Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Year in Commentary

This is usually the time when blogs do one of two things - look forward with lists, or look backward with lists. Being faithful to the blogosphere, it seems I owe the world a list post.

I don't have any "best entries" to look at - half my output was for a primary in an election already decided, and you probably already know what of mine you like. So instead I'm going to point you at two sources for commentary on the year which I think were kind of awesome. Yeah, my list post is a list of two.

1. Ironman
This was certainly The Dark Knights year, in terms of almost everything - it was good, it made a lot of money, it had a good performance by a star who died tragically young. In an election year it had a vigilante, a realist of a public servant, and an idealistic politician all tied up in a mess of a situation, and confounded by maliciousness and chaos. It should have been the narrative to accompany election day.

It wasn't. This year, the best commentary about America as an entity was captured in reviews of Iron Man. Iron Man has no politicians. Iron Man, in fact, is rather minimal - inventor + tragedy = mind change + redemption. And all the while, America is still at war in the background. Tony Stark changes himself in a cave, and he comes back to change not Afghanistan, but to re-orient America. In the comics, Iron Man has become the victorious face of a government that killed Captain America, but in the movie Iron Man is America reborn - this isn't a struggle of identity, this is a coming of age. Captain America is the Greatest Generation - he is an eager and patriotic citizen made exemplary, and in his later years he embodied all the promise America had offered, and was more than a tad upset when it collapsed upon itself in a fit of paranoia and police-state antics. It's a good story, but it's an apocalyptic narrative, not the one of rebirth.

The re-birth narrative is all Iron Man. He literally makes himself over, and thanks to American inventiveness and determination, he sets out to undo all the evil he himself did. This is a narrative captured brilliantly in two separate reviews: one by The Ferret, and one at SciFi blog io9. Read both of them - they are as much about comics and film as they are about where America stands today. And that America doesn't include Gotham.

2. Sinfest
Sinfest is the name of a webcomic. A really, really brilliant webcomic. It's been around for a while, and its well-done art (plus decent humor) had kept me reading it on and off. Then the election got underway, and it is the narrative I will hand my children to explain this year. The humor is spot on, the metaphors used all resonate strongly, and it provides the cartoon narrative with the goofy faces and the cutting insights in a year where much has been made of narrative.

This one - the best attempt at turning Dark Knight into a parable for the US.

These three - the first one is Obama campaigning, the second one is Obama elected, and the third one is Obama taking office. All of them get the narrative of the election done beautifully, and they do it in a few panels.

Here we have Sinfest Uncle Sam, using Star Wars to explain how we got to be where we are. It's beautiful

And here we see the economic collapse, told in a wonderfully self-righteous fashion by the symbols of American wealth we have created for ourselves.

If I haven't fan-boyed enough over this comic, here's the years' end:

Pitch Perfect. Have a good night, everyone.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Living the Dialog

Editors Note: I wrote this piece as a pulpit editorial for delivery today at First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, where it was delivered for both first and second service. I'm posting it up here because I think it's worthy writing, but keep in mind that it is even more targeted at Unitarians than is usual.

Hello Congregation. I'm Kelsey Atherton, and earlier this fall I was the political advisor to Christine on her inspired if ill-fated presidential campaign.

I meant to write this pulpit editorial about my roommate and me- randomly assigned to live together in college housing, we disagree fundamentally on every political issue that has ever come up. And it was my intent to examine how before the election our interactions were all arguments, and how after the election it's become an oppressive silence. This pulpit editorial, as I envisioned it, was to be a parable of the dangers of partisan living, and a reminder of the strength of the divisions that persist in this nation.

The problem with that idea is that it doesn't really offer anything positive or useful, and I know that I for one don't come to church to feel powerless in the face of bad things. The other problem with that anecdote is that it is more or less the exact opposite of living the dialog - my roommate and I engaged in conversation when the stakes were high, and now that the election has concluded we sit around silently being contemptuous of each other. It's kind of a terrible example of how to live ones values.

There is, however, an essence of living the dialog in that. It's important to know where the dialog can be helpful, and where the dialog will amount to a lot of effort and frustration without any meaningful change. This isn't about "cutting ones losses" or "picking ones' battles" - this is about moving beyond war metaphors because this isn't, you know, war. And I think that's really what I learned from my experiences with my roommate - we treated this as a war, and now that the election is over, we're entrenched in a forced no-man's land, waiting for the next outbreak of hostilities.

