Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Libya and the World in 2011: A Higher Calling

On February 21, 2011, Libyan military aircraft fired live ammunition at crowds of anti-government protesters in Tripoli. "What we are witnessing today is unimaginable," said Adel Mohamed Saleh, an activist in the capital. "Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead." Arabiya television put the number killed on that day alone at 160. Gadhafi's son had vowed on television the day before that his father and security forces would fight "until the last bullet." I suspect that few people were surprised to find that Gadhafi would mount a sustained vituperative effort against the pro-democracy movement that was sweeping through the Middle East. "These really seem to be last, desperate acts. If you're bombing your own capital, it's really hard to see how you can survive, " said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Control Risks' Middle East analyst. "But I think Gaddafi is going to put up a fight ... in Libya more than any other country in the region, there is the prospect of serious violence and outright conflict," he said. As the world received reports of the massacre, a latent question not being asked was whether the world (or even a coalition therein in case of a holdout like China) has the right or an obligation to intervene militarily to stop the offending regime against its own defenseless people. I contend that there is such a right and moral obligation--meaning that national sovereignty does not extend to crimes against humanity. Sadly, at the time of the Libyan protests and Gaddafi's retaliation, the world's government offiicals were still largely impotent and disorganized.

Even if not sufficiently for his regime to collapse, Gadhafi's obstinancy was being undercut right out from beneath him. As the the military was escalating its attack on unarmed citizens inside Libya, something else--something rather astonishing--was happening. Rather than putting up a united front to the world against the opposition, the government showed itself to consist of men whose participation in Gadhafi's government was not unconditional. Could it be that the Nuremburg verdicts against the Nazis in 1948--the ruling that blind obedience is not excuse for even government offiicals and employees being held accountable--was finally being heard?  That is to say, might it be that in addition to conscience, the emerging judicial enforcement at the International Criminal Court was having a slight (but significant) impact even as crimes against humanity were being committed?Libya's former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who a day earlier resigned from his post to side with protesters, issued a statement demanding Gadhafi "be put on trial along with his aides, security and military commanders over the mass killings in Libya." Were the former ambassador's warning having a real impact in real-time on government offiicals, this would evince real progress for the human race. Specifically, the realization by oificials while they are in power that they might be held accountable for their role in harming their own people could, with the help of conscience, mitigate how far a regime can go in "punishing" its people for their natural proclivity to protest injustice.  There is some evidence that government officials who might have held tough a decade earlier were having second thoughts and, crucially, acting on them.

For example, as the Libyan military was trouncing on marching mourners, Justice minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil reportedly resigned from his post to protest the "excessive use of force against unarmed protesters." Also, at least two Libyan air force pilots defected to Malta rather than shoot on defenseless citizens. Lastly, Libyan diplomats abroad explicitly backed off supporting the country's dictator. For example, a Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, "I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler." Even more astonishing, Libya's ambassadors at the United Nations called for Gadhafi to step down as the country's ruler. Deputy Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi said that if Gadhafi does not relinquish power, "the Libyan people will get rid of him." The staff of Libya's mission to the United Nations declared allegiance to the people of Libya, instead of to Gadhafi, a spokesman said on the day on which Libyan jet fighters turned on the citizens they were to protect. Traditionally, it has been thought that governments are the members of international bodies such as the UN.  That it might actually be the people of a country who are represented in a confederation would be revolutionary (this is typically thought to be in part the case in a federal government, rather than in an alliance or strictly international organization). Ambassadors representing a regime conditionally goes along with al-Houni's statement even on the day when bullets sprayed on the Libyan people from the air, "Gadhafi's regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people." In other words, Gadhafi's regime had already lost its legitimacy, and thus its right to represent the people abroad (and at home). 

To be sure, autocratic regimes are not necessarily populated by people of concience or even foresight (e.g., concerning possible prosecution at the ICC or even domestically). When Gandhi was asked how non-violent non-cooperation could ever hope to work against an invading and occupying Nazi force, he acknowledged that many would be harmed for the sake of truth, but ultimately the dictators are already destined to the trash-bin of history. Progress comes by painfully slow steps in this world of flawed humanity.  One novelist on the American Civil War observed, if we are angels, then surely we are killer angels. Was it some cruel joke? one might ask God.  Why?  Yet if the pro-democracy movement in the Middle East could teach us--meaning all of us--anything, it might be that we, acting together, can push the boulder a bit further up the hill. We need no longer accept the existence of regimes that betray their people, and in February of 2011 the world realized its efficacy in making this so. It is as if in one voice we finally exclaimed, "No, we will not go softly into the night. We will stand up and they will back down!"

As the people in the Middle East were pushing up against the dead weight of history, the rest of us were with them--indeed, being transfixed and humbled by them as they marched against dazed tyrants who had not yet realized that their day had already passed quietly into the night to be replaced by the first light of another dawn. Perhaps, just perhaps, there is a progression in the eternal recurrence of night and day.


"Gadhafi: 'I'm in Tripoli, not Venezuela," February 22, 2011. NBCNews.com.

Democratic Protests in the Middle East: A Conflagration of Historic Proportions amid a Constancy in Human Nature?

Perhaps by looking back on one's own time as though it were already historical, it is possible to assess whether what one is witnessing on the global stage is truly significant from the standpoint of human history or merely of that which history is replete. In the context of the popular protests in the Middle East in early 2011, the question is perhaps whether the world was witnessing a Hegelian burst of freedom or merely more of the same in terms of political revolutions. According to The New York Times, popular movements were "transforming the political landscape of the Middle East" in the wake of the protests in Tunesia and Egypt.  For example, in Bahrain, "as in Tunisia and Egypt, modest concessions from the government [were] only raising expectations among the protesters, who by day’s end [on February 15, 2011] were talking about tearing the whole system down, monarchy and all."  The prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle, had been in office for 40 years. Accordingly, the protesters were asking not only for the release of political prisoners, but also "the creation of a more representative and empowered Parliament, the establishment of a constitution written by the people and the formation of a new, more representative cabinet."

