Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cuba was saved from a brutal, destabilizing despotism

Plenty of people jump to defend Fidel Castro on the heels of his death. I don't believe he needs that. He lived in prosperity while many in Cuba went without. Many people were denied access to their own families, to practice their religion, speech and democratic rights in a reasonable manner. Castro doesn't need defense because he is not on trial and he lived well.

What does need defense is the sovereignty of Cuba, the advancements made by Cuba, and the birthright of Cubans to institutions which allow them to enjoy medicine, education and housing which in many ways rivals that of liberal democracies, often with better safety nets. Cubans enjoy a state where activists, organizers and labor unions/progressive politicians are not victims of killing campaigns and paramilitary forces which act with impunity and rival state power in their ability to commit violence.

Cuba could have experienced this terror, endemic to states like Colombia and Honduras. Instead, Batista was overthrown, and private US power was no longer grafted to the Cuban state.

Batista came to power in a coup right before the Cuban elections were to take hold. The US promptly recognized this state, since Batista allowed the US to dominate the economy through his patronage system. At the time, Schlesinger said:
"The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government's indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice ... is an open invitation to revolution."

Ever since Castro overthrew this illegitimate regime, the property owners - most of whom benefited from this corrupt system backed by the brutal & illegal Junta - have demanded redress. There are likely reasonable cases among the property owners, claims which should be fairly prosecuted. Nonetheless, overthrowing this unaccountable regime benefited Cubans enormously - it is no accident that infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy and housing rival or exceed many liberal democracies.

Quite a bit needs to change in Cuba, and poverty, repression and the democratic deficit are very real concerns. But Cuba also has a right to resist the introduction of the death squads endemic to Latin America - often trained and directed by the US CIA. In this doctrine, political parties are not repressed, but eliminated wholesale by extrajudicial killings. This policy of liquidation persists today. This is not a comparison of moral accounts, but of alternatives. Without overthrowing Batista, this terror would have been realized.

Nonetheless, it's not enough to be better than the alternative. Now the Cuban state should be made answerable and make whole the rights of the Cuban people. Most of the criticisms of Western states are fair, and Cubans should be asked - by an empowered democratic process - how they want to live. All that is reasonable. It is also reasonable to resist the dominance of a patronage system and the intervention of US military and intelligence power, which has been deadly where it acts with impunity. The Cuban people deserve freedom from that terror just as much as they deserve democratic empowerment and a transparent government.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Impediments to Peace in Syria

The US and Russia have agreed to terms in furtherance of a partial ceasefire in Syria.

This could be an important step to bring peace to Syria, but it leaves huge gaps which allow for impunity among the actors currently inflaming the conflict.
1.  To take part in the cessation of hostilities, armed opposition groups will confirm – to the United States of America or the Russian Federation, who will attest such confirmations to one another as co-chairs of the ISSG by no later than 12:00 (Damascus time) on February 26 2016 – their commitment to and acceptance of the following terms:
  • To full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted unanimously on December 18, 2015, ‑ including the readiness to participate in the UN-facilitated political negotiation process;
  • To cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars, and anti-tank guided missiles, against Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, and any associated forces;
  • To refrain from acquiring or seeking to acquire territory from other parties to the ceasefire;
  • To allow humanitarian agencies, rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their operational control and allow immediate humanitarian assistance to reach all people in need;
  • To proportionate use of force (i.e., no greater than required to address an immediate threat) if and when responding in self-defense.
I still believe that a policy of annihilation is not legitimate, even when focused on ISIS. The history of abuses pointed at Sunnis in Iraq & Syria reveals that there are communities which are vulnerable and have no other authority to turn to. If states like Russia, France and the US can get away with crimes and move forward without penalty or prosecution, then the same is true of other entities. It is not legitimate to prosecute a war of destruction in the name of justice. Of course IS must be defeated to a certain extent, and like other repressive states, it must be pressured into reasonable compromises and decent treatment of minorities.

I am not convinced that there is really a fog of war which makes it hard for states like Russia to pick out IS targets from others, and they have definitely wasted any credibility they had with some of their claims. However other states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have similar credibility issues, and there is the nasty business of Qatar and the US also disseminating arms recklessly (or even explicitly against their proclaimed strategy of supporting "moderates). ISIS is not a CIA front but US & GCC policies, including arms shipments and the liquidation of the Iraqi state institutions, definitely were meant to destabilize the state with the understanding that Islamists would fill that space.

