Thursday, December 18, 2014

The E.U. Shifts the Debate: Re-labeling Hamas and Palestine

Framing the contours of a debate goes a long way toward winning it. Part of such framing involves efforts to make derogatory labels stick to the opposing side. Through a number of decades in the twentieth century, communist was the weapon of choice. Actors who refused to name names found themselves blacklisted as pro-communist, or having communist sympathies. A decade after the fall of the U.S.S.R., labeling an organization or person as a terrorist came into its own as the all-too-easy means of depriving an opposing side of credibility. By 2015, some people believed that anytime a person of a particular Middle-Eastern religion kills someone, that person is a terrorist. The word’s very definition was somehow pliable enough to accommodate prejudice and simple dislike. This is not to say that real terrorists are squalid creatures; rather, my point is that people had realized that they could score political points by applying the label to their opponents and making it stick. Israel, for instance, had successfully gotten the E.U. to label the Palestinian political party Hamas as a terrorist organization. Yet as 2014 was coming to an end, the label was becoming unstuck, with broader implications for the wider debate on Israel and Palestine.

On December 18, 2014, the General Court of the European Union ruled that Hamas’s status as a terrorist organization had been determined by news and Internet reports rather than by “acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities.”[1] Although the decision is procedural rather than substantive in nature, the finding points to how very pliable labels can be. The frivolous nature of going by news and internet reports is borne out by how different outlets can be in characterizing the two sides of a given dispute. For example, are Hamas members freedom-fighters or terrorists? The choice here goes a long way in determining how the debate is framed, and therefore how it plays out, so the decision is political rather than even technical.

Highlighting the political nature of labels in the Palestinian question, the court’s decision coincided with a resolution passed by the E.U.’s parliament supporting “in principle the recognition of Palestinian statehood” along with new negotiations.[2] Recognizing a state even as it is occupied by another functions mainly in a debate-framing capacity, as no actual statehood can exist as long as the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied by another state. “Recognizing” statehood, along with the Hamas political party no longer labeled as a terrorist organization, can shift debate in the direction of the Palestinians. Hence, it is not for nothing that Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel reacted publicly to the vote, saying, “These declarations merely point to a spirit of appeasement in Europe of the very forces that threaten Europe itself.”[3] Simply in using the word, declarations, however, he was inadvertently helping the “statehood” label to stick in the debate. To get the other side of a dispute to adopt a label even as that side is arguing against your side goes a long way toward getting the label to stick for neutral observers. In effect, they tacitly take sides in the language they apply.

In short, framing a debate is a political venture unto itself, with huge implications as to which side has to run up hill and which has the advantage of gravity. Restoring Hamas to political party and Palestine to a state may prefigure an eventual shift in the debate in the Palestinians’ favor.

1. Alan Cowell, “European Court Reverses Designation of Hamas as a Terrorist Organization,” The New York Times, December 18, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Backing a Bear into a Corner: Falling Oil Prices Hit Russia Hard

Falling oil prices and economic sanctions in 2014 put the pressure on the Russian economy and its currency. The overall question may have been geo-political, however. Namely, would the twenty-first century see economic tools replace military response as the dominant means to “walk back” international aggressor states and restrict their further exploits? Such a question may be too broad, as even a newly-discovered devise that suddenly works is not likely to be applicable in every case. Even so, obviating war in the nuclear age would be no small feat.

On December 15, 2014, crude oil for February delivery fell $1.82, or 3.2 percent, to settle at $56.26 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange; oil had been as high as $107 the previous June.[1] The increase in American consumers’ disposable income was expected to boost the economy. Additionally, manufacturing output in the previous month “surpassed its prerecession peak as auto production rose.”[2] This proffered an “encouraging sign that America's factories are somewhat insulated from the global economic slowdown.”[3] The U.S. Government could afford to lead its informal coalition, including Saudi Arabia, against the Russian government’s incursions into Ukraine.

The Russian economy was not least among the contributors to the downturn. “Given Russia's huge dependence on oil revenues, the . . . sharp falls in the price of oil has hit the Russian economy hard. That's exacerbated by the fact that the Russian economy [was not at the time] diversified enough to withstand the shock.”[4] In other words, “the drop in crude prices . . . hurt Russia since the country [was at the time] a major oil exporter and [thus depended] heavily on oil for tax revenue.”[5] In refusing to reduce its supply of oil, OPEC was squeezing Russian competitors particularly hard, as well as the Russian government (and that of Iran).

That E.U. and U.S. officials were “contemplating tougher economic sanctions against Moscow” for geo-political reasons centering on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine suggests that the Russian economy might have more to worry about than lower oil prices and a weakening currency.[6] The situation in Ukraine was not getting any better, suggesting that further sanctions could come to pass. The United Nations human rights office had just announced its findings of a "very close link" between the inflow of fighters and sophisticated weaponry, "including from the Russian Federation," and a total breakdown of law and order in eastern Ukraine.[7] According to Gianni Magazzeni, head of the division of the United Nations human rights office that deals with Europe and Central Asia, “the situation around the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, under the control of pro-Russian armed groups,” could be characterized in terms of "killings, abductions, torture, ill treatment, sexual violence, rape, forced labor, ransom, extortion,".[8] Considering that even all of this does not take into account the fate of Crimea, which Russia had invaded and absorbed, the prospect of any sort of overall geopolitical resolution with a let-up on the economic vice-grips on Russia seemed dismal at the time.