The New York Times placed the protests in Bahrain in the wider context of the protests that had recently occurred in Tunesia and Egypt. The Bahrain protests, "inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, have altered the dynamics in a nation where political expression has long been tamed by harsh police tactics and prison terms." (italics added)  However, it was not clear at the time of the protests whether the thread of inspiration was determinative to such an extent that the landscape of the Middle East itself would be transformed as a result. In allowing the protests, the king of Bahrain may have assumed that he could stay in control and thereby reduce the strength of the "inspiration" by giving the protesters some space to do their thing and presumably get it out of their system. However, Ibrahim Matar, an opposition member of Parliament who joined the crowd of protesters, said, “Now the people are the real players, not the government, not the opposition.” It is interesting that he dismissed his own movement (i.e., the opposition) rather than trying to take credit for the uprising.  If Matar was correct, the spread of protests throughout the Middle East had the wherewithal to fundamentally change the means by which people would be governed in the region. That is, the protests could have been a transformative wave wherein people finally had within their sight the possibility that government could be of and by the people. The revolutions in Tunesia and Egypt would not have been isolated incidents in a long world history of sporatic revolutions without autocratic government itself being expunged from the tired face of the earth. The question that captivated the world watching the Egyptians protest was whether something different might have been going on. 

Whereas the twentieth century had hosted technological change on many fronts, political development was not among the areas of progress. When the twenty-first century had gained enough of its own years to claim its own time, the question may have become whether the human race was  ripe then for a leap in political development. If so, the trigger would not be in the democratic nations that preach representative democracy; rather, it would be in the people themselves who had lived under autocratic rule. It is as though there were a spreading suddent awareness that they didn't have to take the abuse anymore; they could simply say no--though "simply" is the wrong word here as saying no in a state such as Iran, for example, was at the time still prompting a barrage of bullets from government soldiers. It was clear that the autocratic governments had different strategies with respect to the protests.  The question was perhaps whether the thrust of the wave had rendered the choice of strategy nugatory. In other words, was the world witnessing the beginning of the end for autocracy or dictatorship as a means of governing human beings, or merely the latest round in a series of revolutions that have been an intractable part of human history?  Did Tunesia unleash a burst of freedom that can be placed in a Hegelian progression of human history wherein human spirit comes to realize itself in greater freedom, as per its nature? That is to say, were we witnessing a Hegelian moment? Can the protests in the Middle East in 2011 be interpreted as marking a fundamental political change or even a new awareness in humanity?  I suppose the answer would depend on whether the protests spread like a forest fire across highways and byways such that no dictator would remain standing not only in the Middle East, but, moreover, in the entire world as well.

Lest we get too carried away in celebrating the salubrious evisceration of autocratic government, we should not forget that representative democracy is far from perfect. Left without any viable competitors, this system of government could be more subject to abuses from within. If representative democracy is the beneficiary of the extinction of autocracy, might democracy as an ideal be like capitalism in the wake of the demise of the USSR (and communism in China)?  In other words, might the hegemony of representative democracy ironically make it more likely that the drawbacks of such democracy gain in force, or at least become more transparent?  Just as the financial crisis of 2008 rather than the USSR demonstrated that the market mechanism itself is flawed in how it accommodates increased volatility (by freezing up rather than accommodating it), perhaps once the world is populated by republics we might come to see the internal flaws in what the U.S. Founders called "excess democracy."

The protests in the Middle East reminded the world that history is not very predictable. Similarly, history can be quite ironic, given the fixity inherent in human expectations. As we the West welcome our brothers and sisters in the Middle East into the family of free nations, let us not get too self-congratulatory, for our institutions are far from perfect.  We are all human, all too human. Yet in spite of human nature as its constant, human history may contain a progression wherein humanity the world over comes to realizations that insist upon or inevitably lead to greater self-realization. Humanity's realization in the early twenty-first century may involve political development. I suspect that the next turn will concern religion. After that turn, the world will be quite different than for those who lived before even the technological revolution in the twentieth century.  In other words, modernity may well be characterized in terms of succeeding intervals of technological, political and religious transformation--altogether evincing a huge amount of change even as human nature remains constant.  The question might be how much change is possible given the constancy of our nature, or do some change elements change human nature? In the context of the protests in the Middle East, human nature looks pretty much the same as it has been for eons.  Yet the future change may shift the basis-point in human biology and psychology such that even more change becomes possible.


Michael Slackman, "Bahrain Takes the Stage With a Raucous Protest," The New York Times, February 15, 2011.

On the Arrogance of Assumed Superiority: Assad of Syria

One week after Assad’s Syrian government had agreed to a cease-fire with the state’s opposition, the government added further stipulations. First, it wanted “written guarantees” that rebels would  stop fighting and lay down their weapons before any government pull-back could occur. Second, the Syrian government wanted guarantees that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would stop financing the armed groups within Syria. “The regime will not implement this plan,” Col. Riad As’aad, the leader of the opposition militia fatalistically said.

The strategy was essentially a device with which to sabotage the truce. Either Assad had never intended to honor it or he had second thoughts about it after having agreed. Either way, the other side was perfectly justified in ignoring the government’s additional demands because they were not among the terms of the truce. That it is obvious that additional conditions are invalid after an agreement is made points to the lack of character—and indeed the psychological condition—in whomever in the Syrian government had come up with the strategy. At best, the ploy is dishonest. At worst, the culprits were so presumptuous as to think that they could legitimately add additional obligations on the other side. The question is perhaps whether the pertinent government officials were in denial regarding both the arrogance and the invalid nature of the move.

