If nothing else, we should all probably prepare to be arrested for pretty much anything that we do from now on – press conferences, walking downtown, doodling on a school desk,  wearing a thong bathing suit, asking to see a warrant, being too poor to pay a debt, your kid skipping school

I mean if we are going to get arrested for that kind of bullshit anyway, shouldn’t we at least make it worthwhile?

On Facts and Truth

February 10, 2011 By: Mel Category: Politics

Our book group just finished reading The Whites of Their Eyes by Jill Lepore. Lepore is a historian and spends a lot of time focusing on historical facts that contradict the tea party narrative. So the group spent some time discussing whether or not there is such a thing as verifiable fact, whether the truth is really knowable.

It is common in U.S. politics for the left to assert that they deal in fact, while the right deals in mythology. You can certainly make a case for that when it comes to, for example, sex education or evolution.  But when I got home from the book club, I started thinking about another, similar discussion I had about facts and truth.

Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia is the testimonio of an indigenous Guatemalan woman.  Menchú lived through Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war, a war that resulted in an estimated 200,000 killed or disappeared and more than one million displaced. The book recounts the torture and murders of her family members and her journey from unknown indigenous woman to Nobel prize winner.

But the book caused controversy when anthropologist David Stoll started investigating some of the details.  He found, for example, that witnesses claimed Rigoberta’s brother was shot rather than burned to death.  He discovered that she had more education than claimed in the book.  And he brought out information about an intra-indigenous land dispute that was not mentioned in the story and which he thought pertinent.

People on the left rushed to Menchú’s defense.  They claimed that indigenous people had different senses of history and fact.  They said it was common in testimonio to mix together stories of what happened to you and what happened to others, that there was not the same sense of individuation that we have.  They claimed that whatever facts might be off, the overall story that she told is accurate.  Her book conveys how the war effected indigenous communities.

Although I was one of the few people in class who actually sympathized with some of Stoll’s arguments, I also had to admit that the facts in question didn’t really matter much to the overall truth of what she said.  As a writer, I know that there are some truths that I could probably only face in fiction.  And I suspect that Arundhati Roy, in the introduction to Field Notes on Democracy, is onto something when she says,

As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on.  Does it eventually mask a larger truth?  I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we really need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry.

I believe that.  I believe sometimes you can get mired in the details and lose site of what is important. And I believe that your belief system, your narrative, your ideology – they determine which facts you pursue.  So the motivation behind the pursuit is often more important than the facts themselves.

The reason that the left reacted so violently to Stoll is that they wondered what his motivation was in going after Rigoberta Menchú in the first place.  As I thought about that, I realized that one of the reasons I really disliked Lepore’s book was that I was suspicious about her motivations for writing it. And my suspicions were very soon confirmed by how she approached the issue.

She mocks the Tea Party.  It isn’t the kind of obvious mocking that you would get on The Daily Show. In fact, she makes herself seem like a very reasonable person who sat down and talked to them.  It is a subtle, intellectualized mocking where she points out all the facts they get wrong and glosses over or trivializes the things they get right.  Right at the beginning of the book she says,

But the Tea Party’s Revolution wasn’t just another generation’s story – it was more like a reenactment – and its complaint about taxation without representation followed the inauguration of a president who won the electoral vote 365 to 173 and earned 53 percent of the popular vote.  In an age of universal suffrage, the citizenry could hardly be said to lack representation. (emphasis mine)

Really?  I think there are about 5 million people in prison or felon disenfranchised who might disagree.  There are millions of undocumented immigrants who might disagree.  There are lots of young adults under 18 who might disagree.  And most of us eligible voters don’t feel represented by the customary choices of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.  That’s why we don’t usually bother to vote.  But thanks for dismissing us with one fell swoop of “facts.”

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I have a somewhat different take on the Tea Party crowd.  I think the Tea party is right that they are not represented.  I think they have been hella slow figuring it out.  I don’t know how to reach some of those people, but I am certain that combing through their words to find every fact they have wrong is not the way to do it. Inconvenient facts are great for winning a debate, but not necessarily helpful for reaching an understanding.

I am not claiming that facts do not matter at all.  I won’t go so far as to say nothing is knowable.  But I do think that we select what facts to go after and what facts to use.  We can as easily use facts to obscure the truth as to uncover it.  Facts and truth have a more complicated relationship than might seem to be the case and sometimes you have to go beyond facts to get at truth.

The Problem with Economics

November 16, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

I came across a study this week that reminded me why I focused on history and not economics.

Carl-Johan Daigaard and Ola Olsson, economists at the University of Copenhagen, published results of a study called Why are Rich Countries More Politically Cohesive?.  They conclude that there is a correlation between market integration, wealth, and politically cohesiveness.

Basically, as people specialize and trade with each other they become interdependent.  That interdependence brings on a meeting of the minds.  This turns into an upward spiral of wealth and political cohesiveness.  That’s the theory.