The toll on Russia’s currency, the ruble, could not be missed. In its steepest drop in 16 years, the currency sank more than 10 percent to about 64 to the dollar on December 15, 2014.[9] The rise of inflation pressures from more expensive imports had already prompted Russia’s central bank to gradually increase its main interest rate from 5.5 percent early in 2014 to 9.5 percent. On December 11th, the central bank “tried unsuccessfully to stem the ruble's slide by boosting its key rate by 1 percentage point to 10.5 percent. The decision to raise the rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent on December 15th “represented a desperate attempt to prop up the troubled currency,” according to the Associated Press.[10] Of course, the currency itself was not the real problem. Accordingly, the attempt fell on its face, at least initially. “In the first hours after the increase, the ruble staged a rebound, recovering almost all of its [previous day] losses. But the optimism soon dissipated and the ruble was down another 20 percent to 77 to the dollar by 3.30 p.m. in Moscow (1230GMT).”[11] The next day, FXMC, an online trading company, halted ruble trades—anticipating capital controls on the enervated currency.

Moreover, although the higher interest rate could eventually have a positive impact on the ruble, especially as long as the rates on the E.U. euro and U.S. dollar stay near zero, the higher rate was also “likely to cause much hardship in an economy [that was] already heading for recession.”[12] Americans need only remember Paul Volcker’s rate hikes in 1981 and the subsequent harsh recession to get this point. Indeed, Russian stocks were “moderately declining” on the morning after the rate hike to 17 percent, “with the MICEX benchmark 1.5 percent lower, reflecting the rate hike's pressure on businesses.” [13] Neil Shearing, chief economist for emerging markets at London-based Capital Economics, predicted "a further tightening of credit conditions for households and businesses and a deeper downturn in the real economy in 2015."[14] Such tightening—and Americans need only look back to September 2008 to grasp the seriousness of this move—could easily outweigh any increase in exports from the lower currency.

In conclusion, this case study presents us with an interesting intersection of international relations and international political economy. One major lesson may be that the coordinated economic policies of a coalition of states can effectively replace war as a means of going after governments that are militarily aggressive internationally. Of course, the geo-political and economic strategy is not full-proof, as a hegemon may still be able to get away with such behavior (e.g., the U.S. invading Iraq with impunity). Also, pushing a bear into a corner may have unanticipated consequences both within Russia and in its foreign policy. That is to say, applying such strident pressure, whether financial or militarily, is risky in a nuclear world.

[1] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling, and So Are the Markets,” The New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] The Associated Press, “Russia’s Ruble Slides to Historic Lows,” The Huffington Post, December 16, 2014.
[5] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling.”
[6] Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Hardships Grow in Ukraine, U.N. Says,” The New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling.”
[10] The Associated Press, “Russia’s Ruble Slides.”
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Beyond the Reach of Any Greenhouse-Gas Agreement: Nature’s Contribution

With China and the U.S. coming to an agreement in 2014 on limiting their respective greenhouse-gas emissions, the Peru talks suddenly gained new momentum toward a deal on a global scale. To be sure, even the U.S.-China agreement would not kick in for years, if not decades, and a global agreement would not even take effect until 2020 at the earliest. This drawback may pale in comparison to one of nature’s own contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions, and nature itself cannot agree to voluntarily restrict its own output. Accordingly, we should not assume that a global agreement will save the day, rendering the planet still inhabitable for humans in the next century.

All across the Arctic, scientists have detected abnormally high concentrations of methane seeping out of the thawing permafrost. Along Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula in 2014, concentrations of the greenhouse gas 50,000 times higher than the atmospheric average were found to be rising from a 200 feet deep hole created when a large sheet of permafrost thawed and collapsed. In Canada’s western Arctic, three of many seeps found in the area have been found to be emitting as much greenhouse gases in a year as are emitted by 9,000 average-sized cars.[1]

Methane has ten times the greenhouse-effect as carbon. Nature’s contribution to global warming may thus turn out to dwarf the impact of any conceivable global agreement. The continuing thawing of the permafrost in the Northern hemisphere past 2014 is a certainty given the carbon and methane already in the atmosphere then and the fact that carbon emission targets in the U.S.-China agreement are merely to get back to earlier levels, such as that of 2005 in the case of the U.S.  In other words, we may have set in motion a chain-reaction beyond our reach that could result in atmospheric warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius—the tipping point, scientists tell us, beyond which life would become very unpleasant and even impossible for our species on Earth.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a European philosopher and classicist who wrote in the late nineteenth-century, uses the analogy of light coming from a star light-years away, showing an event that has already happened yet the knowledge of which has not yet reached Earth. In the analogy, we have caused the event ourselves and yet we do not know it yet.  Similarly, we may already have put in motion a chain reaction that will result in our own extinction as a species and yet the light carrying this news has not yet reached us. So we go on as if our governments’ paltry negotiations are somehow newsworthy, even potentially a game-changer. More generally, we put so much stock in the power of our own wills that we don’t stop to ask whether the true game-changer might just be dealt by Nature independent of our efforts at international relations. As a species, we may already have blood on our hands, and yet we, the culprits, do not see it.