That is no way to live. And while the situation with my roommate is looking irreparable, it's motivated me to find better ways to live the dialog with other people in my life. My conversations with friends about political issues are no longer winner-take-all debates, where personal attacks fly furiously, or where I discredit an issue because I doubt a given politicians' intelligence. Much as I'd like to say "your guy is an idiot, and you're an idiot for liking him", that's out of the picture. Talking like that is the exact opposite of productive. Every conversation, I strive to remove the petty from my politics. And yeah, I'm still met with the occasional "secret Muslim" comment. But it becomes rare, and it gets to be irrelevant.

More importantly than the lack of ad hominem attacks is the new found common ground - while I still argue tooth and nail for the right to choose, my pro-life friends and I come close to agreeing on "safe, legal, and rare." While I am sorely disappointed by the passage of proposition 8 in California, I can sympathize with the desire to settle the issue of marriage equality through voting and not judicial fiat. That is to say, in a way that respects "the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within...our society at large". And while I am dismayed at insensitive and intolerant remarks expressed by some religious leaders, I can share with them the common ground of good works and a desire to lead a purpose-driven life.

Christine, in her post election sermon about Living in Purple America, quoted this from my blog: "But that doesn’t entitle us to inflict any of the same scorn and contempt on the losers that we’ve had to suffer through. Because if we do that, then it was all for nothing.". I wrote it hours after an electoral success I'd waited 8 years for, and I wrote it not so much because I needed to know it then, but because I knew I'd need to be reminded of it now. In the coming weeks, as the Christmas spirit wanes and the inauguration looms closer and closer, it's important that we continue the work of living the dialog of Purple America. Without it, we exist as bitterly divided armed camps. With the dialog, and the conscious effort to engage people in serious and rational discussion, we can begin to do away with battles against each other. Because there isn't an enemy here - just fellow Americans. We have to appreciate and understand where they're coming from in order to join them in fellowship.

The piece ends there, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include the following image:
The image comes from the excellent from52to48withlove, which is the site that best informed this pulpit editorial, and my post-election sentiments. The above image I found particularly moving, and while I tried I was unable to include it in my speech before the church. Here it is for you, faithful readers.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rick Warren, Obama, and the Center in American Politics

For more or less every person vaguely in the US political blogosphere, and especially for those people who care about social issues, the big looming discontent this week has focused on Barack Obama's selection of Rick Warren as the minister to give the inaugural invocation. And this is good - in our participatory democracy where personal views matter as much as stated policy aims, we as the public, as the pale apparition of new journalism, and even alongside the white elephant of old journalism (a term of endearment, that) have a right and a duty to examine in as much detail the little signifiers which could become the big signifiers.

There's some real grounds for fear here. In the wake of prop 8, and with the side note that the Obama campaign had both "Obama/Yes on 8" and "Obama/No on 8" voters, it seems like the president is not so beholden to the LGBT community as many had hoped. This perceived abandonment is cemented in the minds of many by Rick Warren. After all, he has likened gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. That's more or less an unforgivable offense, right?

Well, yes and no. Which I guess really means no. For many, any nuanced qualifiers (which, if you know me, you know are coming) are not enough. The far left, the progessive left, the left-left, the bleeding-hear-left, social libertarians, and a good many in the moderate left all view this as completely unacceptable. There are almost certainly political scientists right now formulating Obama's political obituary, examining the breakup of the new new deal coalition. First it was the social issues, they'll say. And indeed, I cannot begrudge those who feel betrayed right now, who feel that Obama himself has crossed a line of no return. This is not the first thing to exhaust serious political capital among the left, but it is one of the biggest. And for many, the mere act of the appointment overrides two very important things Obama is doing.

Firstly, Obama himself has a statement of very, very importantly phrased qualifiers. Secondly, Obama is appointing people with far more accepting views to actual meaningful positions.

Here's what I think are Obama's two key points:
• The President-elect disagrees with Pastor Warren on issues that affect the LGBT community. They disagree on other issues as well. But what's important is that they agree on many issues vital to the pursuit of social justice, including poverty relief and moving toward a sustainable planet; and they share a commitment to renewing America's promise by expanding opportunity at home and restoring our moral leadership abroad.

