Thursday, June 25, 2009

It's Official: Despair!

It's offical now. My waivering between hope and despair is over. Despair prevails. President Obama has signed and appropriations bill including a provision that forbids the release of GTMO prisoners into the United States and requires the approval of Congress to release them to other countries. Let us not forget that the Bush Administration discreetly released approximately two-thirds of all Guantanamo prisoners. Obama stated his intent to close the facility, and Congress has pushed back. It has now, in effect, passed a law requiring all prisoners there to be held forever, without regard to innocence or guilt.

A few hold out hope that the Supreme Court will strike down this abomination, but I fear it is unlikely. Congress has now made it official. Scary Brown People have no rights that the white man is permitted to respect. Acknowledge any such rights at all, and the terrorist will murder us all in our beds.

Given that we are stuck with mandatory prisoners for life regardless of innocence or guilt, is it asking too much for Obama to at least allow outside access to the prisoners? Given the constant reassurances we keep getting that everything there is so wonderful, what harm in that? Disinfecting power of sunlight and all.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dancing with the Hips

Last weekend I attended a Folk Festival which included, besides styles I am more familiar with Hawaiian and Tahitian dancers. While they are, of course, part of the same family, there are definite differences.
Hula dancer
Hawaiian dancing is hula dancing. Although the leader of the hula troop assured us that men hula dance too, and although there were men in the troop, the style is a woman's style. It features gentle swaying of the hips, something women are better built for than men. Women ripple their hands as they make gestures. Men hold their hands straight, which makes men's hula look like a toned-down version of the women's. And then there are the various hand gestures in which women hold their hands over the "mountains" with their finger tips in the "valley." Men have neither "mountains" nor a "valley," which makes clear who this style of dance is intended for. (Presumbably men have some sort of war dance, but they didn't get into that).
Tahitian dancers
Male Tahitian dancers
Tahitian dancing, though related, is different, particularly, more fast and furious. Tahitian dancers move their hips fast and shimmy all the way down to the ground. Although there were no men in the Tahitian group, the troop assured us that male styles are a variation on the theme -- less emphasis on the hips, perhaps, than women, but more aggressive, with plenty of forward thrusting, and no doubt that this is a war dance. (One member's comment was that you expect them to take your head off).

Tahitian dancing is definitely more strenuous. The leader of the Hawaiian troop was rather on the plump side; the Tahitian dancers were all lean. And it did not take long to find out why. They lead us through a few basis Tahitian moves and before long we could feel the burn. One of them commented that she lost 30 pounds.

Tahitian dancing is also more athletic than another style of dancing that involves a lot of hip movement -- belly dancing. I have seen many belly dancers with plenty of belly. Not so the Tahitian dancers.

Belly dancers. They aren't always thin, and some have quite a bit of belly.


One Small Kudo to Janet Napolitano

As the Obama Adminstration makes increasingly clear that it intends to adopt a policy of warmed-over Bushism, it does deserve credit for at least one small deviation. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has announced she is killing a proposed program to make information from spy satellites available to domestic law enforcement.

The Wallstreet Journal reveals an important detail left out of the Washington Post account. The Bush Administration had taken only "preliminary steps" to implement the program, such as acquiring office space and "beginning" to hire staff.

This points up a critical distinction. It is much easier to prevent such things in the first place than to reverse them once they become established. The proposed program of satellite surveillance had not yet become an established interest. It did not have an entrenched bureaucracy to fight for its survival. Stopping it did not mean taking on a powerful establishment, merely preventing one from forming. Significantly, the only other real reversal Obama has successfully made in Bush policies was to close the CIA "black sites" -- sites that had been empty and unused from some time.

Not having access to Obama's brain, I do not know what has motivated him to follow so many of George Bush's War on Terror policies. Maybe he supports them. Maybe he considers chaning them a low priority and wants to expend his political capital on something else. Maybe he fears being labeled soft on terror. Maybe he likes the power. But another major factor (not incompatible with any of these others) is that powerful, entrenched interests will fight any such change every step of the way. This was one program easily defeated because no such interests existed.

May it signal the beginning of some real rethinking on Napolitano's part.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iran and the Right to Bare Arms

Reports on Iran describe crowds in green or black. Oddly enough, what has impressed me most is not the green or black demonstrators are wearing, but the amount of flesh showing. Picture after picture on Andrew Sullivan's blog seems like little more than a vast sea of bare arms, with Mousavi's long sleeves standing out as highly conspicuous.

Granted, it is June, and the streets of Tehran are presumably hot. Long sleeves would be uncomfortable. Still, Islamists are notoriously prudish about such matters and, after all, many of the demonstrators are women. Presumably in the eyes of many traditionalists, a bare-armed woman would be indecent. Yet there they are, chadors (at least partly) in place, arms bared. Freedom in action.

Iran and Hungary

As events unfold in Iran, the analogies fly fast and furious. Some are obvious to a person of my generation. Is this like Eastern Europe, 1989, or like Tiananmen Square? Some older ones raise the obvious analogy of Iran, 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah. But another analogy rings true for me, one that took place before I was born, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

I mean this, not has some people have offered the analogy, as a warning for the US to stay out or a mandate for the US to get involved. To me, what is most significant about the comparison is what it says about the internal dynamics of revolution.

The revolution we are seeing underway in Iran was not, at least at the start, an attempt to overthrow the Islamic Republic, but merely a revolt on behalf of a reformist figure within the limits of the political system. Likewise, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 did not begin as an attempt to overthrow Communism, but as a revolt on behalf of a reformist Communist, Imre Nagy. But once revolution begins, once people take to the streets, the situation become very fluid. Expectations change rapidly. Events spin wildly out of control, and what seemed impossible yesterday seems inadequate today.