[1] Edward Struzik, “The End and Beginning of the Arctic,” The Huffington Post, December 5, 2014.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cheaper Driving on an Uninhabitable Planet

By the end of November 2014, the price of oil had declined about 40 percent since its peak back in the previous June.[1] Expanding American fracking, a steady supply of oil from OPEC, and a weak global economy are the major factors behind the trend. Saving $630 million on gas as compared with what they had been paying in June, American drivers found themselves with more disposable income.[2]  Besides uses such as Christmas presents, groceries, and clothing, more consumers were buying SUVs and Hummers in spite of their low gas mileages. William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, pointed to the benefits, saying “falling energy prices are beneficial for our economy and should be a strong spur to consumer spending.”[3] With OPEC countries and Russia hit disproportionately, the U.S. Government had a geo-strategic interest in a further drop in the price of oil. It is no wonder that a major disconnect existed between these benefits and a startling, albeit largely hidden downside.

As American drivers were finding they had more money available to buy Christmas presents, United Nations negotiators gathering in South America were expressing a new optimism that they may finally achieve a deal to stop the increasing rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, scientists were warning that even with an international deal that includes China and the U.S., the Earth would still become increasingly unpleasant; without a deal, and here’s the stunner, “the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans.”[4] Even with a deal taking effect only in 2020 and relying on governments to hold themselves to their own targets and timeframes, a large body of scientific research in 2014 pointed to “into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding — events that could harm the world’s population and economy.”[5] Such a drag on the global economy would likely exceed expansion of between 0.5 percent and 1 percent from the decline in oil prices.[6]

Dwarfing calculations of the net impact on the global economy is the word itself, uninhabitable. The prospect of our species taking itself out of existence even as we cheer cheaper (and thus more) gas and buy larger cars again—as if no learning curve could have been applied—presents our species with the unhappy enigma that is so much a part of human nature. That we could have been so easily distracted by instant gratification is not news; the realistic possibility that our descendants might die off before the turn of the next century is—at least to those people willing and able to notice. In other words, 2014 brought the dark news that the planet being uninhabitable for humans may come sooner than anyone distracted by the oil would believe.

To be sure, the astounding technological advances that took place in the twentieth century, such as putting human beings on the Moon, could mean that further advances in the twenty-first century could remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to pull us back from the brink. Moreover, the future is not simply a projection of a given trend into a trajectory; unforeseen factors are almost certain to kick in between 2014 and the end of that century.

Even so, the risk taken on by humanity in the 2010s is considerable—even astonishing—given what we knew even in 2014. Drivers pleased to death with lower gas prices dismissed the risk—missing the connection between the rising carbon emissions from their increased driving (and flying) from the lower cost of fuel, and the increasing likelihood that their children or grandchildren might realistically find the Earth to be uninhabitable in their lifetimes. Young children riding in the SUVs could live to see the Titanic sink unexpectedly quickly. The loop could be that tight, and yet it got scarcely any air-time as gas prices lowered during the last half of 2014. Crucially, drivers and the media alike were glued like addicts to a constricted perspective centered on the daily downward ticks in the price of gas as if pennies dwarf uninhabitability. Is it to be said shortly before the final curtain that our species died off for pennies?

[1] Steven Mufson, “As Oil Prices Plunge, Wide-Ranging Effects for Consumers and the Global Economy,” The Washington Post,  December 1. 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Coral Davenport, “Optimism Faces Grave Realities at Climate Talks,” The New York Times, November 30, 2014.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The statistics are from Steven Mufson, “As Oil Prices Plunge, Wide-Ranging Effects for Consumers and the Global Economy,” The Washington Post,  December 1. 2014.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

China’s Increasing International Role: A Historical Departure

Historically, China was isolationist. The Opium Wars in the mid-19th century is a good illustration of why. From this context, China’s announcements of a series of international trade and finance initiatives by which China would assume a larger leadership role internationally are stunning. Doubtless the enhanced role is in line with China’s geopolitical and economic interests. After all, political realism is hardly a dead theory in the 21st century. Even so, the impact of the reversal on the culture is significant, and thus worthy of study. Specifically, the traditional mistrust of foreigners is likely to diminish. As it does, the Chinese will be more likely to consider and even advocate for economic and political principles, such as liberty and rights, that are valued elsewhere in the world but not so much in China. The result could be increased political instability. In short, the initiatives timed to coincide with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November 2014 could eventually weaken the Chinese government’s grip on power.

In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), relations with non-Chinese peoples were conducted by “a variety of bureaus and agencies that, in different ways, implied or stated the cultural inferiority and geographical marginality of foreigners, while also defending the state against them.”[1] Even though countries such as Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam “shared many of the basic values of Chinese culture,” the emissaries “were expected to make a formal acknowledgement of China’s cultural and political prestige by [using] a language of subservience in diplomatic documents and by making the ritual prostrations (kowtow) before the Chinese emperor in royal audiences. In return, these countries were allowed to conduct a controlled volume of trade with China.”[2] Interestingly, a certain subservience and even inferiority may have been implied at the APEC meeting in Beijing in 2014 to the extent that China held huge quantities of foreign currencies in reserve (which could be used to invest in other economies) and foreign government debt (e.g., U.S. Treasuries). In this sense, China’s enhanced leadership role internationally is in line with the history. Even the taking on of a leadership role implies that the resulting increased trade and foreign economic relations more generally would be controlled in their contours, as the leadership was oriented to designing international economic infrastructure, and no system-design is perfectly neutral.