• As he's said again and again, the President-elect is committed to bringing together all sides of the faith discussion in search of common ground. That's the only way we'll be able to unite this country with the resolve and common purpose necessary to solve the challenges we face.
(emphasis mine). Barack Obama's selection of Rev. Rick Warren is not a blanket endorsement of Warren's views and attitudes. It is not even an endorsement of a majority of Rick Warren's views. It is, instead, an endorsement of a few very specific areas of Rick Warren's ministry - Obama says of Rick Warren that "He's devoted his life to performing good works for the poor and leads the evangelical movement in addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis" (emphasis, again, mine). This is that evangelical movement which, to an outsider like myself, appears to have repeatedly placed itself in opposition to all the issues of social justice I've cared about. No doubt many are attributing the differences in the success of McCain and Bush's presidential campaigns to the evangelical fervor that swung behind Bush, and was more lacking in support of McCain. This is a group I'd more or less written off as "the opposition". Fortunately for me, the political Left, and the United States on the whole, Obama does not see evangelicals that way.

Rick Warren's presence at the inauguration is not the selling out to the religious right that many fear it is. It is instead an acknowledgment of the religious center, which has been missing from our political discourse. Yes, Rick Warren has views which are antithetical to many progressives. But Rick Warren is not alone in that, and while he did speak in favor of proposition 8, and we can disagree with him on that, he does care about global poverty, and he cares about the fight against AIDS. Obama agrees with Rick Warren on those latter terms, and disagrees on the former. This is not a matter of selling out - this is a matter of acknowledging the diversity of our nation. A messy, sometimes frustrating diversity of opinion, but this is a rather vital one. Obama's inauguration will have another minister, a "giant of the civil rights movement" give the benediction. And Obama has made other, more meaningful actions to show support of LGBT people. That list of meaningful actions includes some hesitancy, and it includes some cautious opinions on his part. It also lacks the neat, doctrinaire uniformity that progressives want from their messiah, and we are foolish for wanting this.

This is a nation of diversity, and any leader who adheres so strongly to just one faction is a leader that betrays the core principles of democracy. It does not meant that our voices aren't valid - they are, now, more than ever. But it does mean that the nation isn't monolithic, that the president has to acknowledge that, and that sometimes a nation has to change underneath it's leader to move him in the right direction.

Obama's inclusion of Rick Warren in his inauguration is a sign that being on the left, or holding even center-left views (like an obligation to fight poverty) does not mean one can't express religion. It's a shame and unfortunate that religion in US politics is presently tied to the Religious Right; Rick Warren himself, while an evangelical, can be found much more awkwardly in the center, where his views do not easily align himself to one party - it's an awkward nation where religiously justified condemnation of poverty and religiously explained condemnation of sexual orientation do not share the same ticket, but it's the nation we have been living in. Obama, by including Rick Warren, seeks to bring religion into the discussion on social justice; it's been isolated in issues of social norms for so long that it's hard to remember the more broader applications of Jesus's teachings, the ones that apply out of the bedroom. By including Rick Warren, Obama does not endorse Warren's views on homosexuality - what Obama does do is endorse evangelicals taking an active role in social justice. This is not a move that could be made in a US where a whole side of the spectrum can hold "unforgivable" views. We, as the left, were excited to see on election day that cries of "socialism" and "spread the wealth around", topics for decades off-limits to US politicians, were not run into the ground. Not to say that we should be accepting of Warren's intolerances, but we should open up a dialog where our sound reason can win the day - excluding one side from every discussion because we don't like where they stand on one of them is tragic, and hurts our nation as a collective whole.

If you've made is this far, you've noticed my tip-toeing around the other big issue that upsets the left with Rick Warren's selection. Rick Warren not only actively campaigned against gay marriage, but he is fairly active against a Women's Right to Choose. I've buried this issue, not because I don't think it's relevant, but because it is harder and harder to see the right-to-life (or, if you prefer, anti-choice) side being an overwhelming national movement. The pro-choice fight is more and more of a quiet one -I'm willing to bet that the silent majority is pretty much entrenched on the side of choice in this one. Perhaps they want more qualifiers, refinement in the right, but this is a right that seems to be guaranteed. Not that we shouldn't fight - we kind of have to. But the fight can be won, and noticeable in this election the pro-choice fight had three significant victories - unsurprising in California, welcome in Colorado, and perhaps most profound in South Dakota. Christine over at iMinister made an important note of this in her post-election sermon. Rick Warren is not on the side of history for this one, and while I'm unwilling to say that progress here is irreversible, it is instead in the enviable position of being well defended when even the movement defending it seems to, at times, be on the margin. It's one of the few times I like how effective the silent majority is, and when the silent majority is winnign the battles in the ballot booth, it means the issue is close to safe. Rick Warren's anti-choice actions and opinions do not undermine this progress