Iran, and its nominal proxies in Shia Iraq also play a huge role in making life hard for Sunni. The new Iraqi state is more legitimate than the Sunni Baathists, but the sectarian divide has reduced religious pluralism there. Iran suffered an invasion from Iraq under the previous regime, so it was almost inevitable that democracy in a Shia-majority state with inflamed sectarianism and a liquidated political class would turn the tide the opposite way.

This is actually a very strong case for engagement with Iran, Iraq and Damascus regarding ways to protect the Sunni minority which are largely courted by ISIS, and form the backbone of their state, having suffered persecution. These communities are usually infiltrated and blackmailed into joining ISIS, and they literally had no authority to go to for protection. It is very unreasonable to expect those Sunni to surrender even if they can be 'liberated' from ISIS' grip. With each new iteration of destruction, prospects for a peaceful outcome grow ever more dim - it will take decades to build confidence in legitimate state institutions, and an increasing level of care to insure that past abuses do not re-emerge and force a new conflict between people who are prepared to take up arms once again.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Microchip your Pets!

The headline speaks for itself: Office implants employees with microchips.

Don't worry. Epicenter assures us that employees at the Swedish office building were "offered" the surgery; it was "entirely voluntary:

(Guardian Coverage)

What if the implants were mandatory? Will this bear a new era of foregone civil liberty, with a proprietary (unknowable) piece of technology embedded where it can track, record, measure and transmit you only to the limit of contemporary technology?

Of course this is where civil libertarians will focus - and it is a reasonable area of focus, but it is not the most egregious example of such an authoritarian, undemocratic future. This is not happening in a vacuum - companies and governments will probably step very lightly in implementation, at least where they lack impunity, due to the potentially high profile of such implants.

Considering the opportunity presented by smartphones as tracking devices, it may not even be very necessary as a kind of espionage - possession of a cellphone, and then officer use of Stringray technology, can pinpoint your general area and then your location in a house respectively. Additionally, it has been made clear that the NSA bulk data collection was never limited to metadata (remember that is the "innocuous" data: the times, participants, length etc. of phone calls).

While civil libertarians at the time debated what metadata could tell us about a cell phone user, the reality was that the actual content of calls, and texts, and online communications, were being recorded completely and with trailing/marginal data intact. Much like the phantom "Taliban" in the Kunduz MSF hospital, the metadata "limit" was a rushed, dishonest mischaracterization of the facts meant to indemnify the government and private actors responsible. The truth, confirmed by Wikileaks and Snowden both, in documents tacitly confirmed by gov't statement, is that whole "trunks" of the internet were/are copied fully and constantly.

Now, NSA has scaled back its illicit involvement in bulk data collection, which was illegal from the start of the program, but has now shifted to private (contracted) collection, storage and dispersal of the data. In fact, it is safer and less damaging to civil liberty to have that controlled by a (democratic) state with strong data protection - countless private firms, with different data processing models, are less capable/likely to protect (and destroy) the data. While illegally acquired, your personal data should neither be offered to other private parties by shoddy protection, sale, or otherwise.

The threat to democracy

As important as privacy is, the real threat to civil liberties, democracies and civil society is in the underlying process of consent, an emergent property of which is represented in the "offering" of microchip implants to employees. Ostensibly, these implants are purely voluntary. In fact, if the labor market would bear such an obligation, it would also be mandatory for employment as normative/behavioral obligation enforced de facto as routine operation.

Submitting to such tracking devices is not the only "voluntary" choice companies expect their employees to make. 'Coming out' is also voluntary. Revealing your religion, practicing religious observations/dress, eating lunch, smoking a cigarette - all voluntary. And every single one of these have been met with intimidation from employers unwilling to approve of basic workers' rights, with a legal or legislative response.

Legislation and law cannot solve the problem without an active, penetrating regulatory presence in the workplace. Simply put, without a positive enforcement of your right to be free of microchip implants, there is no reason for workplaces not to employ intimidation - be it overt, yet confined to the controlled dungeons of a modern workplace, or underhanded, normative behavioral expectations.