The mentality can also be found among apartment rentals. In some cases when I have looked for apartments, I have thought an agreement had been reached only to find an “oh, by the way” email adding a further condition that must be satisfied. Typically, the convenient presumptuousness takes the you need to form. That such a further obligation is invalid after the handshake just highlights the arrogance in the you need to. The mentality would really be shown for what it is if the renter were to reply, “I would be happy to consider your suggestion.” Essentially, both moves are predicated on the desire to dominate. It is a control-battle, in other words. My main point is that such efforts to dominate presume entitlements far beyond what is actually deserved. That the person renting the apartment would find the renter’s reply offensive—even an insult—just shows how much presumption is in the mentality. The renter would no doubt react to the ensuing, more direct imperative with legitimate consternation and resentment. When holding a party to the terms of the agreement is viewed as a provocation by the party, which continues to assume that its over-reaching is valid, there is no hope of working things out without an authority that is over both sides.

Officials in Assad’s government surely realized the absence of an authority that could hold the government to its agreement without the added conditions. In such a case, obligation itself has no meaning. The agreement of a sovereign, in other words, is valid only in so far as it continues to be something the sovereign wants. There is no being held to anything. In the case of rental agencies, companies or owners, the presumption of an overweening entitlement is at odds with the nature of an economic transaction between two parties. It is not that one party is thereby the adult and the other is somehow in a child’s role. Nor is it an employer-employee role. Rather, money is exchanged for a good—the value of each being theoretically equal. A renter could object to the additional conditions and sue to have the lease enforced if the lessor should unilaterally stop performance on the basis of the additional conditions not being satisfied.

My main point is that the stubbornness of the presumptuousness that continues to insist that the additional conditions be met is without foundation and thus ought not to stand, yet it is amazing how resistant it is to being checked or corrected. The presumption of superiority lends an ignorance that can’t be wrong assumption to the presumption simply in adding the conditions. It is this phenomenon of arrogance on stilts (which shouldn’t even be standing on its own) that defies the laws of nature.

In other words, should Assad blame the rebels for his refusal to implement that which he agreed to because the two additional conditions had not been met, the blaming itself is at two degrees of separation from having any foundation. Even so, Assad could get away with not only his refusal, but also the further step of blaming the innocent party. Psychologically speaking, Assad should know that the blaming is illegitimate yet under this scenario he might not realize it.

Stubbornly holding to the lack of realization while imposing it on the other party is a phenomenon in need of an investigation. Specifically, how does it sustain itself and can it be knocked down. Simply insisting on the terms of the agreement typically does not work. Nor, for that matter, does making the invalid status of the additional conditions transparent. I suspect that the mentality, or brain sickness, is not unlike that of an alcoholic in denial.

Reuters, “Cease-Fire in Doubt as Syria Demands New Conditions,” The New York Times, April 9, 2012.  

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Gandhi as a Model for the Arab Spring

After two weeks in 2011 of mass protests in Egypt for representative democracy and the ouster of President Mubarak, the Egyptian government agreed to concessions including allowing freedom of the press, releasing of political prisoners arrested during the protests, and commencing a committee with the opposition to consider constitutional amendments. According to The New York Times, the "regime also pledged not to harass those participating in the anti-government protests." Gandhi would have been proud, though the protesters left room for improvement on this score. Understanding how they could have done so can be of use to pro-democracy protesters not only in the Middle East, but also around the world.

To be sure, the Egyptian protesters could have done worse. Fortunately, they did not emulate the strategic orientation of the Obama administration. According to the Times, the Obama administration was "struggling to determine if a democratic revolution can succeed while President Hosni Mubarak remains in office." The man whom Obama had sent to persuade Mubarak not to run for re-election eight month later, Frank Wisner, told a group of diplomats and security experts that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Meanwhile the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, "gave a strategy overview that stood at odds with that assessment." Earlier, she had "made the case at a gathering in Munich that the entire process would take time, and must be carefully managed." Revolutions must be managed? This approach can be viewed as an oxymoron.

When Mubarak resigned after eighteen days of protests, the Obama administration tried to catch up from its public position that Mubarak could another seven months until the regularly-scheduled elections would be held. The New York Times observed, "It is hardly the first time the Obama administration has seemed uncertain on its feet during the Egyptian crisis. . . . The mixed messages have been confusing and at times embarrassing — a reflection of a policy that, by necessity, has been made up on the fly. 'This is what happens when you get caught by surprise,' said one American official, who would not speak on the record. 'We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt,' and presumably whatever dominoes follow it, 'moves from stability to turmoil? None.'"  However, it could be that the reason was less being caught by surprise and more being too technocratically- or bureaucratically-minded. "Administration officials insist their responses have been more reaction to fast-moving events than any fundamental change in objective."  In other words, Barak Obama and his advisors might have been too occupied with strategy to act on the basis of principled, big-picture, leadership. Obama, it turned out, was no Gandhi during the Arab Spring.

As an alternative to Obama's timid and incremental approach, Gandhi's approach is a better example for the courageous and non-violent Egyptian protesters in early 2011. Indeed, they were generally in Gandhi’s camp already; they only needed to more completely apply his strategy of active non-cooperation. This occurred to me during the twelfth day of protests, when the film, Gandhi (starring Ben Kingsley) was being fortuitously aired on the Turner Classic Movie channel on television. It occurred to me that rather than having responding in violence to the pro-government violence, the protesters could have taken the higher moral ground by not cooperating. The non-activity and normative message alone could have won the day even over the government’s raw force. This is the incredible thing about moral power--it can affect even governmental power and the related force of the sword, or rock. This is something the protesters in Arab Spring could have taken more to heart.