In order to test their theory, they needed to compare political cohesion.  They use the World Value Survey.  On the survey, respondents rate themselves from one to ten on a left to right political scale.  Daigaard and Olsson looked at the number of respondents who rated themselves at the extreme ends of the scale.  They argue that countries with fewer people self identifying at the extremes have higher degrees of political cohesion.

They admit that this is only a proxy for political cohesion and that people in different countries hold different ideas about what is extreme left or extreme right.  But they claim “it is clear that individuals who answer ‘one’ or ‘ten’ are deliberately signaling extreme political views in the context of their political landscape.

Off the top of my head I see two major problems with this measure.  First, they are assuming that all people are equally comfortable claiming their political views.  That is a big assumption.  Let’s take Guatemala for example.  In the handy chart below, you will see that Guatemala scores about the same as France on political cohesion.

Chart showing degree of political cohesion

Chart showing degree of political cohesion

I’m not an expert on France, but I have spent considerable time in Guatemala and studying Guatemala.  I can’t think of a person I encountered who would have admitted to extreme left or extreme right views (although I would bet that some people had them).

This is not because of political cohesiveness.  It is because of a 36 year civil war, during which hundreds of supposedly leftest villages were burned to the ground and an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared.  And while the Guatemalan far right still enjoys prestige and power, their traditional political impunity may be beginning to erode.  All of which is to say that the accuracy of any self-identification is problematic at best.

And then there is the issue of trying to compare one country to another.  Is it really surprising to find that countries scoring low on the political cohesiveness scale are also countries who had their national borders imposed on them by colonialist powers?  It isn’t exactly shocking that Vietnam and India would fall at the bottom of the scale, given their colonial histories.  Or, to put it another way, if national borders weren’t so nonsensical, political cohesiveness proxies would look much different.  (ie. Imagine looking at just Iraqi Kurdistan and not Iraq as a whole.)

Then there is the measure of wealth that they used, GDP per capita.  Gross Domestic Product per capita doesn’t measure actual wealth distribution.  Wouldn’t it make sense that wealth distribution would have an effect on stability and political cohesion?  Let’s go back to our example of Guatemala and France.  According to the UN, France has a per capita GDP of $40,090.  Guatemala has a GDP per capita of $2,504.  Why?

By their theory, it would have something to do with trade interdependence within their national boundaries.  By their theory, it might be the relative self-sufficiency of the Guatemalan highland indigenous that correlates to any lack of political cohesion.  This ignores Guatemala’s colonial history and imposed borders.  It also ignores the very different results of their two revolutions.

France’s revolution successfully overthrew the ruling classes and brought about lasting land reform.  Guatemala’s attempts at land reform, on the other hand, were violently prevented.  Seventy percent of the land in Guatemala is possessed by 0.2% of the producers.  Is any lack of political cohesiveness due to lack of interdependence or to land scarcity (a topic not discussed in their paper)?

They aren’t the first people to suggest that trade brings about interdependence and cohesion.  As they mention, there is a whole sect of political science devoted to ideas of “the liberal peace” that arises when nations trade with each other.  What Daigaard and Olsson don’t mention is that the results of studies on the subject are ambiguous.  In fact, some types of trade (oil, for instance) are correlated with increased conflict.

There are other issues with their theory, some peripherally addressed (power imbalances, ethnic tensions, greed) and some not (risks of specialization, colonialism, and dependency).  And they base everything on the underlying principal that “without market exchange, the welfare of inherently selfish individuals will be mutually independent (and)…political negotiations..dog-eat-dog in nature.”  That is also debatable.

There’s more, but this post is too long already, so let me go back to where I started.  The problem with economics is that, all too often, economists try to simplify human actions to such a degree that it renders their conclusions virtually meaningless.  They make a pretty equation and then try to fit people into it.  Which brings me to my personal favorite assumption:

As usual, we assume rational and forward-looking individuals who can perfectly assess the effects of choices in each stage.

Good luck with that.

The Danger of Good vs. Evil

November 11, 2009 By: Mel Category: Change, Politics

The Heritage Foundation put out a morning bell yesterday.  The gist of the message is that Obama slighted Reagan by not showing up for the Berlin wall ceremonies and for not mentioning Reagan in his speech.  Reagan is, of course, the savior who freed the world from the communists.

My personal favorite bit is the quote from Nile Gardiner:

Barack Obama simply does not view the world as Reagan did, in terms of good versus evil, as a world divided between the forces of freedom on one side and totalitarianism on the other. For the Obama administration the advancement of human rights and individual liberty on the world stage is a distinctly low priority, as we have seen with its engagement strategy towards the likes of Iran, Burma, Sudan, Venezuela and Russia.

Oh the irony of inferring that Ronald Reagan was a great defender of human rights.  The Reagan administration supported the most oppressive Central American governments in El Salvador and Guatemala.  They illegally sold arms to Iran to raise money for brutal counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua.  They closed their eyes to the massive illegal drug operations of their Contra buddies while incarcerating obscene numbers of American citizens for using the drugs.  And they invaded the tiny island nation of Grenada in flagrant violation of international law.