In public venues, human beings have a right to basic civil liberties. In a private workplace, the civil liberties you can expect to enjoy are not only limited legally, but those few (critical) liberties enshrined in law are easily circumvented.

That is because the market will bear this limitation on rights, as a cost of employment. If "everyone else" has microchips, you will need one, too. As the population is saturated with them, untold numbers of technologies - with no obligation to work for those lacking chips - will "innovate" by assuming its clientele all have the chips. Employers will front-load aptitude tests, made more efficient by accessing implant data - applicants who do not fit this mold will be dismissed as a matter of course, without malice.

That is how markets work: they enforce normative behavior by including it as a cost of employment, admission, etc.. Without the protection of law, or another form of civil society engagement, you can be expected to do anything - should the markets bear that price.  Regulations will mitigate only the abuses that could destabilize the market.

The alternative is democratic control over these venues. It's very simple: either you control your life when you go to the park, establishments or your work, or someone else does. Without a democratic voice and a voluntary right to choose what behaviors you will submit to, you risk becoming a vassal to a property holder - who in turn has the privilege of being your benefactor, thus adding guilt on top.

No level of political and economic awareness can stifle this guilt. It stems from a simple fact: you know that your benefactor (employer) is hosting and benefiting you with their own property. They could always ask for more, and would be in their rights to do so. The guilt comes from knowing that they have this awareness - your own awareness does not matter. If such a byzantine form of guilt can be immutable, how should you expect to resist market demands which are not simply feelings, but manifested, normative behaviors?

(NOTE: A previous version of this article read "Assange" rather than "Snowden")

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Federal Reserve: A quintessentially capitalist institution

I have heard some different concepts of what "capitalism" is, ideas ranging from Marxists to An-Caps, and I have to say that (as with "communism") it does little good to focus on semantics. If you advocate for something, you best represent it by stating that idea in plain language, without such divisive terms.

Nonetheless, capitalism is an economic system based on private ownership and accumulation of property, especially the means of production. There are idealists with various stipulations and caveats for their own brands, ranging from mutualism to monarchism (yes, I've heard from all of these kinds). And even from trusted materialists and journalists, I have seen limitations such as excluding derivatives markets and other, non-production-based situations.

What the Federal Reserve does, and what companies, banks and corporations do in the US, is very much a form of capitalism. And yet the US does have the most regulated markets in the world - institutions dug in more than even UK ones - and even, in many ways, the closest thing to socialism the world has seen.

The Federal gov't, based on representation and legitimization (legally and politically), exercises its influence on the markets within specified authority. As an element of this, the Federal Reserve acts to insure the stability and value of the US dollar, as well as setting interest rate targets and (presumably) maintaining a specific level of employment.

The latter (maintaining employment) has been repeatedly drawn into question as a policy, even since the beginning of the Federal Reserve - which brings me to my main point:  the Reserve, like other institutions in a capitalist (or private, for-profit) economy, acts within the bounds, and ultimately for the interests, of the power-possessing individuals and institutions. In capitalism, that is the owners of the means of production.If not, then it is a group of individuals who soon will own those means of production.

Capitalism is a model of economics which goes back to monarchist times - in fact, many of the very basic ideological tenants were enshrined in that context, among the Ludwig von Mises clique (Austrian school). Why are socialism and democracy considered antithetical to monarchism as the liberal threat to kingdoms in 19th century Europe? Because in populist systems, power is expected to seek legitimacy in the form of consent from those governed. Capitalism is the ubiquitous form of the propertarian societies, which allow unbalanced, illegitimate power, and hence, fit the undemocratic models of state.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Guilty of everything: How America scapegoats a public dissident

1. Justice is uncertain.

That seems apparent today.

The impunity of police to kill has finally been proven in public opinion, with repeated high-profile killings culminating in special coverage from the Washington Post - perhaps for the first time, fatal shootings by police have been tracked by a national institution (the government does not see a need), and the newspaper found that 987 people were killed by police in 2015.