In Hungary, large-scale anti-government demonstrations broke out. The government responded, first with repression, and then with concessions, always too little, too late to placate the crowds. (A book I read recounting events described the government as constantly about 48 hours behind the public mood. 48 hours is a long time during a revolution). In the end, the dam broke, the whole Communist system was swept away, and Nagy was left with two choices -- try in vain, to hold back the waves, or be swept along with them. He chose the latter.

It is, of course, much too early to see the overall pattern of events in Iran, but certainly what began as a revolt on behalf of a reformist within the limits of the system is growing into something much larger. The government is combining repression with some limited (so far, very limited) concessions that the street indignantly rejects. Mousavi, though probably alarmed at the scope of events, is allowing them to sweep him along. He is what Nagy was, not leader, but a convenient symbol.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect. The Communist government of Hungary was an artificial creation, propped up and held in place entirely by a foreign power. The government of Iran stands on its own feet. Governments entirely dependent on a foreign power are uniquely weak and illegitimate, so much so that they lack legitimacy even in their own eyes -- and in the eyes of their own coercive forces. The government of Hungary fell, partly because it had so little legitimacy in its own eyes that it was not willing to use brute force to crush the revolt, and partly because the army was unwilling to do so, and the secret police were not match for the combined strength of the people and the army. Instead, it was that foreign power, the Soviet Union, that invaded and bloodily crushed the democratic revolution. In 1989, once the threat of Soviet intervention ceased, Communism in Hungary and across Eastern Europe (except Romania) fell without firing a shot in its own defense.

Such is not the case in Iran.* A government that knows no foreign power will protect it is far more likely to be willing to protect itself. At best, this will be no Velvet Revolution. Enough blood has already been shed to make that clear. At worst, it may end in tragedy, with a mass democratic revolt bloodily crushed. Here, too, the example of Hungary 1956 is telling. Stories like this do not always have a happy ending.

*Disturbing thought. The Shah, too, fell in the end without a bloody showdown. Could that be because he, too, was too dependent on a foreign power (in this case, the US) to be willing or able to fight for his own power?

Monday, June 01, 2009

Abortion Murder and Homeland Security

So, what are we to make of the murder of a Kansas doctor who performs late-term abortions? Many people on my side of the political divide see it as a vindication of the Department of Homeland Security report about the dangers of right-wing extremist terrorists. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings proposes we respond by taking stronger measures to protect late-term abortion. Megan McArdle at Atlantic sees that as a mere doubling down, an attempt to punish the entire right to live movement for its extremist fringe.

Although I am normally a great admirer of Hilzoy, in this case I disagree with her. My response is that same as my initial response when the DHS report first came out. Great, this is the perfect opportunity for us liberal civil libertarians to form an alliance with the right to curb this monster.
I should be clear here. I have read the DHS report. (It is only ten pages, cover included). Some of the concerns it lists as hot button issues to extremists (such as immigration or gun control) are also important to mainstream conservatives, so I can see how conservatives might see their views being treated as suspect. On the other hand, the report makes quite clear that it is is talking about white supremecists, violent antigovernment groups, Christian Identity, the militia movement and the like. It lists instances of actual violence or plans for violence by such groups. Its section on veterans mentions Timothy McVeigh and skinheads who enlist. All in all, not the sort of company mainstream conservatives should care to be associated with.

At the same time, I don't think conservative fears the DHS might confuse legitimate dissent terrorism are all that silly. The organization's history has not been encouraging. It passed information to the Maryland State Police about the anti-war movement in Maryland and tracked their (peaceful) protests. Groups as wide-ranging as anti-death penalty advocates and advocates for bike lines were caught in their net. Does anyone seriously think this was limited to Maryland? Does anyone think the overall institutional culture at DHS will change any just because it is looking at new targets? There aren't all that many terrorists out there. But the DHS has to do something to justify its existence. And so it spreads.

Forming a civil liberties alliance with conservatives who fear they might be the targets is not new, after all. Following the Oklahoma City bombing, conservatives joined hands with liberal civil libertarians to block many of the expansions in power President Clinton requested. Can we do something similar now? Possible guidelines might include:

  • Set firm guidelines on when surveillance is legitimate. Maryland apparently now requires "reasonable suspicion" of a crime. (I do think, though, that stockpiling a large private arsenal and training private armies should be considered dangerous enough to allow surveillance).
  • Make a strict ban on provocateuring. The use of entrappment as an affirmative defense obviously is not sufficient. No suggesting, or having informants suggest, any crimes the people being surveilled would not otherwise commit.
  • I know it isn't safe to reveal why people are on the no-fly list, but let's at least make some laws about what aren't legitimate reasons. Peaceful expressions of dissent should never be grounds for being on the list. Mandatory procedures should be in place for investigating and removing mistakes, such as people with the same name. Strong mandatory procedures should also be in place for allowing people to have their names removed from the list, permanently.

The list can go on indefinitely. Unfortunately, a general culture of paranoia is easier to create and to undo. More unfortunately still, the Obama Administration shows no real interest in undoing any of it. We civil libertarian disagree with the Right about a lot, like the use of torture and whether Scary Brown People should be locked up forever in a legal black hole regardless of guilt or innocence. But if we can make an alliance on domestic security, at least maybe we can roll back some of the domestic aspects of this monstrosity.

Sigh!! I can dream at least.

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