But I’m not writing this to rag on Reagan.  Too easy.  I want to write about the first part of the quote, the part about Barack Obama not seeing the world in terms of good vs. evil.  I want to write about the damage done by people who insist on dividing the world up like that.

What happens when you try to divide the world into good and evil is that the “good” people can do no wrong and the “bad” people can do no right.  How convenient to be on the hero’s side and never have to face an ethical dilemma.  The hero is good, therefore everything they do is good.  If they lie, cheat, murder, or torture it doesn’t matter.  They are the good guy, so their actions must be good.

And that victim of the lying, cheating, murdering, and torturing?  Well they are the villain.  Everything they do is bad.  If the villain saves a baby from a burning building, that inconvenient information is left out of the narrative or explained away as part of a sinister plot.  And how easy it is to dehumanize the bad guy.  Their guilt is pre-determined.  When someone from a vilified group acts in the way we expect, it confirms all our suspicions.  How easy it is to just throw them away, even a child.

Life is not a cowboy film or a fairy tale.  And we can’t afford to listen to people who have the worldview of a toddler.  Time to grow up.

The Other Torture Memos: Secrets and Complicity in Guatemala

April 27, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Violence

The Bush administration’s repugnant torture instructions were not the only declassified documents to come to light recently.

The National Security Archive has been posting formerly classified documents related to Guatemala’s dirty war of the 1980s. The documents show that the United State’s government was well aware of the kidnappings, murder, and torture of political dissidents in Guatemala.

The dirty war in Guatemala lasted 36 years. Two hundred thousand Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. More than one million Guatemalans were displaced. Hundreds of villages were wiped off the map.

Guatemalan officials denied that these atrocities occurred and many still deny them to this day. General Otto Pérez Molina, who has been linked to massacres and executions, continued his denials during his recent presidential campaign.

Pérez Molina isn’t the only Guatemalan who remains unconfronted by the law. Most of those responsible for the human rights abuses and genocidal war have suffered no consequences for their actions.

Why did we keep them secret for so long?

If I knew about a crime and did not report what I knew to authorities, I would be an accessory. That same rule should apply to governments as well.

The Bailout: Sacrificing Justice for Temporary Stability

March 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Violence

I’ve been thinking a lot about justice lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how often people try to convince those seeking justice to set aside that desire. I’ve been thinking about how often we are told that holding people responsible for their actions would cause more suffering.

The economic disaster is a perfect example. Billions of dollars are being lost into the ether as we bail out the scoundrels who got us into this mess. We are told the vacuuming up of our present and future resources is necessary in order to mitigate short-term suffering and instability.

People are less and less inclined to believe bailout justifications, in large part because we see that those responsible are not suffering any consequences for their actions. After reading Matt Taibbi’s recent article, it’s hard not to believe that the bailout is just a scam to transfer our resources into the grubby hands of Goldman Sachs and friends. So long as our government shows no signs of bringing the people who caused this mess to justice, our distrust will grow.

Let’s take this out of a financial context for a minute. This past weekend I watched The Reckoning. The film is about efforts to get the International Criminal Court (ICC) up and running. The film highlighted the situations in Uganda and Sudan, but it could easily apply to hundreds of other situations in the world. Whenever the leaders responsible for genocide, rape, and crimes against humanity faced prosecution; they used the threat of more suffering to defend themselves.

In Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) went on a campaign to convince Ugandans that the ICC warrants for LRA leaders’ arrests were an obstacle to the peace process. (Never mind that there was no peace process before the warrants.) The LRA presented the people a choice between peace and justice. When a warrant was issued for the president of Sudan for human rights violations, he retaliated by kicking out humanitarian organizations and putting millions of Sudanese without the assistance they desperately need.

The case of Sudan is clear. There are people who will suffer in the short term because of the warrant issued. It’s possible that the other cases, including our financial disaster, also present a choice between mitigating short term suffering and pursuing justice. But if we keep sacrificing justice for short term needs, won’t we just ensure that we will keep dealing with the same problems over and over? If people without morals see that they can get away with abusing their power, why would they ever stop?

One final observation. When I was in Guatemala I was struck by how defeated the people seemed. Nobody believed in the system. Time and again powerful people got away with outrageous crimes. Military leaders responsible for mass atrocities don’t just walk free, but run for president. Former presidents who absconded with the people’s money live like royalty in other countries. The more people see impunity, the more hopeless the situation seems. The more hopeless the situation seems, the less agency they feel. The less they participate in political life, the more power the abusers have. It is a downward spiral and we can’t afford to allow that to happen to us.

Justice is not an obstacle to stability and peace, it is a prerequisite. People who don’t want to face justice are using our fear – fear of violence, fear of starvation, fear of financial collapse – but it is by caving in that we assure all of those things will go on forever.