In the pursuit of justice, you don't just die in the streets. You might survive the encounter on the street, but once arrested, you will have to pay a sum likely to be unaffordable to you: 50% of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency expense. Costs vary widely by location, but in many, bail is never that low - prompting the purchase of a bail bond, which costs 10% of the total bond, assuming you make it to court.

Survival in jail is hard - but justice is still moving at this stage, in the form of jurisprudence. Anyone who has been to traffic court recently has witnessed first-hand how little evidence a judge or prosecution needs to determine guilt. Two excellent examples have been media sensations: recently, Making a Murderer proved that even tampering with evidence, planting testimony and misleading (in fact, explicitly incorrect) expert testimony can be treated as admissible and accurate evidence, even with a rigorous, experienced defense team directly challenging that evidence.

Making a Murderer presented a chilling reminder of just how unreliable police/prosecutor testimony can be: the very same methods used to try and convict countless people for supposed "Satanic Ritual Abuse" in the 80s and 90s were in use in the early 2000s. Detectives, knowing that their interviewee was not likely to provide corroborating testimony, coached and led their susceptible witnesses to provide the statements they needed for a conviction. Often the interviews eerily remind of the techniques used by teachers and parents to coax the right answer out of a child: if they say they didn't do anything, you tell them they are lying, and remind them of what you want them to hear.
 "In courts, when juries were able to see recordings or transcripts of interviews with children, the alleged abusers were acquitted. The reaction by successful prosecutors, spread throughout conventions and conferences on SRA, was to destroy, or fail to take notes of the interviews in the first place" (ibid)
Precisely the same drama plays out in making a murderer: a damning video of an interview with Brendan Dassey shows him being guided and pressured to make specific claims, and told he is "lying" when he fails to do so, or when he states that those claims are wrong (as he usually does, at first). The same video is shown, played for a jury - however, excluded is the portion before and after the "confession" where Dassey explicitly denies those claims, and is chided for doing so.

In the case of Satanic Ritual Abuse, the introduction of videotaping as a standard for witness interviews initially served to prove just how easy it was for the testimony to be contrived, and it led to many exonerations and acquittals. the prosecution responded by advising interviewers to selectively record interviews, to develop higher "quality" evidence - that is evidence which is cherry-picked and biased.

2. Bowe Bergdahl: a magnet for guilt

The military is set to try Bowe Bergdahl for "desertion" and "misbehavior before the enemy." Like Steven Avery, Bergdahl has been tried publicly already - to such an extent that all (or nearly all) current contenders for the US presidency have weighed in on the case. Popular opinion holds him responsible (not unlike Snowden) of additionally endangering the lives of soldiers attempting to find and rescue him. In fact, that became a secondary goal of all missions in Afghanistan at the time.

The effect is to treat every mission in the interim as if he was responsible for its outcome. It's like a corollary of collective punishment - but it should make it easy to apply capital punishment to every case where an outlaw is AWOL for any length of time.

This tangential relationship between responsibility and culpability is precisely the absurdity that justifies why tribesmen with no access to electronic media could be treated as collectively responsible to capture and deliver Osama, lest they suffer bombing raids. In fact, that is precisely the justification that was used for this example of a war crime - collective punishment.

Public opinion, and maybe this court case, hinge on the question: why did he leave? But it doesn't matter why he left his post. The fact remains that justice will not be served if his trial is overshadowed, and influenced by the pre-judgement of public opinion, and the failure of 2+ administrations:
"John Heuer met Bergdahl in August at a “veterans for peace” convention in San Diego.
“We’re concerned that Bergdahl may be  possibly treated as a scapegoat for failed policy 15 years of warfare in Afghanistan that has failed to achieve objectives,” Heuer said." (ibid)

The war has failed to achieve critical objectives such as a sustainable, legitimate central authority which could rout the Taliban. It has demonstrably heightened certain crises - such as drastically increasing illicit opium output from within the state's borders. These failures are palatable, and the public nature of the Bergdahl case makes impartiality an unlikely burden for jurisprudence to meet.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The right to suppress human rights: 2 case studies

Today on All Things Considered / Barbershop: guests congratulate themselves for their sympathy for Nikki Haley (who does not use her Indian first name) in the face of "racist" demands that she take up Indian-American issues. They assert their liberalism by defending her right to ignore Indians - much like she can ignore the rights of women, despite being one, and perhaps you would be a sexist for demanding she support women's rights, as the representative of them in her state. This is the new social liberalism - your right to be a part of racism and sexism, because those are "free thoughts" even as policy.