Just before the APEC meeting, the Chinese government announced a free-trade agreement with South Korea; both the timing of the announcement and the taking of initiative on the agreement imply significant—though not complete—control. Additionally, Chinese regulators “approved a plan to open Chinese stock markets wider to foreign investors by linking exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai.”[3] Simply in having a plan, the Chinese government was controlling how foreign investors would relate to the stock exchanges. Put another way, control is implied in having a plan, rather than alternatively watching foreign investors come in do as they will (e.g., speculate by selling-short, thereby trashing even some sound companies). Lastly, the Chinese government announced a $40 billion Chinese-financed fund to improve trade links between Asian economies. The money alone implies control. At the very least, the Chinese would have a big say in how the links are made.

The extent of the Chinese involvement in international economic relations is startling from a historical perspective, but the degree of control implied is not. Historically, the Chinese had good reason to distrust foreign governments. On August 29, 1842, the Chinese signed the British treaty of Nanjing in what is now known as the first opium war. Facing an epidemic of addiction, the Qing government had outlawed trade in the drug. In the treaty, British opium merchants could live and operate in five Chinese cities—Canton, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Ningbo, and Shanghai. Although only the latter was a boom town, illegal opium would come into China at a rate of at least 20,000 chests a year.[4] Additionally, the island of Hong Kong was to possessed in perpetuity by the British.[5] The United States, France, and a host of other countries also extracted concessions. All told, the Qing “had lost control of vital elements of China’s commercial, social, and foreign policies.”[6] As if this were not enough, the Tianjin treaty in 1858 opened all Chinese ports to British opium traders in spite of the fact that the possession and sale of the narcotic was still illegal under Chinese law. To pressure the Qing into signing the treaty that implied deep disrespect for Chinese law within China, the British burnt down the Yuan Ming Yuan, the exquisite summer palace on October 18, 1860. The Chinese were humiliated at such a disgrace.[7]

Deep scares inexorably become etched in the subterranean contours of a society’s perspective of the world. An insistence or at least a proclivity to control relations with foreign powers naturally goes along with an inner sense of insecurity masked as an insistence to relate only from a position of power—whether it be militarily or in having massive reserves of foreign currencies or debt as assets. What has changed is the extent of China’s interaction with other countries, economically and politically. Ironically, from the controlled design of international economic regimes, increased exchange can be expected—not only of economic goods and services under free trade, but also of ideological principles. In this sense, the Chinese government risks opening China up beyond what that governing party can control.

1. Jonathon Spence, The Search for Modern China, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), p. 117.
2. Ibid, p. 118.
3. Joe McDonald and Youkyung Lee, “Asia-Pacific Leaders Agree to Work Toward Possible Adoption of Trade Deal,” The Associated Press, November 11, 2014.
4. Spence, Search for Modern China, p. 164.
5. Ibid., pp. 160-61.
6. Ibid., p. 163.
7. Ibid., p. 182.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Age of Humans: Snuffing Our Species Out

With California entering its fourth year of severe drought and the planet having its warmest August and September since records began in 1880, one scientist at NASA’s Institute for Space Studies said in 2014 that the warm data points “point toward the long-term trends.”[1] At the time, scientists were already claiming that the planet had entered a new era—that of the Anthropocene—noted for the impact of the homo sapiens species in altering Earth. The implications are profound, even if the huge shift has not fully registered in human consciousness.

According to one geologist speaking in 2014, “humans have become a geologic force on the planet. The age we are living [in now] is really distinct.”[2] Yet we might be too close to it to recognize the distinctness, and so our elected representatives may not feel emboldened to craft public policy to the new reality. The resulting vulnerability has scarcely been contemplated. John Kress, the acting undersecretary of science for the Smithsonian Institution highlighted the mammoth nature of the change. “Never in its 4.6 million-year-old history has the Earth been so affected by one species as it is being affected now by humans.”[3] In addition to climate change, the impact extends to ozone loss, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, the acidification of oceans, endocrine disruptors, and deforestation.[4] I submit that we are not even aware of other footprints that could make the planet potentially uninhabitable for our species one day; for without much of a recognition of the new era, we cannot expect to have much of a grasp on the breadth of our species’s impact on the planet.

In his book, Steps to An Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson approaches ecological principles from the standpoint of general systems theory. That is to say, he stresses the system-qualities of an ecosystem. His notion of a maximizing variable is relevant here. Such a variable maximizes without taking a break. A species in an ecosystem qualifies as a maximizing variable if that species continues to increase, unhampered even as it butts up against the semi-permeable membrane of an ecosystem’s constraints. When such a species “breaks through” what its ecosystem will tolerate, the state-state equilibrium is disrupted and the ecosystem must “find” another equilibrium. The new resting point may or may not include the species.

Our species is indeed a maximizing variable, with a population of over 7 billion as of 2014. In his pathbreaking work on populations, Malthius postulates that an over-populated species is vulnerable to famine, epidemics, and war. Studies using rats have demonstrated the theory in action. Yet in the Anthropocene Age in which we live, we can add a more “macro” consequence—that of being vulnerable to the planet becoming uninhabitable to our species. As Nietzsche brilliantly writes regarding how people can unintentionally discredit their own conception of God and thus effectively ruin it, we may have blood on our hands and yet not realize that we ourselves have done the deed. Like light coming from the farthest star, awareness of our large-scale impacts already committed has not yet reached us.

