The news for the past week, 28/8/10

This is your Menso World News weekend update. Here is the news.

The PKK have announced a ceasefire for the millionth time.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders are in some kind of peace talks, also for the millionth time.

Uighur separatists are suspected of having set off a bomb that killed some people in Xinjiang. Turns out the bomb wounded more people than it killed.

Some people have died in India’s Red Corridor in fighting between the Maoist Naxalites and the groups they fight.

Observers documented mass rape in the Congo. Is that the first you have heard of it?

A Muslim wrote a scathing article about the “Ground Zero Mosque”, and another wrote about why the veil is wrong. We haven’t heard much about female genital mutilation recently, so I guess that’s not going on anymore.

Somali pirates are being talked about by important international legal bodies. A bomb exploded at a hotel in Mogadishu too, but that’s not as cool as pirates.

Some suspected Islamic terrorists were rounded up by the secret service of a big country, accused of plotting to blow something up.

There are some problems related to Gypsies. Those damn gypsies, always causing problems.

And finally, Glenn Beck did something crazy.

So much for the news this week! Not that any of it’s news.

Mexico’s drug dead and the Narco War Next Door

This video has all of what I suggested anti-War on Drugs rhetoric should: ethos, logos and pathos. An American reporter goes to Mexico to research the state’s losing fight against narcotraffickers, and between interviews with top law enforcement officials witnesses scene after scene of dead victims of the War and their screaming mothers. When not racing to the next murder, Laura Ling exposes the systemic official corruption and the illegal flow of firearms to the narcos from the US that make it such a difficult problem to solve with more police and more weapons.

The chain of future conflict, part 2

See part 1 here.

A ship carrying Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka has landed on the shores of my hometown in Canada. Some of them may be members of the Tamil Tigers, but there are hundreds of men, women and children on board.

This event is not an isolated incident. First, it is not the first boatload of Tamil refugees to wash up on Canada’s shores since the end of the civil war last year. Second, it is not the first boatload of refugees from the wartorn world to appear in the rich world. This ship is part of a trend that we would be foolish to ignore or misread.

When originally outlining the chain of future conflict, I posited the following pattern.

* Climate change and other environmental damage will put pressure on and destroy local environments in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
* People will be forced to move to other countries to survive.
* Barriers to immigration will rise.
* Those who are kept out will fight with the elites over scarce resources.
* Those who make it into other countries will be looked upon as wretched and unable to integrate.
* The incidence of war among those whose environments are threatened, whether or not they migrate, will increase.
* A new kind of refugee, the Environmental Refugee, will emerge.

The refugee boat trend is slightly different, as it is not related to environmental change but conventional war. War and conflict have not abated in our brave new world and are not ready to end any time soon. As a result, more refugees will appear on the shores of the rich world.

The immediate reaction is to raise barriers to immigration. The US border with Mexico, for instance, which is fighting a terrible drug war, is the object of a debate on whether to erect an enormous fence to keep Mexicans out. The Canadian government’s approach to the Sri Lankan refugees has so far been somewhat more compassionate: letting them alight in Canada and then determining if they should be sent back or not.

This approach may be the most realistic, at least at the moment. However, should refugee numbers increase, it might become wishful thinking. Criminalising refugees tends not to decrease numbers of refugees but increase the amount of violence employed in both bringing them in and sending them back. Sending Canada’s navy to intercept today’s boats costs money. If too many boats come, which is the fear, more naval vessels will be dispatched to stop them. At some point that I will let economists estimate, it could cost more money to stop people coming in than to let them in.

Moreover, criminal syndicates are heavily involved in human trafficking and their income and power increases when a market is prohibited. If there is demand, someone will fill it; if the act is illegal, it will continue but in the form of crime.

The current course may be politically and economically realistic at present, but if trends continue we will need new policies and attitudes to survive the possible nightmares of the future. Putting more effort into ending war and environmental destruction is one possibility. More intercultural education and integration is another. Criminalising everything we find unpleasant is not.

Conflicting news for the future of the War on Drugs

Felipe Calderon, president of Mexico and prosecutor of the War on Drugs, has declared that it is time to debate drug prohibition. It sounds like great news: the first step toward rejecting violent conflict and admitting the facts. Other states in Latin America are gradually following suit, some of whom have decriminalised drugs.

But disturbing news is coming from Canada this week as the Conservative government takes measures to raise punishments on drugs, gambling and prostitution. It is building new prisons to accommodate the undesirables it plans to encarcerate. Against all logic, the Canadian government is cracking down on personal choice issues and using its taxpayers’ money to take away their freedom.

I am on record as stating that I believe the War on Drugs is slowly but inexorably coming to a close. The Conservatives’ move might be a swan song; it might be a continuation of their tough-on-crime, loose-on-facts policies; or it could just be a way of feeding the government’s addiction to the War on Drugs. But if other governments, even Mexico’s, can open the possibility of change, why would Canada’s try to push more crime underground? Polls suggest Canadians want at least pot to be legal. Well, sorry Canadians: we are not interested in your views. You work for us. We are the decision makers, and you pay for it.