There is another common form for this social liberalism - the idea that committing war crimes is a protected liberty. When the Kunduz MSF hospital was bombed for an hour, the US asserted that there were active Taliban fighters in the facility, and Afghan forces had requested the strike (initially, they said it was to defend US forces).

Once the internal "investigation" was completed a month later, it was determined that the strikes were a mistake, and that the US would "never intentionally target" such a facility. In fact, the very crew members who carried out the attack questioned its legality at the time - a fact that seems to contradict the investigation's findings, that instrument and intelligence failures led to the "mistaken identity" of the facility.

Here, military commanders and news agencies were fully prepared to assert the right of the US military to target noncombatant, medical personnel. Key evidence proving that the AC-130 crew were aware that the bombing was illegal, the cockpit recordings at the "center" of the investigation, have never been released to the public. Moreover, intelligence operatives were investigating the facility prior to the strike - further indication that the initial story, that of a deliberate strike on protected persons, is fact:

"The AP also reported on Thursday that, before the bombing, U.S. special operations analysts had been gathering information on the hospital compound because they believed it was being used by a Pakistani operative to coordinate Taliban activity during the battle for Kunduz. It’s not clear whether the crew on the plane or the commanders who ordered the attack were aware that this intelligence was being gathered, but it is further evidence that the site was known to U.S. forces as a hospital."
-Joshua Keating, Slate
 Yet one more example rests in this passage - the "uncertainty" surrounding the crew's knowledge of such intelligence. This level of benefit-of-the-doubt, plausible deniability, and more broadly the right to act criminally, with impunity, reveals a philosophy of human rights obsequious and defensive of one class of people: the government and military of the US.

Of course there is no need to determine if the crew was or wasn't privy to an investigation which might lead to an illegal bombing on the MSF facility. That is the kind of responsibility-buffer that was rightly dismissed in the Nuremburg trials of Nazis who took part in genocide. Where there is evidence of collusion and direction from administrators, their curation of that evidence should be treated as untrustworthy. When the media covers potential abuses by the military, and they are given two conflicting stories of an illegal attack, they should be treating the military as unreliable and questionable.

Instead, we have the rights of the powerful as the only determinate factor in the agenda of the news, as well as the standard for prosecutorial bodies which are responsible to hold the military to account. The notion that a newspiece should defend the rights of a military to plausibly justify killing civilians, or the notion that anti-Indian and anti-women policies can be justified as a freedom of Nikki Haley, are slaps in the faces of victims of war crimes, immigrants and women. It means the prosecutors and media in question do not work for these groups, but only to defend attacks on them. Further, it is a level of sensitivity to rights which is quite extreme - extending freedom of conscience to representative/executive bodies - and, crucially, applied to the very group which has a responsibility to *not* abuse their power - whose sexism, racism, or criminality is much more than words, but even deadly.

In politics, it is right to demand that women, minorities, and civilians be protected where they are at risk. No ethnic makeup of a politician, or military maneuverability needs, can free them of their responsibility to represent a pluralist society, and act lawfully.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Thoughts on the Shuttering of Al Jazeera America

It's no surprise Al Jazeera America is closing down - from the start, the network was botched. They adopted a condescending political tone in line with the standard US media bias, they headed the network with a marketing exec more concerned with public relations than journalism, and senior employee(s?) practiced sexism with impunity.

On top of that, the higher-quality content from Al Jazeera English​ was blocked in order to force current viewers to switch to AJAM. However, there was never an incentive (barring convenience) and AJAM frequently carried AJE programming (increased when AJAM was downsized), while the American network frequently experienced technical and quality problems - sometimes obviously the result of sloppy editing or under-budgeted maintenance.

Journalism-savvy consumers who do not subscribe to cable - which is a deeply entertainment-oriented medium - were completely disregarded. The one consumer species I believe AJAM could have succeeded with was the financial professional. Look to Reuters, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg for proof that excellent investigative journalism can be supported by focus on, and support for, the stories and analysis important to the finance sector.

Source: NYT