Crazy Pills


Will there be more (or any) Internet Revolutions?
June 14, 2010, 12:38 pm
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A year after the reportedly stolen election in Iran that saw the rise of the Green Movement (now a non-entity, forced out of the public sphere by government crackdowns), conversation turned to a retrospective on the role that Twitter played in organizing the initial street protests and rallies that marked the remarkable opposition to the government.  At the time, the reactions and bold resistance to the government earned the moniker “the Twitter revolution” thanks to the role the site played in allowing news to filter out to the rest of the world.  But more importantly to supporters of that label, it was because of Twitter that the opposition was even able to organize.  Twitter provided a medium, outside the control of the government, for angry Iranians to rouse their fellow citizens and cement a unified opposition through the sharing of stories and disaffection while rapidly and widely getting the word out about times and locations for Green Movement rallies.  Twitter was the catalyst and the means for the Iranians to vent their anger and stand up to their government.

Not so, according to many who have deemed the Twitter Revolution more hype than reality.  Twitter was certainly helpful in spreading stories of government repression and letting protesters know where to be, but it did not create the Green Movement, nor did its use suddenly empower Iranians.  Golnaz Esfandiari does an excellent job of summarizing these arguments that “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil.”  Twitter helped, but a year later, it is clearer that it was more useful to those outside Iran, than those doing the actual organizing and protesting.

I bring this up now because as I look at the Free Gaza flotilla, I am struck by the lack of a role that Twitter played in contrast.  The flotilla was, like the protests in Iran, organized by traditional means and its story was carried by traditional news media and blogs more powerfully than any hash tag could have.  The goal of the flotilla was to call attention to Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and when this blockade is eventually lifted, the flotilla is sure to be cited for its influence.  But where was Twitter?  It seems that Gretta Berlin hasn’t needed it in the way observers of Iran a year ago would have predicted.  Instead, it looks like the Free Gaza flotilla has demonstrated that social networking is more useful for armchair commentary while actual political changes will continue to rely on traditional organizing.  In looking back, would Twitter have brought about a different end to ills like apartheid, will it be considered instrumental in ending the blockade on Gaza, or will it be called on again in Iran?  The world will continue to change and progress as it always has, but social media appears only to be another “town crier”, and not the next “printing press” as many hoped.



I’ll take the high road
April 29, 2009, 11:28 am
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I don’t know how I feel about Richard Cohen’s piece on torture yesterday.  He comes out and condemns it as abhorrent and I particularly like his part at the end that “before you can torture anyone, you must first torture the law”, but he says that the moral high ground argument isn’t a good one for rejecting torture.  He says that our being a morally superior country wouldn’t make us safer, but I disagree.

The image of America as a beacon or a city on the hill or whatever has, in my opinion, been incredibly important to our national psyche and globally.  Its part of the reason we get so many great immigrants looking for a better life, and its why other countries are happy turning to us as a friend and for support.  Sure, we’re an economic powerhouse and the largest military, but I like to think that our friendships globally depend on more than that.  If it were just the first two, we’d be a bully, garnering allies and security through sheer force or necessity.  But that’s not how I read it.

In Cohen’s words,

…it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist called “our moral compass.”

For many, I’m sure thats true.  For those willing to kill themselves or murder civilians, their minds are clearly made up.  But is that our only rubric for safety?  There are many other factors in assessing our security.  For instance, taking the moral high ground is not all we need to do to stop recruitment into terrorist camps, but it is certainly a contributor.

Our safety also depends on the cooperation of myriad, often unlikely, allies.  This is an instance where not just our military or economy can suffice in gaining support.  If working with America is perceived to be the immoral route, or no more moral than not cooperating, then we will see stiff resistance from the populations of countries like Turkey or Pakistan who are so vital to our efforts and security.

Cohen goes on to say that “nothing Obama did this month about torture made America safer.”  But safety is not just in preventing terrorists.  Safety is limiting our potential enemies and growing in potential friends.  I’m going to take a page from Pierre Atlas and end with a quote from the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision on banning torture:

This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and allow it to overcome its difficulties.



Don’t look now, but your empire is falling
April 15, 2009, 12:53 pm
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David Kuhn jumps into the debate on American exceptionalism and comes out in defense of Pax Americana.  Just like Sarkozy’s little pep talk to Congress when he was here last year, Kuhn talks fondly about the American role in bringing peace to the world after the Second World War.  He notes that under American hegimonic stewardship, there have been no world wars and that the “most ignoble and bloody modern U.S. wars, Korea and Vietnam, [have only] killed 3.2 million.”  Far less than the wars of any previous period.  And thats pretty impressive, given the improved weaponry and warmaking abilities we now have.  The fact that in an age of nuclear weapons and stealth bombers the world has stayed so remarkably stable is indeed impressive and certainly due to America’s steadying involvement.