Gandhi proffered a new way to fight. "We will fight against their anger--not provoke it," Gandhi says in the movie. Non-violent non-cooperation is indeed fighting. As in all fighting, there is pain.  Only rather than inflicting physical pain, Gandhi took others' anger and though his pain the others would feel pain. "Through our pain, they will see their injustice. This will call them pain." It prompts them to as questions about themselves--uncomfortable questions with even more unpleasant answers. This new way of fighting is not in the interest of governments. If their opponents do not turn to violence, governments such as the Egyptian will be inclined to actually tempt the non-violent protesters to violence because it is a government's currency. Ironically, governments are on firmer ground when their opponents turn violent because government is fundamentally a means of legitimately ordering societal violence. In dealing with non-violent civil disobedience, governments are not in control; rather, the protesters are acting at their choosing to provoke a reaction that will make the injustice transparent to all. This locus of control gives the non-violent the upper hand. Rather than joining government on its axis, non-violent civil disobedience fights not to punish for weaknesses that we all possess, but to change minds and hearts. It is thus active rather than passive.

In terms of character, particular traits are necessary for one to remain non-violent even when tempted to strike back. According to Gandhi, turning the other cheek is not just figurative; it requires courage to take the anger of those having the power of government. Relatedly, firmness is also required. It is to defy "not with violence that would provoke anger," but, rather, "with firmness that will open their eyes." In contrast, an eye for an eye "only makes the world blind." Gandhi looked back at history to find that even as tyrants might for a time seem invincible, they have all fallen in the end. He felt that noncooperation with evil is a duty. A sense of this duty is also required.  Strategizers, such as those in the Obama administration, would be like seeds on rock in terms of Gandhi's approach. That is to say, Gandhi preached and engaged in principled leadership rather than in what was most comfortable for him at the moment. His approach also called upon self-respect. One must willingly take others' blows without either hitting back or retreating, and this involves keeping one's head held high with a sense that what one is doing is the alternative worthy of self-respect. Such respect is worth something to the protester, for pain is indeed involved in making injustice visible.

In terms of Egypt, the protesters could have recalled Gandhi's strategy of a general strike throughout British India, with Indians at prayer rather than work such that the entire country just stopped. Gandhi’s strategy is morally superior and more effective than answering government troops with rocks. A people willingly stopped of their own accord cannot be governed because there is no activity to stop. A government cannot cope with such a strategy of non-violent non-cooperation.  Hence it is no coincidence that in Egypt the pro-government forces on the street lured the protesters into engaging in violence. The protesters might have looked to Gandhi rather than take the bait. Even though tyrants might seem invincible for a time, one can have faith that the apparently-mighty in terms of worldly power will eventually face their own downfall. When their injustice has been suffered in a way that exposes it, that downfall can be facilitated. Ironically, returning violence for the violence of the state actually extends the current regime's tenure as providing order in the context of violence is a government's foremost rationale to exist.

Not taking the bait is  precisely where self-discipline and moral courage become so crucial in Gandhi's approach. Resisting "an eye for an eye" was on the mind of Hussein Ramadan, a political activist and organizer who helped lead the protests in Bahrain the week after Mubarak had fallen in Egypt. “The people are angry, but we will control our anger, we will not burn a single tire or throw a single rock. We will not go home until we succeed. They want us to be violent. We will not.” The "they" here refers to the government.

When a people spurs its own government's instigations to be violent, the legitimacy of that government is compromised and the people gain the upper hand, even if this is not apparent at the time.  When soldiers working for the British beat unarmed protesters at the Salt Works in India, any moral right that the British had had to maintain order in India was lost. Of course, changes in government policy can lag, but in the end a government that has lost its moral basis to government must fall.  It is like a romantic relationship that ends. At one point before it actually ends, one of the two people in it has the sense that the relationship will end because of something intrinsic to it. Even so, the other person may be stunned when it does end—not having had the same sense. One could also use the analogy of jets. Once one has run out of fuel, it must inevitably fall back to earth. So too, a government that has lost its moral legitimacy on account of illegitimate violence exacted on its citizens must fall, sooner or later. If such a government takes its time in succumbing to this natural law, citizens can simply sit and do nothing.

In other words, active non-violent non-cooperation can be viewed simply as waiting for nature to do its work on the human organization that still takes itself as immortal. Protesters resisting the temptation to return violence know and have faith in this natural law, so they are not so desperate to hit back. It is the comparative lack of desperation that gives the protesters the upper hand in being able to provoke a government to overstep.  Unlike such protesters, government officials typically attach urgency to protests and thus feel compelled to act under the assumption: "before things get out of hand." Ironically, it is such a mentality that causes things to get out of hand. The lack of order is in the government rather than the protesters who foreswear violence.


David E. Sanger, “As Mubarak Digs In, U.S. Policy in Egypt Is Complicated,” The New York Times, February 5, 2011.

Michael Slackman, “Bahrain Takes the Stage with a Raucous Protest,” The New York Times, February 15, 2011.

Msnbc.com, “Mubarak Still in Power as Government, Opposition Talk.”

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Syrian Offensive: Taking on International “Enforcement” of Human Rights

In Geneva on November 28, 2011, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria presented its report, which had been requested by the UN Human Rights Council. According to the report’s summary, the “deteriorating situation in the Syrian Arab Republic prompted The Human Rights Council to establish an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate alleged violations of human rights since March 2011.” The Commission interviewed 223 victims and witnesses. The Commission was able to document “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.”One might suppose that the Syrian government would have been seeking to placate the international organization and other governments.