Indeed, the Earth’s equilibrium was already on the move in the early 2010s and yet we struggled to separate this out from “natural fluctuations.” Without much recognition of the new era and even less comprehension of the impacts and how serious their respective consequences would likely be, our species could indeed be heedlessly maximizing itself to extinction without realizing it. In genealogical time, our genes could be outstandingly successful in terms of replication only for a short burst of time before burning out like a candle’s flame enjoying too much wick.

[1] Nick Visser, “The Planet Just Had Its Warmest August on Record,” The Huffington Post, September 15, 2014.
[2] Seth Borenstein, “’Anthropocene’ Term Gains Traction as Human Impacts on Planet Become Clearer,” Associated Press, October 14, 2014.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Natural Rights in Europe and America: Shoring-Up Each Other’s Weak Spots

The Declaration of Independence made by the thirteen newly sovereign American states in 1776 recognizes “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights are not dependent on any government, and thus exist equally so in the state of nature. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, made in Europe thirteen years later, omits any mention of a creator-deity. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” The equality here is more limited, being solely in terms of rights, “man’s natural and imprescriptible rights” in particular. These “are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” We can thus compare and contrast the two sets of rights, which important implications for public policy for both America and Europe.

Liberty is shared by both declarations; the value placed on freedom was likely salient in the last quarter of the eighteenth century at least. Liberty represented the emerging paradigm of popular sovereignty as against monarchy and the associated divine right of kings. Interesting, the American Declaration pivots the divine source over to liberty, whereas the European Declaration implies a basis in Nature. Basing a new paradigm on the basis of the prevailing one has the advantage of the transference of legitimacy, while bypassing the old foundation may be likened to kicking the chair out from under the reigning paradigm, hence weakening any potential resurgence. So, both documents had a valid strategy.

In terms of “ever closer union” pertaining to the E.U. and U.S., we might try combining the other salient rights to get a sense of a more holistic, or balanced, basis to government. John Locke would no doubt be very pleased. To liberty, we can add life, property, security, resistance to oppression, and the pursuit of happiness. I have ordered these rights along the lines of Maslow’s hierarchy of self-actualization—physiological sustenance and physical security being the most fundamental, and happiness residing at the top. The right to security implies life, but the latter does not include the former.

Hence we find a more complete safety net in the E.U. than in the U.S. The ideological belief that a person must work in order to survive, a vestige of the proverbial state of nature although without the greater specialization making people more dependent on each other, has more currency among Americans than Europeans, generally speaking. A balanced approach to public governance would include the right to life buttressed by the right to security. That is to say, more could be done in the U.S. with respect to ensuring basic shelter, medical care, and food to the people in most need such that they need not live in fear from day to day.

Furthermore, the right to resist oppression can be coupled with the right to pursue happiness, for the oppressed are rarely very happy. Striking workers in the 1930s in America felt the weak spot in the American variant of rights as companies hired Pinkerton cops to beat the strikers as local police looked on or even participated. Europeans weighed down by onerous regulations would benefit in terms of quality of life were happiness a more explicit factor used by regulators.

In any culture, some rights are valued more than others; valuing itself involves prioritizing. Accordingly, governments tend to have distinctive weak spots. Political development can be facilitated, I submit, by comparing different though related sets of values in order to detect and strengthen areas that potentially could undercut the system of public governance itself. That is to say, Europeans and Americans can learn from each other and both come out with stronger systems of governance.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Political Protests in Manama and Madison: It's a Small World After All

On February 17, 2011, The New York Times ran two major stories that have a common denominator: angry protesters. Bahrain and Wisconsin are not typically thought of together.  Bahrain is a small kingdom in the Middle East whereas Wisconsin is a large republic in North America. In mid-February, 2011, both were engulfed in protest in their respective capital cities.

In Manama, Bahrain, the army took control on February 17th; on the following day, the military would use automatics against a group of protesters. Before the army had taken control of much of the capital city, the police had opened fired on protesters camped in Pearl Square--that occurred a day after the king had said that the protesters could use that park to express themselves. According to The New York Times on February 17th, "As the army asserted control of the streets with tanks and heavily armed soldiers, the once- peaceful protesters were transformed into a mob of angry mourners chanting slogans like 'death to the king,' while the opposition withdrew from the Parliament and demanded that the government step down."  

In short, violence had turned on peaceful protest, turning the capital city into a war zone, and that situation was repeated the next day.  From the standpoint of the protests in Madison on February 17th, the scene of carnage in Manama would have been difficult to imagine. My thesis is that while the differences are real, they should not be overdrawn. The people in Manama and Madison are human, all too human, after all, hence they are fully capable of going well past the confines of polite society into the state of nature yet with vastly more interpersonal contact.

In Madison, protesters had begun protesting on February 16th. I happened to be in Madison on that first day and I witnessed the protesters make their way to the Capitol. The next day, the protesters were congregating in the rotunda at the seat of government when the thirteen Democratic senators walked out of the Senate (and in fact out of Wisconsin). With the majority party one person short of a quorum in the Senate, the pending bill that would reduce benefits for public employees and restrict their unions' collective bargaining rights on wage negotiations was effectively in limbo. The New York Times reported that day, "Walker’s plan was upending life in the capital city."  On the 18th, the paper reported that on the previous evening as the rallies against the bill grew, "(p)eople screamed: 'Shut it down! Shut it down!' Drums pounded. Students, some barefoot, danced." This description is more revealing than one might suppose at first glance.