However, perhaps it is that the Pax Americana applies only to the now fading Westphalian system where states are the major players.  I know I’m treading well worn terrirtory here, but Kuhn’s article seems to overlook this.  Borders have remained, by and large, quite stable and recognized under the American hegemon, but are we as able to handle other threats?  The Taliban and tribal militias in Pakistan don’t appear to be intimidated by our power, and are increasingly posing a serious threat.  Certainly not one along the lines of a World War though, and we are almost certain not to see levels of dead that high in any foreseeable conflict.  It just goes to point out the limits in the power of Pax Americana.

The overwhelming power balance that led to this era of relative stability among states appears to mean less now.  Russia is continuing to stake out a stronger position in its near abroad, and NATO has been unable to push back much.  Quite the opposite, NATO has learned that it cannot ignore the will of Russia in its expansion.  Economically, we’re seeing smaller countries previously ignored, like Brazil or India, able to hold up free trade negotiations.  An ability not seen in the era of GATT.

As any number of much smarter people before me have pointed out, America as a dominant power in the world isn’t going anywhere.  But we may have to reinterpret what the restraints and limits of that power are in a changing, and smaller, world.  We should be cautious about overstating realities.



Keep your Bible off my vagina
April 13, 2009, 3:38 pm
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Some thoughts on the deceptive role of religion in politics.

The movement towards ending the treatment of homosexuals as a separate class of citizens has made significant strides in recent days, and has expectedly brought with it an uptick in the debate about the role that religion is playing in dictating social laws in our country.  As with the debate on abortion, you see both sides throwing around God a lot.  One says that the Bible defends their position.  The other, that one’s religious beliefs should not dictate the laws of a secular country impacting the lives of those who may not share your convictions.  As a Rabbi friend of mine put it, “Or you could just tell the government to stay out of personal lives.”

Since their concerns stem from the Bible, a document constitutionally prohibited from having a say in our laws, those on the right are immediately discounted as seeking to impose a religious agenda on the country.  However, though their views may stem from a religious root, that is not a reason to ignore the concern.  My religious opposition to the death penalty shouldn’t make my voice unwelcome in the debate, just as ones personal opinion that we shouldn’t eat horse meat doesn’t invalidate that legislation.  When it comes to morality legislation, its not a hard and fast science, and whether your morals come from a philosophical text or a religious one shouldn’t necessarily matter.

Take the concern for life.  This is widely assumed to be at least one of the top priorities of any government.  There is little question that murder is a big No, but what about protecting life in other circumstances?  With no clear definition by scientists, philosophers, or theologians (not to mention being “above the pay grade” of our president) for when life actually begins, one should not be painted as anti-woman or a religious nut for seeking to prevent what they feel is also murder.  And if somebody feels that a fetus is a life, for religious reasons or other, that then very much becomes the purview of the government.  But discounting them simply because their concept of what is “life” stems from the Bible is unfair.

I’m much less sympathetic to the gay marriage debate, because this is less about defining a family to me and more about equal rights, but many of the same factors exist.  Protecting family and marriage has long been an accepted role of the government.  We prohibit polygamy and incest and set minimum age requirements for getting married and consenting to sex.  Many of these laws have practical concerns, but some are purely because we see certain mores as worth protecting.

Morality legislation is common.  The fact that it exists doesn’t mean we should be complacent in accepting it.  But setting social norms is in fact an appropriate role for government.  Many religious people happen to be modest and would oppose public nudity on those grounds, but I assume many secularists would agree as well.  My point is that in a democracy, citizens are going to advocate for what it is that they’re passionate about, and that’s a good thing.  Whether its protecting the wetlands near their house, preventing horse slaughter, opposing public nudity, or banning drinking on the streets, there are activists for any number of causes.  Stopping global warming because Al Gore told you to or because the Pope told you to doesn’t make one better than the other.  There are times when religion makes for bad politics.  Opposition to condoms and sex education, for instance.  But that doesn’t mean that those who hold those opinions should be banned from the democratic process.



Humanizing the Holocaust?
February 20, 2009, 4:57 pm
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When I first saw the preview for The Reader awhile back, I was intrigued and a little confused.  I had never read or heard of the book, but it appeared from the preview that this was a movie telling the Holocaust from the perspective of an SS prison guard.  I was a little disturbed by that becuase there is no way to tell a story from one person’s perspective without creating some sort of empathy for them or making an attempt to explain away their motives.

When I was younger and first fell in love with The Godfather, my friends and I would debate over who the protagonist actually was, Michael or Vito.  We found ourselves rooting against the malicious Tattaglias and thought that Carlo got what was coming to him.  The Corleones, however, were more human.  They had motives and were forced into this situation by a corrupt police captain and the Walt-like realism of an untrusting system.  Looking at it from the Corleone lens means that Barzini and Solazzo are actually the bad guys, and you can forget for a moment that they’re all murderers and thugs.  It is a powerful movie that can make you feel what its characters feel, and that is what I feared coming from The Reader.  Would this movie, so powerfully acted by the great Kate Winslet, lead the viewer to empathize with the human side of a Nazi prison guard?