The New York Times reports instead that Sryia’s foreign minister, “(o)utraged at the Arab League’s unprecedented battery of sanctions on Syria,” denounced the Arab League’s “unprecedented sanctions” as instantiating “economic war” by “brethren states.”  Hinting at retaliation, the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, told reporters at a televised news conference in Damascus. “Sanctions are a two-way street. I am not warning here, but we will defend the interests of our people.” It sounds rather like he was actually defending the interests of his government (and his own job). The Commission’s report itself points to evidence that the two interests were not at the time identical.

Because a government receives its legitimacy from other governments on the basis of protecting a people, it is astonishing that officials in the Syrian government thought they were any position to push back. If anything, the international accountability had been extremely lacking. This is astonishing in itself, given the success of the UN-sanctioned NATO effort that facilitated the downfall of Qaddafi in Libya. To be sure, NATO had at the very least stretched its mandate to protect civilians by going on the offensive against Qaddafi’s compound. Even so, given the Syrian government’s documented human rights violations and its utter refusal to recognize its crimes—let alone to hold back from striking out against justified international reactions—international action with teeth was urgently needed as it was wan at best.

Within the E.U.’s “euro zone,” 2011 was a year in which state leaders were coming to grips with the necessary for “ever closer union” on fiscal matters to support the monetary union. Similarly on the international level, I suspect it was dawning on people around the world that mechanisms with teeth are needed to enforce the norm of governmental sovereignty being contingent on a given government protecting rather than attacking its citizens en masse. If it was gaining ground, such a recognition would have challenged the status quo before the downfall of Qaddafi. Specifically, it had been accepted that tyrants having power in the world is an inevitable fact of life, so it is pointless to try to remove one or two of them. This fallacy even allowed U.S. Government aid to brutal dictators. The year 2011 might have shifted the ground under this conservative plank.

In the context of the unrepentant Syrian government, people must surely have been realizing that depending on unions such as the E.U. or U.S. to have strategic interests in line with taking on an independent state or even another empire like China or Russia that is violating its mandate to rule by violating its citizens’ human rights is woefully inadequate. Indeed, looking the other way after the Libyan case could be looked at as criminal in nature. I suspect that although below the radar of the media, this realization was tacitly gaining ground at the grass-roots level around the world. The Arab Spring along with the specific case of Libya may have subtly shifted the ground even as recalcitrant rulers like Assad in Syria looked the other way. The fruit of the Spring would likely take years to mature, being in the form of new international mechanisms with teeth that represent a revised, explicitly conditional, conception of national sovereignty.


Neil MacFarquhar and Nada Bakri, “Syria Calls Arab League Sanctions ‘Economic War.’” The New York Times, November 28, 2011. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere Outstripping the Planet’s Absorption: A Major Turning-Point

The human species has reached such a size—and with the population of Africa expected in 2017 to double by 2050 from an incredulous and oblivious fertility rate (i.e., as if there were no tomorrow) in spite of life-threatening impacts on that continent already from global warming—that profound changes to the planet can from now on hardly be avoided unless or until nature’s swift hand acts through pestilence, famine, or over-crowding conflict. Making matters worse, we are flying without having bothered to detail a navigation flight-plan, for even homo sapiens’ cognitive wiring has been outstripped by not only our inherent selfishness and preference for instant gratification, but also our sheer presumptuousness. In hindsight, we can say we have acted rashly in having polluted so in the twentieth century—the benefit of hindsight being shown in our shortcomings even in being able to keep tabs on the extent of the damage.

By 2017, human activity was estimated to be adding almost 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the air annually; the atmospheric concentration of the heat-retaining gas had risen by about 43 percent since the Industrial Revolution.[1] In a particularly ominous sign, the “excess carbon dioxide scorching the planet rose at the highest rate on record in 2015 and 2016,” with a “slightly slower but still unusual rate of increase” continuing into 2017.[2] These “telltale indicators” point to the way human activity was already “altering the planet on a major scale.”[3] Lest it be concluded that tightening emission targets is the answer, the amount of the gas being emitted by human activity had largely stopped rising even as the amount that stays in the air was going up faster than ever. Perhaps the oceans were becoming saturated, hence no longer nearly as able to absorb the gas from the air. From decades of research, scientists had established that less than half of the gas emitted by humans was remaining in the atmosphere, and thus warming the planet, because the rest “was being absorbed by the ocean and the land surface, in roughly equal amounts.”[4] Of particular concern, even as humanity had felt entitled to pollute as if there were no tomorrow in the twentieth century, the species could not even ascertain whether or not the amount of gas in the air had finally outstripped the “natural sponges,” such as ocean water and trees. Furthermore, not even scientists had any idea how much methane, which traps heat even more efficiently than carbon dioxide does, was escaping from the melting permafrost in the extreme northern climes such as in Siberia. In short, humanity in its short-sightedness and presumption tends to dismiss the limits in the human ability to know things.

It is as if we were starting out on a long distance road-trip without bothering to check the balance in our bank account, so we are anxious because we cannot calculate exactly how much money for gas will be necessary to reach the destination and return home. To fear being stranded and yet not know how much money is available is obviously irrational, yet it may be part of the human condition. I actually had that dream last night. I had outstripped my own cognition in racking my brain over how much gas I would need, and yet I was presumptuously going to set out on the long-distance trip anyway. No doubt my dream was prompted in part by the highs of 114F on three days last week (followed by days at 108F)—heat neither I nor any of my ancestors from Europe had ever experienced for days on end. Just living in a desert is itself presumptuous from the standpoint of the many centuries of natural selection behind my pale-skinned genetics, whose inherent limitations I should honor. 