Even though the protesters in Madison can be distinguished as a group from the protesters in Manama, the protesting Wisconsinites should not be treated as a homogeneous mass. In fact, the presence of out-of-state university students broadened the protest beyond Wisconsin. Furthermore, although some of the students were doubtless deeply involved in labor issues, many of the students I saw on their way to the protest on the 16th looked excited, like they were going to a rock concert, rather than angry or even into political activism. Some even had little pictures painted on their faces. Later in the week, a large drum circle took shape inside the Capitol. At times protesters seemed more concerned by what they regarded as insufficient attention on them by the national media than by their cause. It's all about me! Watch me! That is not much of a revolutionary attitude.

The more disgruntled, personally-invested protesters (i.e., actual workers) might have been mobilized by the unions that would receive less in union dues if public workers had the right to withhold union dues (a feature of the proposed bill). In other words, greed rather than anger might have been motivating some of the protest organizers even if most of the unionized protesters were motivated by principle. Also, in addition to teachers attending on principle, schools may well have organized their students to attend as a group. 

Therefore, lots of agendas funneled into the protests in Madison that February. My point is not that the protesters were somehow fakers or imposters relishing attention or a festive party; rather, my point here is that protests are actually rather heterogeneous even though they look like one fuzzy blob from a distance (i.e., through the media).

Moreover, it might seem like the protests in Madison were quite different from those that were taking place in Manama at the same time even though a closer examination uncovers some underlying commonalities based on human nature and how it plays out in terms of political organization.

To be sure, in terms of being different, shutting down the Senate temporarily is a far cry from a revolution wherein an entire government is to be replaced. Treating the passage of a bill as though it were a matter of life and death smacks of hyperbole. Responding to the flight of the democratic senators, for example, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald said, “This is the ultimate shutdown.” Well, no, I don't think so, Senator; the ultimate shutdown was going on in the political protests in Tunesia, Egypt and Libya. What was going in Wisconsin was not revolution even if that language may have served the protesters' various purposes, including more attention and importance than warranted.

The difference between the two protests can be appertained by contrasting college students in Madison dancing barefoot in a heated building in February while protesters in Manama were facing live gun-fire. Shouting "Shut it down!" as if a government were somehow obliged to close because a group of people demand it is not like screaming "Stop shooting at me!!!" From the vantage point of an American, protesting for a real revolution seems like a world, or planet away from protesting to stop a particular bill from becoming law. In Madison, the likelihood that the protests would turn massively violent was doubtlessly perceived on both sides of the issue as being so remote that protesters were allowed inside the building housing all three branches of the Government of Wisconsin.

Whereas the police and military in Manama were mobilized on February 17, 2011 to remove protesters from a city park, the Wisconsin National Guard (Wisconsin's military) was nowhere to be seen as protesters flowed into the seat of Wisconsin's government in Madison. Even when the capitol police wanted to clear the building for cleaning on the Sunday of the second week, the protests were able to remain. In fact, Wisconsin's chief executive and head of state had notified the Wisconsin National Guard to step in to perform vital governmental functions should the public employees go on strike. In short, the images of college students dancing barefoot even as they are reported to be "angry protesters" is difficult to reconcile with the pictures of blood-soaked protesters in the Middle East lying on cement or being carried to hospitals. I wouldn't blame one of the real protesters for shaking one of those students and saying, "Hey, this is serious! We are not playing!" 

Why were the protests in Madison so different on the surface from those in Manama? Why did the drama turn Madison into "a political circus," according the USA Today, while protesters (and even the medics trying to help them) were getting shot at in the Arab Spring? My knee-jerk explanation is that the tradition of democracy and protest had been so engrained in Wisconsin's political ethos by 2011 that no Wisconsinite seriously worried that the Capitol Square would turn into a real battlefield. Furthermore, in spite of a protester's sign at Wisconsin's Capitol identifying Gov. Scott Walker with Pres. Mubarak in Egypt, the goals of the Wisconsinites protesting did not even come close to toppling the bicameral legislature, the head of state, or  the form of government itself. I contend nevertheless, however, that the disjunction or dichotomy between the protests-to-violence in Manama and the protests-as-festival in Madison is at least in part illusionary. 

Sources: (poster of Mubarak and Walker at the protests in Wisconsin)  (on the psychology/corruption in the Madison police dept)
Iona Craig, "Protests Spread, Worsen in Middle East," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 8A.
Dennis Cauchon, "In Wis., Pitched Battle by Unions," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 1A.

Political Protests in Wisconsin and the Middle East: A Common Denominator?

Imagine some of the blue-collar unionists in Wisconsin's Capitol in February, 2011 suddenly "losing it," insulting officers of the Capitol Police keeping an eye on the protest going on in the rotunda. Due to a video made public (and related news stories), a clan of officers taking down just one protester, who was actually there merely to observe a protest two years later, we don't have to imagine such a scene, albeit "downsized" from that of protesters en masse being attacked.   

