Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Inaugural Address

President Obama's inaugural speech – in its lofty tone reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's 1960 inaugural address – has reminded us of why we liked him so much in 2008 and why we still have a soft spot in our hearts for him. He musters enormous eloquence in defense of the best American progressive tradition.
But his speech is marred by serious omissions. There is no mention of the drone war or of any covert assassination programs.
Now you might say, the man can't talk about everything in 20 minutes. Give him a break.
The inaugural is beguiling because it repeats Abraham Lincoln's formula of democracy as government of, by and for the people and cites the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and happiness. In the US the right to life means, at least, that you cannot be killed without a trial, without a chance to defend yourself, to examine the evidence the government has against you and to try to refute that evidence.
The drone war is so serious because it has killed American citizens without benefit of trial or a chance to defend themselves.
The list of people to be killed by drones and their missiles is made up by some officials high in the hierarchy in the White House, including President Obama. The list is secret, the deliberations are secret, the criteria for getting on that list are secret. The whole drone war is hidden away. Should major policies be hidden in a democracy?
One American citizen victim to the drones was a Muslim Iman Anwar Al-Awlaki. Another person killed by drones was Al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son. Al-Awlaki was a bad actor but he never got the trial he was entitled to as an American citizen. Since the whole project is shrouded in secrecy we don't know what his son had done to deserve being murdered at age 16.
This whole project of killing people selected secretly by people we don't know who they are, of depriving American citizens of their constitutional rights is not consistent with President. Obama's praise and endorsement of American democracy. The government that murders people from the air – frequently innocent people – in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Sudan and we don't know where next, is contemptuous of democracy, and contemptuous of the Constitution.
But terrorism is a serious threat. 9/11 taught us that. So perhaps we should ignore the lofty questions raised by the rhetoric of the Inaugural Address. Perhaps we should not think about the right to life, or constitutional protections. We should just be pragmatic and ask: is this really making us safe?
Suppose you are a Taliban in Afghanistan and you believe that it is okay for you to murder people for the sake of your tribe and for the sake of Islam. And now the Americans with their fabulous modern technology come and do the same thing with airplanes flown by someone in Nebraska. Would you not think that the Americans are doing just what you are doing? The weapons used are different. Yours are guns; their's are drones with missiles. But you are doing the same thing namely trying to undermine the other by killing their leaders.
By using the drones, we are telling the Taliban, we are telling al Quaida and connected groups: "we're just like you – we're terrorists too."
That is not going to win the hearts and minds of people in the Mideast, and now more and more in Africa also. Instead, the drone war has made us more hated and has recruited many new persons to the ranks of various groups the government would describe as "terrorists."
Senior military leaders at home have insisted for years that “we can't kill our way out of these conflicts.” Negotiations are essential. But they become more difficult and less likely with every new drone strike.
The drone war is counterproductive. It gives the lie to all the high-minded rhetoric we've heard in the inaugural address. It is profoundly immoral.
It should stop today. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Blame, blame, blame!

Many people have thought a lot about the Newtown murders. Few if any people have noticed that we did there what we do every day when bad things happen, we look for the culprit, we identify a person or thing or situation to blame. We blame inadequate gun control laws, or inadequate registries of persons with mental difficulties; we blame violent computer games. Finding someone to blame usually offers a remedy which we then espouse passionately. Then we are done.
No one seems willing to have a thoughtful conversation about guns, about registries of mental illness—are mentally ill persons not entitled to some privacy?--or the free speech issues raised by blaming the publishers of violent computer games.
No one wants to talk. We just want to distance ourselves quickly from the latest tragedy by saying:” It does not have to do with me. It is the fault of . . . “
The daily papers are full of disasters of one sort and another. Our response is always the same. We look for the guilty party, we blame that party and prescribe an appropriate punishment. And then we go to look at the next disaster.
Today's paper has two startling instances of that: a 10-year-old boy in California shot and killed his neo-Nazi father who had regularly abused him. The parents had recently divorced. It is not difficult to see the enormous complexity of this event. The boy was ten years old. What was he thinking? Did he fully understand what he did? Did this failed family have any other relatives? If so, what were their connection to all of this? Did anyone—teachers, lawyers, divorce court judges—know of the boy's suffering? The judge in the case had no interest in these questions. He had no difficulty finding the culprit and sentenced the now 12-year-old boy to 15 years in prison. Case closed.
Adam Schwartz, a brilliant but sad young man, hacked into a nonprofit library of scholarly papers. The organization, J-Stor, sells access to such papers. Schwartz believes that these articles, especially when they were financed by government grants, should be available to the public free of charge. So he downloaded a great number of them. He never had a chance to actually allow the public access to them. The US attorney in Boston threatened him with 35 years in prison and $1 million fine. His attorney had already bargained them down to six months in prison. Deeply depressed, Schwartz hanged himself.
What happens next? Everybody looks for someone to blame. Since Adam Schwartz had a loving family, a woman he lived with, former teachers who cared deeply for him, the only person to blame turned out to be the US attorney. Commentators rushed in to point fingers at the Federal Prosecutor.
In the frenzy to blame, the really interesting issue gets forgotten and Schwartz's legacy is ignored. He was critical of the way in which the public must pay for access to scholarly material. Many people agree with his criticisms. But these are by no means straightforward issues.
The original impetus for copyright and patent laws was to make new ideas and inventions available to other inventors and scholars, and to the public in general. The reasoning went as follows: If new ideas are not protected from imitators, everyone who has made an interesting and, potentially, important discovery will keep it a secret in order to be able to profit from it, rather than have imitators enrich themselves from the inventions and discoveries made by others.
That has seemed a reasonable arrangement for centuries. But critics, like Schwartz, were looking towards a world where the discoveries and inventions of the gifted—and the lucky—belong to everyone. After all, the inventors and discoverers were educated in the country's schools. Teachers took them under their wing to help them develop their native abilities. The society as a whole provided opportunities for them to do the work of discovery and invention. Why should the society not have free access to the new findings of their gifted members?
That, too, is reasonable. Schwartz raised a perfectly sensible question. The answer, however, is by no means obvious. If the intellectual work I do is useful for someone else, they should have access to it. But I, of course, also need to eat and have a roof over my head. The question of copyrights and patents is connected with the other question of how talented persons are to earn a living. That opens a lengthy conversation.
These interesting and important questions that Schwartz, among many others, raised have been overlooked in the rush to blame someone for his suicide. It seems to me that we would do much better to honor him by thinking about what he was trying to tell us than by finding someone to blame.
The 10 year old murdering his father ( who had taken him to Neo-Nazi gun trainings) should make us raise questions about the many ways in which the suffering in our society remains hidden, and the victim without support and aid. We would be better off reflecting about that challenge instead of sending a 12 year old to prison.
But in the rush to distance ourselves from the troubles of others, we find a culprit so that we can put the whole sad story behind us. We blame others because we do not want to be bothered to think about the questions raised by the daily disasters in our lives.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


