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.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

European Officials at the G20 Grapple with a New American Trading Position: Beyond the Joint Communiqué

It is perhaps only natural---only human—for us to take ourselves and our produced artifacts too seriously. Diplomats and other government officials, for example, fret arduously over mere words. When those words are etched in governmental or treaty parchment, the effort is understandable. The flaw of excess is evident in all the time and effort that go into the joint communiques of international conferences and meetings. I submit that the real politic at such occasions is much more significant even if nothing shows from it for some time.
At the March 18, 2017 meeting of the Group of 20, which includes the E.U. and U.S., the joint statement “became an unlikely focus of controversy” issuing in “a tortured compromise stating, in effect, that trade is a good thing.”[1] I submit that the use of such language is spurious—certainly much less than the attendees and even their principals back home supposed. The real politic was instead that the U.S. was “overturning long-held assumptions about international commerce,” and such transformational change takes time even just to register in minds ensconced in the status quo. That is to say, the real shift in power would need to play out in actual negotiations on trade, rather than in how to word a meeting’s joint statement.

A European official, Wolfgang Schauble, perhaps straining at the meeting to understand the new American position. (source: NYT)

“We thought that it was very important for the communiqué to reflect what we discussed here,” Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, said at the time.[2] He added that the historical language was not relevant. I submit that neither was it important that the joint statement reflect what was actually discussed, for such discussions—laying out the initial bargaining positions for upcoming negotiations—had legitimate importance. Yet even such importance was only as “the first shots,” for the true importance lie in the arduous negotiations to come, for the tyranny of the status quo never gives up without a struggle. At that G20 meeting, the American government’s “lack of reverence for existing norms and treaties” was “particularly unsettling to the change-averse Europeans.”[3] It is precisely such a struggle that is so important—for real shifts in power must somehow be accommodated or defeated. In relative terms, the importance of what to hand to the press after an initial meeting is but a napkin dwarfed by the real politics underneath.
Therefore, we need not be distraught that the best the Group of 20 could come up with on that Saturday was this: “We are working to strengthen the contribution of trade to our economies.”[4] Such an obvious statement is worth only scant time. Much more important were efforts of the Europeans to understand—in the sense of comprehending—just what the new American perspective was, for something new that does not fit within the existing modus operendi takes effort to be understood, and only from this basis can real negotiations begin.

1. Jack Ewing, “U.S. Breaks With Allies Over Trade Issues Amid Trump’s ‘America First’ Vows,” The New York Times, March 18, 2017.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

China and Russia Protect Syria’s Assad on Chemical Weapons: A Matter of Priorities

All bets are off when it comes to regulating war. Such a condition is virtually by definition beyond the confines of law. Even international law is but an impotent dwarf next to the raw force of a governmental regime at war—whether with its own citizens or another country. To be sure, the International Criminal Court had by 2017 made a dent in holding some perpetrators of atrocities such as genocide accountable for their deeds. Such efforts were still the exception, unfortunately, when Russia, China, and Bolivia vetoes a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would have penalize Syria’s Issad regime for having used chemical weapons on Syrians. The reasons for the vetoes—and the fact that Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan all obstained—implies that holding perpetrators accountable by international means had not yet become a priority at the international level.

Russia’s envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, defended the veto by calling the resolution “politically biased.” He asserted, “This is railroading the draft by the Western troika.”[1] In other words, the Russian government put its rivalry with the West above holding a friend accountable. Only months earlier, the U.S. Government had refused to veto a resolution condemning its friend, Israel, for retroactively legalizing illegal Jewish settlements on private Palestinian land. So it was with some clout that the American ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, accused Russia and China of putting “their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security. . . . It is a sad day for the Security Council when members make excuses for other [members] killing their own people.”[2] What may not be noticed prime facie is the implication that a regime killing its own people is deprioritized when government officials prioritize friendly governments who commit such acts.

What would it take for the world as a whole to attach more importance in terms of other priorities to stopping and preventing crimes against humanity? Even intent to protect the precedent of national sovereignty—something China’s government has made a priority at the U.N.—is a deprioritizing of the crimes that a government commits against its own people and other peoples. The message is that such acts are normal, or at least tolerable. Perhaps it would take only a massive occurrence for the world as a whole to stop and admit that the usual international relations are themselves no longer viable because they are insufficient, given the priority suddenly put on the crimes themselves.  

[1] Somini Sengupta, “Russia and China Veto Penalties on Syria Over Use of Chemical Arms,” The New York Times, February 28, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Israel Legalizes Illegal Settlements on Palestinian Land: On the Toll on the Rule of Law

Israel’s legislature passed a law on February 6, 2017 retroactively legalizing Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land. Incredibly, the state’s own attorney general said he would not defend the new law in court because he had determined the law to unconstitutional and in violation of international law. Anat Ben Nun of an anti-settlement group said the law was “deteriorating Israel’s democracy, making stealing an official policy.”[1] Specifically, the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including those offered financial compensation for the “long term use of their land” but without being able to reclaim their property under the new law, “are not Israeli citizens and cannot vote for candidates for Israel’s Parliament, or Kenesset.”[2] I submit nevertheless that the underlying casualty in this case is the rule of law itself.

Every government enjoys the power of eminent domain, which effectively means that the right of private property is limited in nature rather than absolute. This fact goes to the amount of power that a government potentially has. In the case of the Israeli pro-settlement law on the private property of Palestinians, the rule of law was undercut by the law’s retroactive aspect. To retroactively legalize something illegal weakens law itself in its capacity as prohibition because confidence in the illegality is lessened and thus weakened.

Such a weakening can be invisible when the retroactivity is in popular demand. In the early 1960s, Israel’s highest court declared a 1950 Israeli law to retroactively apply not only temporally, when the state of Israel did not even yet exist, but also as applicable in another sovereign country! Lest this decision seem sordid and utterly devoid of justifiable jurisprudence, even such a dark underbelly can be easily whitewashed or at least overlooked on learning that the decision was against Adolf Eichmann, whom Israel had illegally kidnapped and tried for his significant role in transporting gays, communists, and Jews to the concentration camps in the horrendous systemic atrocity known as the Holocaust. The desire for justice against him easily hid from view the toll on law itself from what probably boiled down to garden-variety vengeance—the notion of law being distorted in the process. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but not when the sweet scent of revenge at the expense of law itself is too alluring. Perhaps the retroactive law in 2017 may also have been fueled by vengeance, given all the hatred between the Palestinians and the Israelis, though in this case the retroactive vengeance was against the oppressed rather than a former oppressor. In both cases, however, the same basic pattern can be observed with respect to the subtle and gradual corruption of the rule of law itself. The power within the reach of a government—any government—is indeed something to beware.

[1] Ian Fisher, “Israel Passes Provocative Legislation to Retroactively Legalize Settlements,” The New York Times, February 7, 2017.
[2] Ibid.