From the video: The young man being thrown to the floor and jumped on had last made reference to his right of peaceful protest, which the police presumably punished him for anyway. How much power do rights have if force refuses to recognize them?  Image Source:

Had there been a full-blown confrontation in February, 2011, imagine how quickly the barefoot dancers would have run in horror past all the blood, open wounds, and death. The distance between Madison and Manama back in February, 2011 would have been significantly narrowed, but not eliminated. A common denominator does indeed exist: the propensity of human nature to abuse a monopoly of power and to view other people as objects rather than ends in themselves.

The inhabitants in the United States are muffled from the starker political protests that go on in other regions of the world; so much of the status quo is presumed in the U.S. Also, the difference between a real dictatorship and the republic form of government, and the difference between the political culture of Bahrain and that of Wisconsin make a difference, to be sure. However, a political protest by a mob is inherently unstable; the police and military in Wisconsin are just as capable of abusing their legal right to use lethal force just as the police and military in Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, or Libya.  This point is often lost on people living in a society whose political system has been stable for over a century.

Just a week before the protests in Madison that began on February 17, 2011, a Madison police officer had been dismissed for "overbearing, oppressive, or tyrannical conduct." Should people who have problems with impulse control have a gun just inches from trigger-happy fingers? The capital of Wisconsin could become something more like the capital of Bahrain, or a major city in Libya than we might suppose. That is to say, such a slide would not take as much as might be assumed. 
On Saturday, February 19th, "Libyan forces opened fire on mourners leaving a funeral for protesters Saturday in the flashpoint city of Benghazi." The Libyan death toll from protests reached a hundred, while Wisconsin senators were praising the lack of any violence in five days of mass protest in Madison. The contrast could not be starker. Besides the obvious difference in violence, protecting the bargaining power of public-sector unions in a republic is a world away from deposing a dictator.
Even so, the potential of an underlying common denominator based on human nature, from which violence is possible at any large protest, should not be so easily dismissed even where there are limited aims, a mitigating political culture, and a relatively open political system. To support this point, I now turn to the matter of the commonality of human nature playing out in the concurrent protests going on in Madison, Wisconsin, Manama, Bahrain, Sana, Yemen and Benghazi, Libya.

For one thing,  Madison may not have been any less corrupt than Manama at the time of the concurrent protests. Apart from the progressive students that the university there is known for, the city itself is rather provincial.  For example, Robert Lafollette remarks in the preface of his autobiography that the political boss in Madison in the early years of the twentieth century had been rather corrupt. That boss kept Lafollette out of politics for years due to his "reformist" tendencies.

In the 1930s, the city bosses in Madison's city government twice thwarted the will of the people expressed in two referendums that Frank Lloyd Wright's plan for a city building on one of the city lakes be built (Monona Terrace was finally built in the 1990s). The reason, according to a PBS documentary on Wright, was that the city "leaders" didn't like him.

In the early 1990s, a professor on chemotherapy, fighting for his very life, also had to fight for tenure simply because he had been critical of a local bank that had endowed a chair in banking. The senior faculty member occupying that professorship was determined to force the well-published professor up for tenure out. 

During a short visit to Madison about twenty years after the fact, I discovered that the case had hardly been forgotten by long-term staff and of course the senior faculty. The tenure vote had somehow been "misreported." After the professor's lawyer counted the ballots and discovered the dean's office's "mistake," the school had to recommend tenure to the university tenure committee,  which had the final say. Unfortunately, the banking professor bullied the committee members and the tenure motion went down. As for the bully, the dean's office subsequently rewarded him with an associate deanship. The university apparently knows how to reward its own. One of the vice chancellors at the time of the incident would offer a shrug with a grin when asked years later as to why the dean's office had lied about the tenure vote. "[That faculty member] was a problem." In other words, lying about an election result at a state institution was justified if you wanted the guy gone. The screenwriters for The Sopranos couldn't come up with a better plot.

During my visit, I was stunned when a legislative staffer of one of the members of the legislature's Education Committee admitted to me as an aside that the University of Wisconsin is run like the mafia. "It is an open secret in the state-house," he said. Two staffers at the university subsequently confirmed for me the sordid nature of the university's administration. "It would not surprise me if what happened to that business professor years ago were the norm," a long-time employee told me with a shrug. 

A tenured professor told me that the university's chief of police had been sharing confidential police records of students with their parents, and that officers had been taking students' IDs on the basis of mere suspicion. The university's chancellor at the time told that professor that he did not want to "take on" the chief as she was a rather "assertive" lesbian who did not take well to being hemmed in, even by her boss. This means that the university's police force was essentially free of accountability, at least as far as the university is concerned.

Lastly, I learned that the provost's office had taken over a department in the humanities because its chairperson had been using funds vindictively. The chairperson of another such department, since promoted to the provost's office, had acted at the request of his friends in other departments to push out visiting professors as if with utter impunity, hence brazenly. 

It is no secret among academics at other universities that vindictive politics characterizes the university. Madrick, for example, writes of Milton Friedman's brief stint as a faculty member there: "After a difficult year as a young associate at the University of Wisconsin embroiled in faculty politics, Friedman returned to Washington to work for the Treasury in the early years of World War II."[1] The fraud at UW certainly goes beyond the sort of petty politics that doubtlessly go on at every college and university. The "this goes on everywhere" defense mechanism and enabler can only fall with a loud thump for anyone with a larger perspective.

