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Category Archives: Politics

Appeasement is much harder to accomplish than it seems. It is not just a matter of saying to the stronger side, There you go, have what you want, it’s all yours, just sign on the dotted line. The appeaser much accomplish two crucial tasks.

First, the appeaser must, to the greatest extent possible, disguise the fact that he is appeasing. He must portray himself as a peacemaker, as a man who has prevented or ended a war on decent terms.

Second, the appeaser much persuade the victim to cooperate…[i]f the victim resists, the appeaser is in a bind, because euthanasia turns into murder, and, instead of being a benevolent guide, soothing the victim as it is put to sleep, the appeaser must hold down the screaming victim as the terminal injection is administered. It is a very nasty business.

From Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War by Peter Maass via the excellent Michael Totten

FidelCastro The first legalised home computers have gone on sale in Cuba, but a ban remains on internet access.

This is the latest in a series of restrictions on daily life which President Raul Castro has lifted in recent weeks.

…..

The desktop computers cost almost $800 (£400), in a country where the average wage is under $20 (£10) a month.

BBC NEWS | Americas | Cuba lifts ban on home computers

With its iconic revolutionary leader gone from power, well everyday power, its interesting to see how Raul Castro, the brother of the famous Fidel, is guiding the country.

The new tone is apparent in some respects. A gradual liberalisation, a trickle of freedoms. Most are consumer and consumption orientated, such as permitting the use of mobile phones and allowing Cubans to stay at the previously foreigner only resorts in Cuba.

One stands out for being more long term. This is allowing farmers to use fallow state land for crops, and to sell those crops on the market.

Since it seems unique, I wonder if food reform is a concession to the stratospheric world food prices rather than an experiment in the value of the Capitalist system.

I’m watching Cuba with interest because when Communist states liberalise the results tend to be interesting.

There was the dramatic near collapse of civil society in post USSR Russia due to rapid liberalisation. Energy prices prevented the threatened collapse of both the state and the market. Putin’s strong government helped as well.

In contrast there is the gradual transition combining authoritarian rule with market structures in China and Vietnam. Free markets feeding into developing middle classes, that seem on the whole politically inactive.

The other end of the scale, the short lived and quickly aborted free market dabbling that North Korea engaged in for a little while. Failed, probably because it was done at the wrong time, and without a coherent plan.

I suspect a strong tourist industry and remittances from expatriate Cubans will see Cuba a long way through any transition. They’re not as weak or isolated to anything like the degree that North Korea was when it began its ‘reforms’.

Also if things get to the stage where the US lifts sanctions, then Cuba is likely to get a real boost that should see it through the transition. That depends on the sanity and ability of the US administration, something that can’t be presumed nowadays.

Isn’t it intriguing,  that in a country that has largely been run by white protestant men [with the odd exception i.e. JFK, a white catholic man] for the last 232 years – and many more no doubt preceding the establishment of the United States of America in 1776, that this current election has as two out of the three main candidates a black man and a white woman?

And people are skeptical, that the third candidate, the classical model white protestant man has a good chance of winning.

It’s taken 88 years from when the nineteenth amendment gave women the vote at a federal level, guaranteed by the protection of the US Constitution. There is finally a credible female candidate that holds some possibility of taking her party’s nomination and going on to the White House

African-Americans have had to wait a shorter period, just a mere 43 years after the Voting Rights Act in 1965 gave them factually equal access to the ballot box in contrast to what they had enjoyed only as a mere theoretical right. There is now a Black candidate who has  a critical mass of political support.

Obama, outside of his ethnicity, is  changing, almost redefining, the heartland of the American political process in the course of his candidacy. With that comes an even stronger chance, especially given his recent hot streak, that he will find himself occupying the Oval Office next year.

In some ways though, its a tragedy, that one historical triumph, will see the postponement of another historical first. We can either have the opposite gender or the opposite skin colour in the White House. But the conspiracy of history has been such that they have both emerged at the same time to challenge for the same office.

The focus in American politics at the moment is on the big primaries in Texas and Ohio. They could change the face of the Democratic primary and decide who enters the White House after George Bush is removed from power.

Yet, on a day where Obama swept through Hawaii and Wisconsin, much to James’ joy and other’s chagrin, its a political story of a different stripe that is the most hopeful in my eyes.

That is the decision of Prof. Lawrence Lessig to form an exploratory committee to see whether he should run for a seat in the US House of Representatives.

I firmly hope that he’ll decide to run. American technology law and American intellectual property law define the global agenda. They set the standards which all countries eventually find themselves compelled to follow. And its time that this agenda was set by people able to understand the issues at stake.

Lessig is one of the few at the cutting edge of the blend between technology and law. He is one of the few who understands the impact of the digital age. He is one of the few who appreciates how ancient many laws have become in a world where everyone can create as well as consume.