There is one last point I have to make here, on this issue. The picture below these words is one of the most heartening signs that progressives will not be lost in this election. That, right there, is New Mexico's congressional delegation for 2009. On the far right (ha ha) is Senior Senator Jeff Bingaman, who has been protecting the interests of progressives nationally and in New Mexico for twenty five years. The remaining men in the picture (L to R, Ben Ray Lujan, Martin Heinrich, Tom Udall, and Harry Teague) are New Mexico's three congressional representatives, with the exception of Tom Udall, New Mexico's new Junior Senator. For all the symbolic angst that may arise about Rick Warren's stands on social issues, these are five reliable votes against those initiatives. For all the doubts about Obama's sincerity to his supporters on the left, these are five votes that will pull him further to where he should be. And for every move made to combat AIDS, and for every move aimed at fighting poverty, these are five votes that will reliably side with progress.

And that dichotomy mentioned above, where people work together on some but not all issues? That's more or less exactly what the Obama administration is about. It isn't an exclusion of hated opponents, a condemnation of outsiders by those in power, or even a takeover of government by the left. It is one of the ironies of this campaign that the Senate's greatest moderate in recent memory campaigned against a candidate identified with a fringe, only to have the roles reversed on the campaign trail. Obama won the election by a majority of voters not because this nation has become the ideological equivalent of San Fransisco, but because Obama's appeals, which endeared him to the left, are fundamentally centrist.

Leftist doctrine has, for the past century and a half, focused on competing interests within a society. Marxism, Labour, and the general confusion of class and nationality have played out over the past century to constitute a left that, while it has some popular appeal, cannot decide what to do when in power. In France in the 1930s, the Left achieved an electoral victory at the exact smae time all of Europe was afraid of both fascism and Stalin, and the left was too divided to let itself act as a party of rule. These divisions, inherent in notions of "class warfare" and echoed in such modern times by John Edwards' "Two Americas" speech, give the left its fighting words, but they also drive it away from being acceptable as a party of rule. Obama, from his very first appearance in the media spotlight, has focused on "One America". His notion of hope comes across as leftist because it involves reconciliation - such strange events have driven our nation to see diplomacy, talking to people we disagree with, and earnest attempts at working together for the benefit of all as leftist fantasies, left over from the 1960s. This misrepresents the left of the sixties and it misrepresents the left of now - both have widely differing views on what government should or shouldn't do, and I'm pleased to say that, 38 years after that decade ended, the left in the United States is able to position itself as a party of rule.

It's taken a long time for this, and it's required that most fundamental of compromises - ideals as a driving impulse, instead of being the straightforward rule of government. This is realism, this is pragmatism, and this is inching towards the Center. The center-left became popularized under Clinton and Tony Blair, but they are not so much leftists as real-mild-rightists. They made being identified with the left acceptable, but for all their strengths they lived scared of being seen as weak, as compromising, and as unfit to rule. Clinton, especially, faced the controversy of moral weakness, and his actions almost certainly added a decade to the lifespan of the religious right in US politics. But he did prove that a democrat, a person on the left, could both have that party and govern from the center.

Obama, as outlined wonderfully by fivethirtyeight, has a progressive agenda, with many items that are near and dear to the left and the far left. "But Kelsey," you thousands of readers clamor, "haven't you been saying Obama is a centrist?" Well, yes, yes I have, and you are all astute observers. So here's the big qualifier - the United States, as is, doesn't have a center. We have two points (or parties), both off center, around which voters tend to congregate. The battle for undecideds is so fierce because there is no party permanently camped out in the center - candidates aiming towards the middle have to moderate their views or open the appeal of their candidate beyond sticking on a certain pole. The battle for the loyal, on the other hand, is about convincing polarized voters that their guy this time is really much closer to the far side of the spectrum than they are to the center. This works, to some extent, for the winner-take-all system that is US politics. In other countries with parliaments and governments of coalitions, however, we see something very different. We see a center party, or center-left and center-right parties, or a center-christian party, and these will almost always be part of the ruling coalitions. Not entirely ideologically pure, but they get the job done, and they have, at their very core, a willingness to incorporate some ideas of others with their broad schemes. McCain, as a Senator, represented a clear example of the "across the aisle" spirit that pervades parties of or around the center.