I can now understand by experience how global warming could indeed eventually render some parts of the United States uninhabitable for humans. While I do believe that technological advances yet to come may stave off catastrophe (i.e., by extracting huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the air), the limitations of human knowledge on even how the planet has been reacting to our over-reaches gives me some pause. In the end, our presumption—what we feel entitled to in the convenient assumptions we make—may be the seed of our species’ destruction. We may have blood on our own hands, yet presumptuously assume that someone else did it.  

1. Justin Gillis, “Carbon in Atmosphere Is Rising, Even as Emissions Stabilize,” The New York Times, June 26, 2017.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The U.S. Pulls Out of the Paris Climate Accord: North-South Redistribution as Unfair

The Paris Climate Accord, President Trump announced on June 1, 2017, “is very unfair at the highest level to the United States.” This goes well beyond the deal’s anticipated toll on the U.S. economy. The deal, the president, argued is fundamentally unfair. Indeed, the agreement may reflect more the old North-South differential in economic development than even the climate. In this regard, the president characterized the U.S. assent to the deal as a “self-inflicted wound” made out of weakness—perhaps even guilt foisted by the developing world.  “This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States,” the president said. More to the point—the financial bottom-line, “The agreement is a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries.”
Firstly, the agreement “punishes the United States,” while “imposing no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters.” In fact, China could increase carbon emissions for 13 years and build hundreds of new coal plants and double coal production by 2020; India could double its coal production by 2020. “We’re supposed to get rid of ours,” the president lamented.  Even the E.U. can continue to build more coal plants. “Not us.” Essentially, the agreement shifts coal jobs from the U.S. to other countries.
Secondly, the “draconian financial and economic burdens” on the U.S. exceed merely being “hamstrung” economically. Direct monetary retribution is, I submit, the hallmark of the deal’s unfair framework. The Green Climate Fund, a “scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States.” It “calls on developed countries to send $110 billion to developing countries—all on top of America’s existing and massive foreign-aid payments.” The U.S. had already handed over $1 billion, while most other developed countries had not paid anything. The Fund was already “costing the U.S. a vast fortune.” The U.S. would have had to pay tens of billions of dollars. In short, the Fund is “a redistribution of wealth from the U.S. to the developing world.” Were the Accord really about climate only, such massive redistribution would not have been a required part of the deal. India’s participation, for instance, was contingent on receiving billions of dollars from the developed countries in addition to regular foreign aid.
Therefore, the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Accord is not a pass for climate-change deniers; the pull-out was not so much about the climate—a position against the reality of climate change. Rather, the U.S. president’s objections had to do primarily with other agenda in the Accord: that of redistributing wealth from the North to the South. Accordingly, the president declared that the United States would “begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or an entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States.” A fair framework, in other words, is one that is “fair and where the burdens and responsibilities are equally shared by the many nations all around the world.” Ironically, by exiting the Accord, the United States was calling for a clean agreement—meaning one that is about the global climate rather than packing in other, subterranean agendas that effectively dilute the importance of addressing climate change as a matter warranting its own focus.
Interestingly, the next day witnessed the E.U. and China meeting without being able to agree on a joint-statement on climate change because of disagreements on other matters—letting trade disputes on whether China is to be recognized by the World Trade Organization as a market- or state-driven economy and whether China is “steel dumping” and restricting foreign investors get in the way; the implication is that climate-change was of less importance to the Chinese and European government officials.[1] Accordingly, perhaps those same E.U. officials were actually upset at the U.S. president because the U.S. would no longer be continuing to pay into the Green Fund redistribution, rather than out of concern that the U.S. administration was walking away from climate change. Ironically, the Europeans and Chinese could be said to be putting other matters before the climate, whereas the Americans were set to re-negotiate based on climate exclusively, without other agendas getting in the way.

1. Deutsche Welle, “EU, China Fail to Issue Joint Statement Due to Trade Status Concerns,” DW.com, June 2, 2017.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Turkish President’s Men Attack Americans on American Soil : An Outlandish Presumptuousness at Odds with Human Rights

It is one thing to read about human-rights violations going on in another country; it is quite another to see such a country’s president’s men attacking people of another country in their own country. Besides the added perspective that such an act gives to people in that country, the mentality itself is made transparent in terms of its sheer presumptuousness. In other words, the presumptuousness that may be viewed as latent in a human-rights violation inflicted by government officials and their respective employees on their own soil is made particularly transparent, or obvious, when the violation is against foreigners on their own soil.
In May, 2017, 24 men, including armed employees of President Recep Erdogan’s security detail, attacked protesters, many of whom were American citizens, in Washington. Sitting in a car, Erdogan “conferred with Muhsin Kose, his head of security, who leaned into the car’s rear door.”[1] After speaking with Erdogan, Kose “talked into his earpiece, and three security personnel who were guarding the president’s car hurried toward the protest. The brawl began moments later, and one of these men . . . appeared on video punching and kicking people.”[2] That is, a few seconds after Kose spoke into his earpiece, the men charged the protesters, kicking and hitting them. Kose talked with his president as the Turkish security men attacked the Americans. “One man knocked two women to the ground, and another man repeatedly punched Lucy Usoyan, a protester, as she lay on the ground. The third man kicked  ]Sayid Yasa] after he was thrown to the ground moments earlier.”[3] It is the lack of any violent trigger that is particularly noteworthy.
I submit that the intent to punch and kick people who had not themselves been violent points to a desire to inflict pain for its own sake. The sadistic mentality loses the cover of “government security” legitimacy when no inciting violence can provide a trigger. Instead, the trigger is in the psychology shared by the 24 men who initiated the violence. One implication is that government officials and their employees who respectively order and commit human-rights violations against their own people suffer from mental illness rather than being merely politically partisan.
The presumptuousness in instigating violent acts without a violent trigger is particularly evident in the sheer gall in attacking the American citizens in their own country rather than in Turkey. It is amazing how difficult presumptuousness can be to detect when it is so engrained in a person’s status quo. The secular humanist, for instance, who takes pride of convenience in having the title, Rev., and being the “minister” of a church or even a religious society can be said to act presumptuously in tacitly turning down (i.e., not welcoming) potential religious or spiritual members. Once such a church or religious society strangely eschews anything not in keeping with secularity, the implicit presumptuousness can be difficult to discern.
The presumptuousness of the Turks in Washington, D.C. goes beyond a lack of respect for American criminal law and the U.S. Constitution, which protects political protest. The underlying attitude would fall under the radar in Turkey, where government is not expected to protect and advance the cause of human rights. In the United States, however, the offending attitude was obvious. It can be likened to a house-guest who not only does not clean up his mess, but also hits the host’s friends after getting a call from his boss from work to do so. The mentality goes beyond rudeness and even disrespect to even being pathological. The host would be totally justified in not only kicking out the offensive guest, but also calling the police to report the violence.
So it is telling, on the American side, that the D.C. police did not stop the aggressive foreigners—even if they had diplomatic immunity they could have been stopped and even detained, yet only two people were arrested—one from New York City. In fact, video shows a D.C. police agent clubbing a protester!  