He gets this because he’s forging the ideas that are taking their place.

Lessig is the brain behind Creative Commons which provides free tools that let authors, scientists, artists, and educators mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry.

Creative Commons tries to turn the idea of the public domain in Copyright on its head. The default position becomes to permit people to take works released under a CC licence and use it in a manner that would be forbidden under the “All Rights Reserved” model of copyright law that has become so entrenched in our society.

This is to counter what Creative Commons considers to be a dominant and restrictive permission culture. In the words of Lessig it is “a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past”.

Lessig maintains that modern culture is dominated by traditional content distributors in order to maintain and strengthen their monopolies on cultural products such as popular music and popular cinema, and that Creative Commons can provide alternatives to these restrictions.

Most importantly Lessig is able to plug all this technical knowledge and single issue reform movement centred on copyright and see how and where it fits in both the philosophy of law and how law works in practice. Go watch the TED Talk he delivered on “How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law“.

The icing on the cake? Lessig is the drafter of Obama’s technology policy, and there is strong commitment from the Obama campaign to see it implemented.

The revolutionary thought that in 2009, not only Congress but the White House might understand technology and technology related issues, is not as alien as it first seemed.

Destruction of the Bamian Buddhas

The ruling Taliban, mostly fundamentalist Sunni, ethnic Pashtuns, saw Hazaras as infidels, animals, other.

They didn’t look the way Afghans should look and didn’t worship the way Muslims should worship.

A Taliban saying about Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun ethnic groups went: “Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan,” the graveyard. And in fact, when the Buddhas fell, Taliban forces were besieging Hazarajat, burning down villages to render the region uninhabitable. As autumn began, the people of Hazarajat wondered if they’d survive winter.

Then came September 11, a tragedy elsewhere that appeared to deliver salvation to the Hazara people.

Afghanistan’s Hazara – National Geographic Magazine

One thing that I didn’t know about Afghanistan, that came to the fore while watching the Kite Runner, is that its people are divided into two ethic groups, the Pashtuns and the Hazaras, an Asiatic ethnic group that form a minority in Afghanistan.

This National Geographic article, explains the tremendous persecution that the Hazara  faced under the Taliban and looks at their situation now that the ostensibly democratic government has found itself into power in Kabul.

Sadly it looks like not much has changed;  the exceptional opportunity offered by the overthrow of the Taliban, and the economic development of the country may not be enough to overcome the deep ethic and religious prejudices that divides the country.

The article is a good read, and if you’ve just seen the Kite Runner, as I have, an extremely informative piece.

 

In 1999 Sweden passed legislation that criminalized the buying of sex, and decriminalized the selling of sex.

The groundbreaking principle behind this legislation is clearly stated in the government’s literature on the law: “In Sweden prostitution is regarded as an aspect of male violence against women and children. It is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children and constitutes a significant social problem… gender equality will remain unattainable so long as men buy, sell and exploit women and children by prostituting them.”

This law is the only one of its kind in the world, and it seems to be incredibly successful according to Swedish officials. The law, which has criminalized the purchase and brokering of sexual services, provides for up to six years in prison for pimps, up to 10 years for traffickers of prostitutes. The john could face up to six months in prison if caught in the act.

The results of this strategy are impressive. “We have significantly less prostitution than our neighbouring countries, even if we take into account the fact that some of it happens underground,” says Trolle. “We only have between 105 and 130 women – both on the Internet and on the street – active (in prostitution) in Stockholm today. In Oslo, it’s 5,000.

Swedish Prostitution Ban An Apparent Enormous Success

Okay, not quite my beaten track, but interesting still. For three reasons mainly.

The first is that its effective. Demand side criminalisation doesn’t work for a lot of things, the war on drugs is a prominent example, but for prostitution it appears effective. I can see the benefit socially and societally of putting the onus on the guys as well. They’re the scumbags in this equation, as the statement in the Swedish law quite clearly spells out.

On the other hand we have the liberal attitude towards it typified by the lax Dutch laws on the sex trade. Clearly there is no suggestion here that soliciting a prostitute amounts to a form of abuse which should be outlawed. While it’s heavily regulated in the Netherlands, it is legal and subject to all the benefits of a legal but regulated trade. If I’m not mistaken, the result of the legalisation in the Netherlands has caused a mini-boom in the sex trade and it grew rapidly after it was set free.

Which leads me to my first point taken to its conclusion. Where does the demand go? Do the people who used to go to sex workers now divert that libido into casual hook ups? Time ‘spent’ with their partners? Or does it just evaporate, an urge that exists only because the capacity to fulfills it exists? 