Obama, alternatively, has made his rhetoric his centrist appeal. And he's done more than that - by inviting Rick Warren to the inauguration, he not only clearly sets himself apart from the left (or at least, those parts of the left that find this unforgivable), he also shows the United States where the center is. It's vague right now, and while it disagrees hugely on some issues (again LGBT and Choice), Obama is trying very clearly to connect the center in US politics to social justice. It's a bold move, and one that Obama has certainly taken flak for, but it has done something almost unthinkable - the evangelicals, the ones that elected W twice, the ones that gave Palin her moment and momentum, have found something to agree on with the President. It's allowed the intersection of religion and politics to not be dominated by the Religious Right, and its made the way possible for more openness in dialog. There are consequences for being in the center - every side gets to take pot-shots, and gets to pick more ideologically pure successors. But the center holds because it is where the voters are, and if Obama can use this almost-unprecedented opportunity for reconciliation (unlike that squandered, post-Civil War attempt), he can create a reliable center in US politics, longer-lived than the New Deal coalition, and he can place that center firmly on the left. It will take skill and careful manuevering. And it will take the inclusion of religious moderates and religious liberals. And it will come dangerously close to betraying that ideological purity we're all so fond of. But its doable, and it is a necessity for this nation.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rule of Law

This post is inspired by three separate occurrences, two of them fairly recent. They are: 1, the riots in Greece following the shooting of a 15 year old. 2, the questionable value of a life sentence for Texas inmate Son Tran. 3, the 11th hour move by the Bush Administration to allow doctors and other healthcare service providers the right to refuse health services (meaning birth control and abortion). These all strike me as diverse symptoms of a situation in which the rule of law is seen less as a desirable practice and more as a totalitarian imposition. To clarify for naysayers: I'm not in any way opposed to the rule of law; I take issue with laws that are unjust, and laws that work against the interest of most everyone involved. I think these are all examples of law falling into the later two categories.

1. I'll start with the latter. Bush's action will be debated constantly in the coming week (with bonus Baby-Jesus-themed comments), and will most likely be opposed and somewhat overturned by the incoming Obama administration. The move represents several things: a "thank you" to longstanding Bush supporters, another play in decades-old culture wars, and a decision made by an unaccountable elected official. For all of these reasons, despite public sentiment, it strikes me as a profoundly undemocratic move. My intellectual-sparring-partner JR will side with me on the specific issue of rights concerning access to birth control and abortion services, but he will argue against the constitutionality of Roe v Wade. Ignoring the actual impact of changing that decision as it concerns personal rights, there's a democratic sentiment behind it that is worth examining. The case of Roe v Wade is implicitly about abortion rights, but it is explicitly about privacy, and states rights. If there is no constitutional right to privacy, than abortion is an issue left to the states. States, when making the decision, varied much more widely than a simple "legal or illegal", and the decision was localized to small constituencies. Say what you will about the potential for denial of rights that this entails (and don't get me wrong - there is some serious loss of rights going on), it does allow for a more democratic decision to be made, and such decisions have a legitimacy that feels undermined by judicial fiat. The reaction we'll be seeing in the media, the blogosphere, and political action listservs is a very real sense of powerlessness, of an invalidity of the decision made, and a general disagreement with the new ordering of the law. And that's because this is not a change made with political legitimacy. It's worth noting, however, that the whole of the national abortion debate feels that way to many folk, and has produced an incredible wariness in the American public to accept such top-down detached legal rulings. Esteemed legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, when faced with the passage of similar culture-warsy Prop 8, says this
But please, let's not try to win this battle by summoning the Supremes. Even if it is right that this Amendment is contrary to the best interpretation of Equal Protection, let us bring the ideals of Equal Protection to life, by getting people to support them.
It's worth noting that a legal scholar, a man whose life has revolved around various interesting and new arenas for legal battles (code and other laws of cyberspace, copyright), is arguing against a straightforward legal solution and is instead pushing for a solution that has democratic legitimacy.

