Tag Archives: USA


Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.

Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion.  Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.

In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Continue reading Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report needs to be converted to HTML, pronto

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has release a shocking report into the CIA use of torture during America’s post-9/11 panic.  The New York Times has a handy 7 point summary, pointing out that the torture was more brutal and extensive than previously supposed, that it was ineffective, and that CIA officials lied to Congress and made exaggerated claims to journalists about the effectiveness of the programme.

Its truly sickening and should not have happened.  The USA is supposed to be better.  It has set a terrible example to brutal human rights abusing regimes like Iran.  Ayatollah Khameni has been pointing out America’s hypocrisy.

It looks like the United Kingdom might have been complicit in the torture programme too.

For those of us who want to read the full report, a 525-page PDF version is available on the webspace of Senator Diane Feinstein.

Plenty of journalists have been writing about the report.  Andrew Sullivan has ‘live-blogged’ his reading of it.  When they do cite a paragraph, they can’t link directly to it.  It strikes me that far more people would be able to read an engae with the report if it were in HTML format.  This is a ‘live’ example of the principle behind my Leveson Report (As It Should Be) project.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report should be converted to HTML as soon as possible, preferably hosted by a civil liberties NGO or a newspaper.  It took me a while to convert the Leveson Report into HTML but a crowdsourced effort could convert this torture report in a matter of days, if not hours.


A partial defence of Kiefer Sutherland's '24'

The conventional wisdom is that Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 is an apologia for torture, a cultural product of America’s post 9/11 crisis of confidence. It is produced by Fox, a media outlet not known for its liberal bias1.

Every week the show presents a new ‘ticking bomb’ dilemma for Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer. These scenarios properly belong in a university Ethics 101 seminar, not real life. Would you kill one person to save a hundred? Is torture justified if it yields information that saves lives? In Bauer’s world, the answer would always appear to be ‘yes’. He consistently chooses the path that saves more Americans in the aggregate, regardless of the law. And when he does so, he prevails. The people he tortures are always guilty and the confessions he extracts always yield useful information.

This is a 180° reversal of real life, of course. But by promoting the idea that the abolition of due process can be effective, 24 is propaganda for the abandonment of law and decency that characterised the Bush/Cheney administration. 24 skews public debate on such issues.

However, I have just watched Season 7. This block of episodes has a very different feel to the previous seasons. Terrorists still attack passenger aeroplanes, launch WMD, and attempt to assassinate the President. And Jack Bauer foils their plans on an hourly basis. However, this time the action has moved from decadent, decaying Los Angeles to Washington DC. This proximity to the institutions of State clearly inspire the supporting characters. As the action unfolds, Bauer is consistently harangued and brow-beaten over his actions by the people around him. FBI Special Agent Reneé Walker tries to play along with Bauer’s unconventional approach, and finds she does not have the stomach for it. Special Agent Larry Moss says “the rules are what make us better.” Back at the FBI HQ, the analysts complain about racially profiling suspects. In a key scene with a liberal Senator, Bauer is forced to entertain the notion that it is the rule of law that makes America, and that sometimes upholding The Constitution should take priority over saving lives. By the end of the series, Jack has accepted this argument.

Meanwhile, in the White House, POTUS Allison Taylor puts the responsibilities of her office over the unity of her family in a most dramatic fashion, following her head not her heart. The situations that she and Bauer encounter are no less preposterous than anything in the previous seasons… But at least in Series 7 the characters give proper weight to the importance of the law as they make their decisions.

24 Season 7 was made in 2008. You can tell it is the product of a different political wind. In an overt attempt to redeem itself after many years promoting a Manichean worldview, this series ensures that every Muslim character is wholly noble. As Bauer lies critically ill in a hospital bed, he even summons an Imam for spiritual guidance.

It is a shame that 24 took so long to put forward the view that it is the law that is at the heart of the American Way. It is a shame that it took the producers six seasons before they remembered that United States Presidents take an oath to defend the Constitution, not the people. Jack Bauer’s torturing ways are themselves an attack on American ideals, and it is a shame that this is only called out in Season 7.