I don’t like the “it just vanishes” suggestion. It seems too simplistic a depiction of behaviour as complex as visiting a sex worker. Patronising a sex worker can’t be inherently a casual and ‘normal’ thing which like an itch just goes away if you ignore it long enough.

The second is that the Swedes are the first people to do this? What does that say about the dominant sexual morality of all cultures? The Swedes are supposed to be one of the most liberal people, and at the cutting edge of the thin line that straddles socialism, capitalism and the iron rice bowl. No other society has made the buyer the offender before? In this age of free market capitalism where everyone understand that that demand runs markets, no one has ever made the buyer the criminal? It says nothing good I’m sure.

The final thing is that Hong Kong stands in between, straddling between the laissez faire culture of Amsterdam and the ‘johns are criminals’ world of Sweden. Here we have legal prostitution, but only of the small owner/operator sort.

Large brothels are technically illegal, as is living of the proceeds of pimping or by running a brothel. The idea is that via media that there is a place for the prostitute but not for those that profit based on the control of prostitutes, that being a more organised and systematic vice worthy of punishment and as a finance source of organised crime. Not that I’m saying this never happens in Hong Kong, I’m sure the local triads control plenty of brothel, but I’m looking at the abstract legal position here. 

One final concluding thought; isn’t it intriguing that after thousands of years of so called civilisation, we still find the regulation, perhaps even the acknowledgement, of the worlds oldest profession to be a morally ambivalent and treacherous area, which requires deference to local cultural mores rather than any standard civilizational norms appearing?

 

Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian prime minister who unilaterally declared independence from Britain to preserve white rule has died aged 88 after a long illness.

Smith governed the country, now called Zimbabwe, for 15 years from 1964 to 1979, a turbulent period of guerilla war and international isolation. Seen by many as the symbol of colonial-era racism in Africa, Smith was unrepentant to the end, convinced that Zimbabwe would have been better off under minority rule than that of his successor, the current President Robert Mugabe, with whom he shared nothing but a disdain for Britain. 

Smith had recently suffered a stroke and died at a clinic in Cape Town.

Ian Smith, ex-PM of Rhodesia, dies at 88 | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

Ian Smith, an odd person indeed for me to take an interest in. But at the intersection of my two interests,  the History of the British Empire and Public International Law, no one else has as stridently or as brashly staked their claim to be a player on the international scene and held out as their main credential the strength of their racism.

My interest does not mean I endorse him. The state he founded was built upon a platform of deliberate racism, his politics alone mean that the world was right to shun him and his country, but to think that such a small country and such a tiresome man, can command such a significant portion of interest both in his time and retrospectively, are things that tweak my interest.

Angered at the tide of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s that was seeing Africa move into black majority democracies where the empire had once held sway, and determined to not let his own country be liberalized in the same manner, Smith’s racist right wing Rhodesian Front held out for a Rhodesia that was run by its 200,000  white inhabitants and with no say at all for its 5,000,000 black inhabitants.

Smith became prime minister promising to prolong white rule and made his historic Unilateral Declaration of Independence on November 11 1965. He gained a momentary hope of recognition, from the other Apartheid state, South Africa, but even this comfort was fleeting and recognition was soon withdrawn. Smith’s Rhodesia was never to become a real country.

International condemnation to the Declaration of Independence was swift. Nearly all the members of the UN were swift to condemn his overt racism and the UN Security Council slapped sanctions on him that ended up as a comprehensive ban on trade. Not that it meant anything, most multinationals were willing to break the ban to get access to Rhodesia’s raw materials and agricultural exports.

It was the arrival of that upstart freedom fighter, Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union which put the pressure on. Armed attacks aimed at the white farmers made Smith’s position untenable in the long run. This combined with the independence of Mozambique from Portugal to a black majority rule democracy and the waning support of South Africa, tired of its quarrelsome neighbor, that finally pushed the regime over the edge.

In April 1979 the first multiracial elections were held in Rhodesia, which saw Abel Muzorewa become the first black Prime Minister of what was now called Zimbabwe Rhodesia. However, under the Internal Settlement, which allowed the elections to be held, whites retained control of the country’s judiciary, civil service, police and armed forces, as well as having a quarter of the seats in parliament reserved for them. While this was welcomed by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, opposition from the rest of the Commonwealth meant that Britain did not recognize the new state.

In December 1979 following multi-party talks at Lancaster House in London, Britain resumed control of Rhodesia, and with the help of observers from other Commonwealth countries, oversaw the first full participatory elections. During the four month period that the country was restored to the status of a British colony it was known officially as “the British Dependency of Southern Rhodesia”. The Republic of Zimbabwe came into being on April 18, 1980.