The great sadness over the murders in Newtown leaves us with two questions: why did this happen? Why is the number of random shootings growing? And the second question obviously is what can we do about it?
Practical people have all kinds of answers to that second question: improved gun control, arm schoolteachers, (arm schoolchildren?), give children bulletproof backpacks. Make reporting of mental disease mandatory so that we can better assure that no guns get into the hands of people afflicted by mental illness. The NRA does not want to limit gun ownership but places blame on violent computer games. The advocates of these measures usually understand that they will not put a complete end to these shootings. But some of them may well help.
But these suggestions do not answer the first question: why is this happening?
Here we get a range of answers: America is a violent country. Our murder rate is 3 to 4 times the murder rate of other developed countries. From the beginning European immigrants to this continent have practiced ruthless ethnic cleansing. We kept slaves for 200 years and for 100 years after that we held African-Americans in bitter servitude. The 20 odd years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II were the longest peaceful period in all of American history. As long as we have lived on this continent, we have been at war with Britain, with France, with Spain, with Mexico and other countries in Central and Latin America and, of course, with the Native Americans. We have fought wars in Algeria, in the Philippines, in Russia, in the Carribean. There are few countries where we have not deployed our violence. (
Our economic system stresses competition: to be sure it would not do for the top management of Amazon to shoot up the headquarters of Google. But the goal of each of these companies is to do serious injury to the other, to put the competitor out of business. Employers constantly try to depress the wages of their employees. Few Americans are seriously bothered when Walmart human relations offices explain to prospective employees how they can get food stamps and publicly financed health care because their jobs will not support them. Our economy takes cruelty and coercion in its stride.
Millions of adults watch beefy men attack each other every weekend on the football field or the hockey rink. A hockey game without a fight is not worth watching. For the younger generation, there are computer games where people massacre each other with a oversized automatic weapons in rivers of blood. For everyone there are violent computer dramas.
There are other generalizations about America we could cite here. But it is not at all clear what, if anything, they explain. Do children who play violent computer games grow up to be violent adults? Do fans of football and ice hockey commit more violent crimes? We possess no unambiguous evidence on these questions.
The English have many sins on their conscience in their long history of colonialism beginning with the ravaging of Ireland to their Indian Empire and domination of Africa. Their murder rate is a third of ours. Germany has a bloody past. Our murder rate is four times the murder rate in Germany. There is no simple and clear connection between historical sins and current gun violence.
We need to admit that we do not understand the origins of all this violence in our country.
It is not too difficult, to say, however, what we should be doing to reduce violence in the future. We must recognize it, resist it, and replace it by nonviolent means, wherever possible. We must teach our children to avoid being violent; that there are other ways for solving conflicts and we must teach our children how to excel in those. We must learn how to avoid being violent ourselves as we teach our children.
But we must teach non-violence the right way. School children who, today, are disrespectful to adults, who bully other children, or who get into fights are likely to be called into the office of the principal, the guidance counselor, the coach to be yelled at and threatened with punishment. That child learns that violence is acceptable as long as the violent one has permission. They will conclude that they too can be violent if they become teachers or principals, or, failing that, . . . . . . procure a gun. Our schools actually teach violence.
But they do not have to do that. Many schools have chosen a different path. They teach some of the students to be peer-counselors. These young mediators can, in many situations, defuse conflicts that arise in the school by helping their fellow students to talk out their difficulties instead of threatening physical confrontations. Similarly schools talk to young men about how being a man does not consist of bullying women. Young women have opportunities to reflect about their growing up into being women. Gay-straight alliances strive to gain acceptance for everyone instead of having gay men and lesbian women fall victim to bullying. There are many similar projects for teaching non-violence.
Non-violent techniques of resistance have a long and venerable history dating back at least to 16th century England and beyond. Over the years groups have developed many different methods of withholding supports from their rulers who acted against their people. Think of the women agitating for the vote who chained themselves to the fence of the White House, of the Montgomery bus boycott, of widespread refusal by workers to work, or to leave their factories. Our children need to learn the history of struggles that were not violent. More importantly, they must be taught how to avoid violence and be encouraged to make peace.
This is a long path but it is the only one we have to stem to rising tide of violence.