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department merely voiced concern over “the violent incidents involving protesters and Turkish security personnel.”[4] It is significant, I contend, that the American president did not show Erdogan and his employees the proverbial door. Such betrayal of the American citizens, even implicitly in just voicing concern, must certainly have felt to the protesters like insult added to injury. In fact, the abject failure of the local police and the U.S. Government to go after the Turkish criminals on behalf of the American protesters implies tacit approval or even likeness to the pathology and political authoritarianism—suggesting that risks to human-rights exist in the U.S. rather than just in other countries. The sin of omission, in other words, can shed light on a sordid mentality or attitude.

[1] Malachy Browne, Christ Cirillo, Troy Griggs, Josh Keller, and Natalie Reneau, “Did the Turkish President’s Security Detail Attack Protesters in Washington? What the Video Shows,” The New York Times, May 26, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Max Jaeger, “State Dept. Condemns Turkish Security’s Bloody Attack on Protesters,” New York Post, May 17, 2017.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Melting Permafrost Unleashing Killer Bacteria and Viruses: Climate Change Heats Up

As the Northern climes warm, our species may soon be vulnerable to ancient—even beyond ancient— bacteria and viruses. We are familiar with pathogens to which our species has some immunity, built up from repeated prior contact. As a species, we could lose everything from illnesses in which the modern human body has no experience and thus no built-up defenses.

Researches have encountered complex ancient viruses in the melting permafrost of Siberia. Bacteria and viruses can lie dormant in permafrost until they are reactivated by warming. Scientists have discovered intact Spanish flu viruses in corpses buried in 1918 in the Alaskan tundra. In 2016 in Siberia, 100 people and 2,300 reindeer were infected with anthrax that scientist believe had been trapped in a frozen reindeer carcass that thawed during the particularly hot summer. Unfortunately, permafrost “appears to the among the systems most vulnerable to global warming,” according to researchers in the journal Nature Climate Change.[1] Global warming in turn is vulnerable to the human production of carbon dioxide, such as from our increasing use of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution. Behind the economics of use or consumption is the exponential increase in the population of our species. As biological beings, we must consume. Generally speaking, the more humans around, the higher the total consumption. Distribution of resources obviously makes a difference—some people get to consume disproportionately more than others can. Even so, the staggering number of over 7 billion people must involve a considerable amount of consumption.

The extraordinary jump in human population is occurring in a very short period of time. How could there not be huge, unforeseen reverberations? 

The upshot is that Nature has its own measures to correct a species’ failure to control its numbers on a planet of finite resources. As great as the human mind is, we have trouble anticipating the secondary systems that are set in motion. Put another way, the astonishing number of 7 billion can be expected to have repercussions that get beyond our ability to anticipate, let alone manage. As permafrost that has been frozen for millennia (also a big number) melts and the methane and bacteria and viruses that have been trapped escape, we face a huge blindside. As systems effect systems effect systems, we can easily get ahead of ourselves.

[1] Mary Papenfuss, “As Ice Melts, Dangerous Diseases From The Past Could Rise Again,” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2017.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Transgender Europeans: Activated by Political-Correctness or Human Rights?

The European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling on April 6, 2017 “in favor of three transgender people in France who had been barred from changing the names and genders on their birth certificates because they had not been sterilized.”[1] I submit that the use of the term sterilization is misleading. Such a framing gives the erroneous impression that human rights are at issue. In other words, it is possible for a human-rights activism to go too far.