Ron Rosenbaum has an article in Slate asking Hollywood to not give an Oscar to The Reader for just this reason.  The preview alone devotes half of its clips to scenes of love, Winslet’s legs, sex, and her relationship with a boy.  That she is a Nazi appears just to be the thing that makes this particular love story difficult.  Worse yet, the tagline is “Behind the mystery lies a truth that will make you question everything you believe.”  What is it that we are supposed to be questioning?  Assuming the mystery is what could bring a person to act like this towards other human beings, will this movie expose to us a deeper truth that should allow us to see Winslet as a victim of circumstance?   In Rosenbaum’s opinion, that is exactly what this movie tries to do.

…that’s what The Reader is about: the supposedly difficult struggle with this slowly dawning postwar awareness. As Cynthia Ozick put it in her essay: “After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator [‘Michael Berg’] acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.”

So the story comes back to her motives, her human-ness.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (since apparently we’re supposed to stay anonymous on here) and I were discussing this at a bar.  It wasn’t just a coincidence that this many people with a desire to kill others got together in Europe at one time.  There was clearly something that led to the corruption of otherwise good people, like Winslet’s character.  But while it is important to understand what it is and was that can arouse in us this propensity towards evil, this movie doesn’t seem to have as its goal an exploration of that.  Instead, according to Rosenbaum, what this movie intends to do is not claim that the Germans of this time made some conscious decision towards evil, but that Kate Winslet’s illiterate character is “a stand-in for the German people and their supposed inability to “read” the signs that mass murder was being done in their name, by their fellow citizens.”  What do we gain from that?

The Holocaust was not perpetrated because others were blind to what was going on around them.  The Holocaust was perpetrated because millions bought into hate.  I know that this is a blog on politics, but more generally, we discuss human behavior as a whole.  As my friend from the bar and I agreed, it is fascinating to think about what it was that led so many people to commit such crimes.  Humans no different from any of us, but they succumbed to their inner demons.  A movie exploring that is certainly worthy of merit, but to compartmentalize those actions as an anomoly and instead try to focus on them as “regular” people is not just wrong but irresponsible.

Winslet’s character was responsible for locking 300 people in a burning church, but, according to the director,

the scene was omitted because it might have “unbalanced” our view of Hanna, given too much weight to the mass murder she committed, as opposed to her lack of reading skills. Made it more difficult to develop empathy for her, although it’s never explained why it’s important that we should.

By all means, let us explore the motives of those who supported or bought into the Nazi ideology, but avoid the trap of empathy.  A victim of spousal abuse may defend her husband as an otherwise good person except for when he loses his temper, but those acts of violence cannot be separated from the person’s character.  As I eventually saw that there was no glory or “good guys” in The Godfather, I hope that Holocaust movies can inspire drama or thought, without seeking to make you sympathize with the characters.



A better stick for our carrot
February 18, 2009, 12:59 pm
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Secretary of State Clinton (it feels good typing that) said that we may have to revisit our approach to Burma.  Apparently,

“…the path we have taken in imposing sanctions hasn’t influenced the Burmese junta,” [Clinton] said, adding that the route taken by Burma’s neighbors of “reaching out and trying to engage them has not influenced them either.”

So, my question is, how useful of a ‘stick’ are sanctions?  Not to make the argument that sanctions in every instance act the same or are intended to have the same effect on the recieiving country, but the sanctions against Burma have not changed the policies of the junta, the sanctions against Cuba and Iraq only denied the people food or medicine while benefitting the black markets and government officials in on the smuggling, Hamas is still in power in Gaza, and while it is too early to really tell with Iran, they appear not to have retarded their quest for nuclear weapons.  Nor have they helped us conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given us clairvoyance enough to find the rebels’ hidden fortress.

I’m sure that there are examples of sanctions regimes that have been successful, but I just can’t think of them right now (Stanley, I’m looking at you to correct me).  But in light of Clinton’s statement, it is clear that in some instances, sanctions just don’t do much.  Their appeal is strong.  In the face of such terrible goverments, the idea of trading with them and thus helping to continue their existence is a nonstarter.  So what are our options?  Thoughts?

There have been some suggestions, specifically in Gaza, of maintaining the sanctions against the Hamas government, but working with NGOs or other groups and countries to bring aid in directly to the people, thus cutting the government out of the equation, avoiding corruption, and hopefully undercutting them.  In Burma, the ICG has  said that “bans on Burmese garments, agriculture and fishery products and restrictions on tourism should be lifted.”  This would have the benefit of allowing the people to get back to work and hopefully stem a humanitarian crisis.  But how do we balance a desire to punish malicious governments, while seeking to avoid punishing their people?