2. Charles Platt's piece on Son Tran is one I'm going to examine in more depth elsewhere (it is part of an in-process post about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). It's a fascinating story (in that weird, bleak way more common in dystopic fiction), and what stands out from all of it is that, no matter the actual crimes committed by the individual (or, indeed, if they were committed), the punishment seems to be something profoundly useless to society. Confounding this situation is the nature of the person who committed the crime - at the time he was sentenced, Son Tran was 17 years old. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling concerning minors sentenced to death, he was moved from death row to life imprisonment. Depending on where you fall with your perspective of redemption, rehabilitation, and the changeable nature of humans, the 40 years he is now serving will make perfect sense, seem too short, or strike you as a gross waste of a human life, to say nothing of human potential. Charles Platt is upset by both this individual waste, and by the intended value of deterrence that sentences like this are supposed to have. He writes:
Let’s start with the concept of deterrence. I’ll ignore the death penalty, since the Supreme Court has already eliminated it for people under 18. Thus, we are left with incarceration. Has any study ever proved that the prospect of forty years without parole is a better deterrent than, say, thirty years, or even twenty years? It seems utterly implausible to me that the actions of a teenager in an inner-city gang will be affected by such a distinction. In fact I don’t believe that deterrence is either the effect or the purpose of the long, mandatory sentences that have become endemic in the United States during the past two decades.
The facts laid out are very few in the favor of Son Tran: gang member, confessed to murder, received a reprieve because of a supreme court ruling, not new evidence in his trial. But the gross failure and abuse of the criminal justice system (especially in Texas) are enough to make one doubt the whole validity of criminal justice in the United States. Platt's post at this point descends into a fairly typical "Reagan + Fear + Power + Money + Scared White People = Gross Human Rights Abuses that Shame America" argument, and it says something that this argument can have a standard form. It also poses a very real challenge to the acceptance of the rule of law in America, and it hits upon it from an entirely different angle that the Bush decision. The Bush decision is very much another move in decisions removed from democratic consensus - Platt's argument is that Son Tran's imprisonment is no social good (as imprisonment weirdly is supposed to be) but is instead the result of a poorly-framed democratic consensus. People have been pushing for politicians to be tougher on crime for at least 20-30 years now; what people haven't realized is that as a consequence of this:
Among the adult population of the United States, 1 person out of every 100 is now behind bars. Thus the unweighted odds of going to jail are greater than the odds of being a crime victim.
One could write a separate essay on how the people pushing for politicians to be tougher on crime are different than the people who are more likely to be persecuted by vigilant police forces (white & wealthy versus the poor, nonwhite, and disenfranchised) - I'm not going to comment on it anymore here than to say that, for a worryingly large percentage of the US population, law is seen either as "something to protect myself imposed on other people" or "illegitimate decisions made beyond my own personal control that will get me anyway, and so have no bearing on how I act." That's a breakdown in the very purpose of the rule of law, and of a democratic construction of society - laws have to apply equally, and laws have to be understood as threatening not just "those people", but everyone - especially the people who advocate for the law to be passed.

3. Lastly, we come to the Greek Riots. Others more skilled and/or better paid than I will make their conclusions about such serious anti-police riots in the birthplace of the World's first great democracy. The riots started as anti-police, but as they have continued they have done what all great riots do - become chaotic, divisive attempts to reinvent a status quo. The rioters are unemployed, upset with corruption, and think that the police forces have gotten out of hand - to express this discontent, they have attacked police and alienated their countrymen by destroying the property and threatening the livelihood of many small shopkeepers and business owners. It has all the hints of simmering class war, and rather than doing the democratic thing and siding with small owners as an upset middle class, the rioters are very much in the classical (or is it archaic?) mode of students, working class, and the unemployed so upset with the higher-ups that they willingly endanger and alienate those less outraged than themselves. This is not so much an issue of the nature of the rule of law as an example of a remarkable collapse. And yet, law itself hasn't entirely collapsed - the police exist, are a visible presence in Greece, and the government still stands. But the police are hesitant to act - one of their own is being tried for murder while on duty (the counterclaim is that he was provoked and responded appropriately), and so we have the potential for the rule of law, the semblance of a rule of law, and either a government or a police force unwilling to impose that law on the citizens it exists to protect. As law collapses on the national level, it re-imposes itself interestingly.