Why probe the Gaza flotilla?

The UN has announced it will launch a probe into what happened at the Gaza “Freedom Flotilla” incident. Nine Turks were killed two months ago when Israeli soldiers boarded one of the vessels. We know that. Why are they probing any further?

Perhaps the move is to embarrass Israel. It is the latest in a long series of attacks on Israel by the UN and many Arab states. These attacks have grown so numerous and disproportionate to all the other terrible things that happen in the world that they have become meaningless and counterproductive. The incident may have been a debacle, but what effect will a committee investigation have? Even if it produced a report showing that Israel’s leaders were the most devious people in the world, would they change? Would a new round of voting be held immediately, followed by the election of a flock of doves? More likely, Israelis who are not doves themselves would become self-righteous and more entrenched in their defiance than ever.

Perhaps this probe is intended to benefit Israel. Until a few months ago, people were still talking about Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report. Now, they have been distracted by a shiny object and have bitten the hook. Operation Cast Lead was truly a disaster, bad for Israel’s already tarnished image and a nightmare for the Gazans who lived through it. The Gaza flotilla incident was an accident. As such, the government of Israel is taking up the probe commission idea with gusto, offering its choice of investigator for this “independent” investigation. The probe can thus be seen as a way to show Israel is complying with international commissions and has nothing to hide. Just don’t mention the Gaza war.

Or perhaps the probe is to provide work for bureaucrats. Either way, if the UN wants to do good, why does it not focus on the big things? The 1400 dead in Gaza from Cast Lead only a year and a half ago have gone unapologised for. The blockade of Gaza continues to cripple the economy and freedom of 1.5m people. The occupation and settlement building continue in the West Bank. This was never supposed to be about a few dead Turks who were presumably just provoking Israel with the flotilla in the first place. Israel will be seen as making one concession and pressure on it will abate, while its hardcore opponents will not change their stance whatever happens. The UN is just wasting its time.

Destroy the old world, forge a new world: Posters and the Cultural Revolution

In China today, one can find posters for sale in stores and on the street from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Cultural Revolution was a time of turmoil, in which so many Chinese people still alive today participated, but seem to prefer to forget about. To them, sorry. I simply find the subject a fascinating example of so many phenomena: mass movements and groupthink, propaganda and personality cult, imaginary enemies and violence.

When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it called on revolutionaries (so everyone that did not want to get humiliated or killed) to write big-word posters (大字报) with images and slogans that appeal to Marxist ideals. This is a brief look at the posters of the Cultural Revolution and how they, like so much propaganda for revolution or war, whipped up public fervour for violence.

Of the posters I have seen, there are a few noticeable themes. (The captions, where there are captions, are translations of each poster. Where there is no caption, the words are my own interpretation.) First is gathering support for the revolution. Second is children. Third is military and defence. Fourth is reverence for Chairman Mao. I have added a poster of Red Guard taking down “counter-revolutionaries” and photos that illuminate the reality behind the posters.


Some points of note:

Mao Zedong is always smiling. The people are smiling at Mao, unless they are busy destroying counter-revolutionaries.

The colour red is employed more than any other. Red is not only important in Chinese culture (symbolising joy and good fortune) and communist culture (the blood of the workers), the colour red draws people in and elicits emotion from them (see more in this video on Nazi propaganda). Mao wanted his last revolution to channel the energies of his cult, and red helped ensure he did.

The first poster is of destroying the relics of the old world. Under the revolutionary’s foot are, among other things, a crucifix and a Buddha statue. The photo next to it is of a public burning of Buddha statues.

Many of the posters show people with guns next to people with farming implements. Mao’s Little Red Book is usually there, either in the hands of everyone or in the hands of those at the head of a long line. The book itself seems to be leading the way.

The animosity displayed during the Cultural Revolution was not only directed at internal bourgeois enemies but also at external ones, such as the Soviet Union, whoever planned to invade China and whoever was occupying Taiwan. I saw the poster reading “destroy the Soviet Union” when I lived in Beijing; it actually read “destroy [or ‘smash’] the Soviet Union” on the left and “destroy imperialist America” on the right. This photo was taken at Beijing University.

The posters depict masses of people all aligned behind Mao, as if all the people of China were following his every word. Millions, of course, were.

For similar posters, see these other sites:
http://benross.net/wordpress/cultural-revolution-propaganda-part-3/2009/01/17/
http://www.iisg.nl/landsberger/
http://chinaposters.org/themes/themes
http://www.docspopuli.org/ChinaWebCat/gallery-01.html
or this site for more photos:
http://chinaspot.org/some-photos-about-cultural-revolution/

Terrorism is overblown? You bet it is

Weeki Wachee Springs--Potential Terrorist Target

Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Could it be? I am still studying the American public’s answers to that question, but to scholars who study it, there is little doubt. The infinitesimal odds of dying in a terrorist attack are rarely made clear to many Americans, but if they were they could cast some doubt on the usefulness of the Department of Homeland Security (national security through colour code), the truthiness of political discourse and how threatening al-Qaeda actually is. Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them is clear and sensible thought for a world of headless chickens.