A gay march in Paris. Are transgender people necessarily gay? If not, maybe the gay pride flag has gone too far in representing gender issues too. (Source: NYT)
Julia Ehrt, of the group Transgender Europe, claimed that the court’s decision “ends the dark chapter of state-induced sterilization in Europe.”[2] The European states had not been requiring transgender people to be sterilized, as for instance the Nazis had required mentally retarded people. Rather, the names and genders on birth certificates could not legally be changed unless the gender had been changed—meaning that a man could not be legally recognized as a woman unless he no longer has the male genitalia. The fact that a man who is no longer a man would no longer be able to produce sperm does mean that he would be sterile, but to characterize this as a requirement by the state that he be sterilized is misleading at best because being sterile is simply a consequence of him no longer being male. In fact, were it possible to transplant female reproductive organs and genitals in him, she would no longer be sterile and yet she could be listed as female on her birth certificate! Clearly, sterilization was not the intent of the laws. Rather, the point is that a man can feel like a woman and relate to women psychologically, but as long as he has male genitals, he is a man.
The problem, societally, I submit, is that cultures excessively limit what is considered to be masculine (and feminine) characteristics, mannerisms, and styles. Even so, to “break out” of these artificial strictures is to relegate them rather than no longer be a man (or woman). If a person with male genitals naturally talks a certain way or whose face or body looks a certain way (naturally), that way is masculine, by definition, rather than being of the other gender. For people who feel they are of the other gender, actually losing their original gender means losing (or replacing) the genitals of that gender, rather than merely relating to the other gender or even thinking that one is of that gender. Put another way, the “facts on the ground” have not changed unless the original genitals are gone or replaced (i.e., not necessarily sterile).
To refuse to change the gender on a government document simply because a person relates to or feels like the other gender can thus not reasonably be said to violate the person’s human rights. The claim that it does capitulates to a self-defined subjectivity that all too often demands its own legitimacy—that it be accepted by people of opposing views—in modern society. In other words, the European Court of Human Rights may have unwittingly succumbed to a social-reality enforced by the passive (and active) aggression of the political correctness movement. The danger is that any aggrieved sensitivity will be deemed a basis of human rights. If someone doesn’t like a word or expression, for instance, the person will need only declare (presumptuously) that it is inappropriate and saying the word will be judged to violate the person’s human rights. For example, at a talk on a university campus about modern social mores, I asked whether polyamory isn’t just a nice name for playing the field, sexually. A student interrupted the presenter’s answer to demand that the question not be answered because the expression “playing the field” is inappropriate and thus unacceptable. Fortunately, the presenter answered my question, though in line with political correctness—for the presenter himself was in an open relationship. To the extent that the “requirements” of political correctness do not rest on a firm foundation, but, rather, merely on subjective preferences, the violation of them can hardly be said to be a violation of human rights. Hence, the advent and perpetuation of the political correctness movement may ironically weaken the human-rights movement precisely in diluting it.


[1] Liam Stack, “European Court Strikes Down Required Sterilization for Transgender People,” The New York Times, April 12, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

International Response to a Chemical Attack in Syria: Beyond the U.N.

In the wake of the chemical-weapons attack in Syria on March 4, 2017, Russia blocked a condemnation and investigation into the source by vetoing the U.N. Security Council resolution. Meanwhile, the American administration’s view of the Syrian government was shifting. President Trump told reporters, “my attitude toward Syria and Assad . . . has changed very much.”[1] Cleverly, the American president would not disclose whether the United States would respond against the Syrian government. The question of whether an empire like the U.S. or an international organization like the U.N. should respond hinged on the question of whether the latter was institutionally hamstrung on account of the power of national sovereignty in the organization. In short, if the U.N. was impotent, then the moral imperative could shift to the major powers in the world, such as China, Russia, the E.U., and the U.S.

 U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley presenting evidence of the chemical attack in Syria.
(Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Trump said the images of children dying from the chemical attack “crosses many lines.”[2] It had not been the first time that such an attack had occurred during the tenure of the Assad regime. Trump noted that to draw a line in the sand and sit by as it is crossed as if with impunity would be weak. It could be added that such a self-imposed impotence is immoral, given the likelihood of future suffering in Syria if the status quo were to continue.

Naturally, the world looked to the U.N. to condemn the attack and confirm that the Assad regime had been behind the attack. For an ally of Assad, namely Russia, to block even an investigation suggests that the veto-power itself on the Security Council is problematic. In fact, it could be argued that the power relegates the U.N. and opens up a power-void into which governments critical of the chemical attack could legitimately fill. “Time and time again Russia uses the same false narrative to deflect attention from their allies in Damascus. How many more children have to die before Russia cares?” Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said.[3] The moral imperative was clear. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”[4] The U.N.’s failure to reform itself such that its Security Council can act essentially relegates the institution, such that global powers may find themselves morally obliged to step in and essentially do the U.N.’s job in enforcing its rules on a recalcitrant member—Syria being a member of the U.N.

In the early 1990s, the United States effectively led a “coalition of the willing” to undo the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The legitimacy of this reaction on behalf of international law was in part due to the failure of the U.N. to act even to enforce its own rules. It is telling that the proposed resolution on the Syrian chemical attack “expresses its determination that those responsible must be held accountable” but provides “no concrete measures to do so.”[5] Sadly, even if the resolution would have passed, its impact would likely have been nugatory. Why then go through the motions if not just for the PR? Is that what international law is to be—an avenue for good PR? It is not surprising that members have flaunted U.N. rules, clearly being aware in advance of the impunity that would result from violating them. The U.N.’s approach to its own rules and resolutions detracts from a culture internationally in which international law is regarded as law rather than something like a preference or window-dressing.

Given the dangers from countries having nuclear weapons, and the danger facing the species itself from climate change, it can be argued that even coming to depend on coalitions of the willing would be insufficient. In other words, given the gravity of the modern problems facing our species, some compromise on national sovereignty makes sense. That even such a compromise may be too difficult suggests in turn that our species may not be up to handling the most serious threats to our very survival. The real blockage may be in the human mind—specifically, the stubborn refusal to admit even the possibility of being wrong and thus needed to change. This would explain why the U.N. has perpetuated its own impotence.

[1] Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker, “Trump’s View of Syria and Assad Altered After ‘Unacceptable’ Chemical Attack,” The New York Times, April 5, 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone, “Nikki Haley Says U.S. May ‘Take Our Own Action’ on Syrian Chemical Attack,” The New York Times,  April 5, 2017.