In short, the city (and the University of Wisconsin) may suffer from a corrupt insider element that does not feel itself constrained either by fairness or the law, and this could potentially sow the seeds for revolution. The seed, after all, is in the harvest.

That Wisconsin is a republic (i.e. a policy characterized by representative democracy) whereas Bahrain was a kingdom at the time does not mean that abuse of power by public authorities is not possible in either polity, given the under-current of human nature. Outside Sana University in Yemen, for example, a few hundred people complained on February 17, 2011 of corruption and poor government services. According to USA Today, Mouath Hamed said that corruption was killing Yemen. Why haven't Madisonians and UW students protested the corruption in their midst?
Unlike the protesters in Madison, the protesters in Sana declared, "This is the beginning of the revolution." They faced sticks and electro-shock weapons as the students in Madison danced barefoot in a warm rotunda during winter.

The capital city of a republic can be so corrupt that protesters in such a city should demand mass resignations of  entrenched, corrupt and incompetent civil servants in order to clean up the people's house. It could be objected that my American cultural bias shows through here; to expand protest demands merely to include getting rid of civil servants can be labeled as an Americanization of what in terms of the Middle East protests would include the ouster of top government officials and the cessation of extant constitutions. To be sure, the American constitutions are already democratic.
However, it is only to the extent that a constitution really is democratic that it can be expected to not be treated by protesters like a constitution in the Middle East that props up a dictator. For instance, to the extent that office-holders in a republic can protect themselves as entrenched incumbents from the electoral check afforded to the people by a democratic constitution, the protests of the people could eventually come to approximate those in a dictatorship, even in America, if the pressure rises to a certain critical threshold. That is to say, the curtain of political stability that we presume distinguishes us from them could be ripped down the middle if the corruption continues to get worse.

Depending on the salience of popular sovereignty in the American republics, it is possible that the sort of demands made by the protesters in the Middle East could be carried by westerly winds and take root in the United States. I am not advocating such protests because they risk the total collapse of civic order. Also, unlike dictatorships, republics can perhaps repair themselves without such violence. Even so, fundamental protest that treats the system of governance itself as illegitimate could take root in any of the United States if sufficient public frustration builds up amid the hubris of wealth and power manifesting in corruption and other abuses of power.

Abstractly speaking, human political nature is a constant in the human race; accordingly, the potential for escalation and ensuing violence should not be summarily dismissed on the basis of an assumed sui generis American civic culture that is somehow immune from revolution. In the American context, the driver to watch is the extent to which the corruption of wealth entrenches itself in the halls of government at the expense of government of, by and for the people. Public officials desiring favors, good relations, friendship, or money are tempted to develop cozy relationships with entrenched private property interests at the expense of the public good and justice. At the time of their respective protests at least, Madison and Manama may not have been so different in this regard. Therefore, even though the pictures of the respective protests in Manama and Madison clearly suggest marked differences in the nature of the protests, the underlying dynamic might have been more alike than the barefoot dancers in Wisconsin could have known, for they were generally blind in their festivity to the true corruption in their midst. It is far easier to see corruption in the other's yard than on one's own street.

America is not an island isolated from human nature. We are not so exceptional or protected as the political culture we have built up may suggest to us.  As incredible as it may seem, both in terms of aims and governmental reaction, the protests that were spreading throughout the Middle East in early 2011 could manifest at some time manifest in any of the United States. It is not as though American public-private connections are so pristine or salubrious that fundamental protest could not take root. We are not so different--not so immune--as we might suppose. It may be that the Tea Party included traces of this more fundamental level of protest in the 2010 election season in declaring that the U.S. Government had gone beyond its constitutional authority in certain respects and was to that extent illegitimate as a government. It should not be lost on any of us that the subterranean human political dynamic stemming from human nature can surface at any time, anywhere. Specifically, the human proclivity to engage in corruption and even violence and to protest arrogant governmental encroachment on human liberty are the real dynamics going on under the surface anytime, anywhere, there is political authority and mass political protest.  A political culture can moderate this dynamic only to a certain extent, even if appearances seem to say otherwise. Any type of government invented by man is mortal, and flawed, being constructed by and inhabited by human beings. Likewise, human nature is mortal, and flawed. The interaction of political organization and human nature cannot be segmented by region or political system such that one area or type is somehow different, or safe from the latent violence that is almost inherent in the interaction itself. So the protests in Madison and Manama were in some important ways very distinct, but in a more fundamental sense they were made of the same stuff--albeit realized outwardly differentially because of the different types of polity and cultures.

In the end, good, stable government may depend on caritas seu benevolentia universalis (higher human love, that is, universal benevolence) rather than privilege and partiality. The people of any polity have the right and  responsibility to insist that the people they put in authority over them use their power on the basis of compassion rather than corruption.

1. Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011), p. 32.

Sources: (poster of Mubarak and Walker at the protests in Wisconsin)  (on the psychology/corruption in the Madison police dept)
Iona Craig, "Protests Spread, Worsen in Middle East," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 8A.
Dennis Cauchon, "In Wis., Pitched Battle by Unions," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 1A.

Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011), p. 32.
Concurrent lead stories on protests in Libya and Wisconsin on February 19, 2011:

On La Follette of Wisconsin, see:,_Sr.