John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, who also wrote “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons” for the journal International Security a couple of years before the Soviet Union collapsed, begins his book by throwing out empty rhetoric about “the age of terror” in which we live and ushers in some perspective. Statistically, including 9/11, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s is similar to the number killed by deer or allergies to peanuts. One is more likely to drown in a bathtub than be killed by a terrorist, and yet our reactions to the one successful terrorist attack on American soil have been so absurd that after invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands, the American public still fears another surprise attack.

This attack could take the form of nuclear weapons, perhaps from the ever-present boogeymen of Iran or North Korea. But as Mueller points out in Foreign Policy (and in Overblown), terrorists’ exploding nuclear weapons all over the place is almost impossible. We have been afraid of them for more than 60 years, and since then not one has gone off accidentally, been sold to a terrorist or found its way to Manhattan. Chemical and biological weapons, too, fail the terrorist test: they are simply too difficult to develop and wield with any effectiveness. And why would they? The 9/11 hijackers had no WMDs because they did not need them.

And yet, the panic over nuclear or WMD terrorism, or any other kind, was high for years following 9/11. On Feb 11, 2003, FBI chief Robert Mueller told the Senate Committee on Intelligence “the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified” and claimed somehow to know that “al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning.” When he went back to the committee two years later, he never mentioned the secret FBI report that said that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had not found a single terrorist sleeper cell in the US, even though the 2002 intelligence estimate said there were up to 5000 terrorists connected somehow to al-Qaeda. Perhaps this oversight was induced by paranoia, as was presumably that which led George Bush to talk about nuclear weapons and Saddam Hussein in the same breath.

The media have contributed generously to the terror potluck. Politicians and bureaucrats have an incentive to issue vague warnings from time to time in case there is an attack and they are accused of not preventing it. In Mueller’s words, “[s]ince 9/11 the American public has been treated to seemingly endless yammering in the media about terrorism. Politicians and bureaucrats may feel that, given the public concern on the issue, they will lose support if they appear insensitively to be downplaying the dangers of terrorism.” It is as if each news program, each politician, each government spokesperson baits his competitors into saying more about terrorism, how wonderful America is, and how bad our enemies are going to get it. But our enemies are not the only ones who have suffered at our hands.

9/11 has cost money. Nearly $10b per year is spent on airport security, not including Homeland Security’s $50b budget. A sense of urgency to protect every possible terrorist target has meant a big increase in government spending with the usual billion dollar riders tacked on to each bill. (Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs, in the photo above, was happy to receive funding for preventive counterterrorism. Fortunately, his water park has not yet been a victim.) Visa restrictions have kept out scientists, engineers and businesspeople who could have helped the US economy. But never mind those costs: they are for security. No price is too high for a colour-coded warning system. The true costs of 9/11 are in the wars that would not have been politically possible without it. Hundreds of billions will have been spent on Afghanistan and at least three trillion will have gone toward Iraq after it is all over. Surely if those wars have saved lives and prevented terrorism, they are good wars. But all accounts say they have not.

9/11 has cost lives. One estimate is that more than 1000 people died between September 11 and December 31 of 2001 after they canceled planned trips by plane and took their cars instead. Another study found that in the same time period, 17% of Americans outside New York continued suffering shell shock. More obviously are the two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, which have claimed thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis in the name of nebulous ideals, false security warnings and failed intelligence.

Professor Mueller provides refreshing views not only of the present unwarranted panic but of historically parallel ones too. Pearl Harbour was described by observers at the time as catastrophic, devastating, crushing, “the greatest military and naval disaster in our nation’s history”. More realistically, however, it was an inconvenience. A colossal overreaction ensued in which a hundred thousand Americans were killed for the loss of 2403 in the initial attack. 120,000 Japanese people, two-thirds of them American citizens, were sent to detention camps without trial. Much more historical analysis provided in Overblown describes additional speculative fears and their consequences that, with hindsight, were exceedingly foolish.

John Mueller is part of a line of thinkers, from sociologists and other scholars to Michael Moore and George Carlin, who explain the destructive effects of the fact that, in the latter’s words, Americans panic easily. From Afghanistan and Iraq to freedom at home, this panic has for years led to the trading of lives and liberties for the illusion of security. Professor Mueller does not touch on the less obvious effects of 9/11 that we are dealing with to this day. For instance, while I believe the Iraq War would not have happened without 9/11, I also believe it is the continued fear of al-Qaeda and militant Islam and the Middle East and anyone who wears a turban that is pushing some Americans toward war with Iran. The mentality seems to be, “You think 9/11 was bad? When Iran gets a nuclear weapon…” Such a belief is only speculation, though. Overblown offers a much-needed clearer-headed response to terrorism than to try to blow it up.