The shooting prompted parents all over the country to examine the liberties they have been permitting their children.

“My 12-year-old daughter has been getting text messages inviting her to join demonstrations,” said Constantine Michalos, president of the Greek chamber of commerce. “One of the messages said, ‘Don’t go to school today. We need to show our power on the street.’ I had to lay down the law.”

The riots will not, as many fear, have the effect of the French riots two centuries prior or the Russian riots all of 90 years ago. What they will do, however, is allow for a reforming of society around the rule of law - laws to protect against some of what inspired the riots (police carelessness and political corruption; it's hard to get laws passed against the economy), as well as against the actions taken by the rioters. Chaos like this is curious for it's ability to reforge society - France's Fifth Republic arose as a center-right forced the imposition of the rule of law over both the military and striking students and workers. And violence like this polarizes - while prior to the riots, many were discontent with the status quo in Greece, the value of the rule of law comes to the fore as people gravitate away from the dangers of the chaos and back towards the assurances of stability, becoming increasingly more willing to overlook injustices inherent in that stability as long as it means they have property, livelihood, and are guaranteed some freedom from molotov cocktails. The trick with any society structured around the rule of law, and especially that of democracies, is to balance freedoms with controls.

Stratis Stratigis, former chairman of the Athens Olympics organising committee, suggested he might have an answer. “Our democracy is destroying itself because it misrepresented the right to liberty and equality,” says an e-mail circulating his friends. “It taught the citizens to regard disrespect as a right, lawlessness as liberty, impertinence as equality and anarchy as enjoyment.”

This is a quote from Socrates, the ancient philosopher who ended up being sentenced to death for voicing truths that nobody wanted to hear.

“It’s funny,” said Stratigis. “Those words have a ring about them today.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UDHR is 60 years old today. Here's my previous post about them, with an awesome video that is worth watching again.

Also, here's the full text of the declaration. Enjoy! (I'll have a more elaborate post about the rights themselves at a time that isn't finals week. For now, enjoy some history of justice. Also, bonus points for UUs who can find all 7 principles hidden in these)

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the full text of which appears in the following pages. Following this historic act the Assembly called upon all Member countries to publicize the text of the Declaration and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions, without distinction based on the political status of countries or territories."

    Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

    Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

    Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

    Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

    Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

    Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

    Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.

    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.

    Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.

    Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.

    No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.

    No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.

    Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.

    All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.

    Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.

    Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.

    (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

    (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.

    No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.

    (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

    (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.

    (1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

    (2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.

    (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.

    (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.

    (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

    (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

    (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.

    (1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

    (2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.

    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.

    Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.

    (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

    (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.

    (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

    (2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

    (3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.

    Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.

    (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

    (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

    (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

    (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.

    Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

    (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

    (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.

    (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

    (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

    (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

    (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

    (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.

    Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.

    (1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

    (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

    (3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.

    Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Hitting the nail on the head

Recently I posted about the double redundancy challenge that faces the US military.

Reading this article, it seems I'm late to the modern military revolution, but that I was headed in the right direction.
Gates also blasts the Pentagon’s bizarre desire to treat the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as inconvenient distractions from a future of conventional warfare, a tendency reflected in the budgetary trick of funding the wars separately from the annual defense budget. “We must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as those the United States is in today,” Gates writes.
I'll have to read Gates article in Foreign Affairs to figure out his stand on nuclear policy, but from what I've just read, it seems like he is well prepared to create and adjust our military to the purposes that will actually be asked of it.  And lest people think that this is just a new top-down approach to justfying shiny new technology, Gates is well aware of the complex nature of the wars the US military has been tasked with.
A fundamental argument made by Gates is that military solutions in the war on terrorism — what he describes as “a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign” — are rarely sufficient. “Where possible,” he writes, “what the military calls kinetic operations should be subordinated to measures aimed at promoting better governance, economic programs that spur development and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented, from whom the terrorists recruit.”
While acknowledging that war is an unpleasant thing, it looks like we have someone on the job willing to go ahead and assume the difficult responsibility of easing a war into a peace.