Not that Smith went quietly. He was in opposition in the Zimbabwe parliament till 1986 and stayed a persistent and prominent thorn in the side of Mugabe while living in exile abroad until he returned to Zimbabwe and then to live out the last days of his life in South Africa.

The Metropolitan police was today found guilty of a catastrophic series of errors during the operation that led to firearms officers shooting Jean Charles de Menezes dead on the London underground.

The force was fined £175,000 and ordered to pay £385,000 costs after an Old Bailey jury found it had breached health and safety rules and failed in its duty to protect members of the public in the killing of the Brazilian electrician at Stockwell station on July 22 2005.

……

In a highly unusual move, the judge, Mr Justice Henriques, allowed the jury to insert a caveat into the verdict that stated that Cressida Dick, the commander in charge of the operation on the day, should not be held personally culpable for the events that unfolded.

Met guilty over De Menezes shooting | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

I feel that this is justice  both delayed and denied.

The main issue I have is with the ridiculousness of the charge. Of all the things that happened leading up to the murder of an innocent man, the only thing that was even remotely questionable in a criminal court was a health and safety omission? The mind recoils.

The optimist may well say, at least we have a conviction. At least in practice, de Menezes has been vindicated and the Met have accepted responsibility for their failures on conviction.

I believe that such unbounded optimism would be misplaced.

The Met may have taken the rap for it, but as is often the case with government, they don’t bear the costs of their own failures. Will the procedures and operations of the Met change internally? Will they put in the procedures to ensure something like this cannot happen again? Will we have any real way to know until another innocent man gets shot?

Neither will any of the myriad police officers involved that day take any personal responsibility. That the commander of the operation is to be treated as blameless troubles me. With power comes responsibility, but apparently not when your negligence results in killing with unlawful authority for the right people.

Instead after a series of errors so atrocious that we have to pretend this performance was comedic to deal with it., we must accept that no one will take the slightest blemish in their professional lives.

It feels wrong at so many levels.

This article from The Guardian looks behind the oil boom in Alberta, Canada. They have the second largest proven oil reserves in the world due to the unique tar sand, a greasy  combination of oil and sand, expensive and difficult to extract, that have recently become viable. 

With the oil market as it is, there’s a boom in the local economy.

Extraction though, is coming at a human and environmental cost. For the small town that serves as the staging post for the oil companies, that impact looks to be truly devastating.

This article brings home the reality of the modern miracle, and at the same time highlights how dysfunctional human society can be when caught in moments of change and turmoil. In snapshots like this, brutality and opportunity, seem to have a lewd way of walking hand in hand.

As the Middle East has become more unstable, as Iraq has boiled into chaos, other, more unexpected places have flourished, and none more so than Fort McMurray.

Five hours’ drive north of Edmonton, in Alberta, it has always been a frontier town, and even before the first white explorers came fur-trapping, the Indians knew that this place sat on oil – they used it to waterproof their canoes.

The trouble has always been that it’s not conventional crude, easily liberated from the earth, but tar sands (also known as oil sands) – a mixture of sand, water and heavy crude which is much more difficult and expensive to extract. It can cost about Can$26 ($US27; £13) a barrel to do so – so when that was comparable to the price of oil, there was no point in trying; now that oil is close to breaking the $100-a-barrel barrier, there definitely is.

Aida Edemariam on the environmental impact of the tar sands of Alberta in Canada | Environment | The Guardian

Child workers, some as young as 10, have been found working in a textile factory in conditions close to slavery to produce clothes that appear destined for Gap Kids, one of the most successful arms of the high street giant.

Speaking to The Observer, the children described long hours of unwaged work, as well as threats and beatings.

Gap said it was unaware that clothing intended for the Christmas market had been improperly subcontracted to a sweatshop using child labour. It announced it had withdrawn the garments involved while it investigated breaches of the ethical code imposed by it three years ago.

Indian ‘slave’ children found making low-cost clothes destined for Gap | World | The Observer

Three things strike me about this story

First that big companies no longer get away with exploitive globalization. Reporters are checking their supply chains and the resulting publicity rebounds badly on their key selling point, the Brand. When you sell an image, things that damage that image require supervision.

Secondly that consumers are more interested in stories like this and aware of them. It’s on the front page of The Guardian, even when the leg work was done by The Observer. Consumers want to be ethical in their spending and won’t accept overtly exploitative behaviour. At the same time this story will disappear within a few weeks and those same consumers will forget. Once you establish a dominant image in peoples’ mind, it takes a lot to uproot the default assumptions.

Finally, that India’s economic miracle is coming at a similar price to China’s. I’ve shared esoterically my disquiet about the way these miracles happen and  the human price paid for progress. I freely confess that I have no idea how else it can be done, or how this choice can be made between progress and exploitation, or even if any balance is possible.

In the meantime though,

mind-the-gap