But hey – at least the series does, finally, make that conceptual connection. Just as Jack Bauer repents his sins to the Imam, so 24 Season 7 feels like it too is asking for forgiveness.

Does the show deserve absolution? That all depends how Season 8 unfolds, and I haven’t watched that yet.

1. Yes, I do know that Fox also produces The Simpsons but that does not excuse Fox News.

How does the pro-gun lobby reconcile itself with American exceptionalism?

Following the awful, awful news of the massacre in Conneticut, the gun-control debate has begun afresh in the USA.

The canard from those who support the current, ridiculous status quo, is that the problem lies in “evil people doing evil acts”, and not the availability of weapons.  How do the pro-gun advocates reconcile this argument with the doctrine of American exceptionalism?

If one holds that permissive gun laws have no causal connection to the frequent massacres, and that the daily murders are simply caused by evil of people… then one is left with the heretical conclusion that there are simply more evil people in America than elsewhere.  This does not sit well with the idea of America being intrisically better than other countries.

Shibboleths collide! Call for Doctor Pangloss!

The Role of Citizen Does Not End With Your Vote

President Brack Obama celebrates with Michelle Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, and Jill Biden, in Chicago after winning re-election. (AFP)

Congratulations President Obama, re-elected.  Its a relief that the candidate with the broader coalition and the policies of inclusion, not division, won the day.

During the campaign, there was much analysis of how President Obama’s first term was disappointing.  Blocked by a hostile Congress, he was unable to implement his full agenda.  Big issues like Global Warming were left to fallow.

I was struck by a line in his victory speech: “The role of citizen does not end with your vote”.  Concerned Americans need to be activists.  When they take matters into their own hands, as Gay Rights activists on the left, and ‘Tea Party’ activists on the right have done, they are able to shift the political consensus.

Fololowing Obama’s re-election, the Democratic Party now has a unique database of information on voters and supporters.  It seems to me that this was an under-used resource during the President’s first term.  Obama and his party colleagues need to start campaigning now for a better, more liberal congress in 2014 – one that can deliver proper reform on climate change and other issues that urgently need attention.

Neck and Neck in the Polls?

This week, the BBC reports on the US Presidential this week have been consistently reporting the race “neck-and-neck”. This assertion is grounded on opinion polls: the latest BBC report trumpets an ABC News poll which places both candidates on 48% of the vote.

The problem is, one poll does not tell the whole story. Each polling outlet has a slightly different methodology which skews the results. For example, some poll only ‘likely voters’ and some ask everyone; some pollsters call cell-phones, while others use only landlines.

As a foreign media outlet, the BBC is not covering the race with the granularity of the domestic US media.

Rather than report the result of one poll, The corporation would do better to report on the polling averages between polling outfits, and the trend-lines of generated by each pollster over a given period. Both these macro views look better for President Barack Obama, whose polling in the last fortnight has been improving. More importantly, State Level polling shows the President ahead in battleground states like Ohio. Poll analysis site Five Thirty Eight (hosted by the New York Times) models the election on this basis, and is currently putting the chances of an Obama win at 85%.

This does not mean that Obama is coasting towards a second term. Governor Mitt Romney could still win. But given the totality of the polls, President Obama can be said to have the advantage. The situation does not really warrant the metaphor “neck-and-neck” which suggests either horse is equally likely to win. In the betting markets, Barack Obama is the clear favourite. He hasn’t won, but he is ahead.

So why does the BBC cherry-pick a single poll as its headline? Simples: “neck-and-neck” is a more sensational headline than “Obama ahead”. And the more sensational headline will deliver more viewers on Election Night.

Gingrich, Bin Laden, and Issac Asimov

Apparently, the megalomaniac tendencies that many perceive in Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich are inspired by Iassac Asimov:

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Newt Gingrich is from the planet Trantor, a fictional world created by Isaac Asimov in his classic Foundation series about galactic empire. Newt’s master plan for America does not come from a Republican Party playbook. It comes from the science fiction that he read in high school. He is playing out, on a national and global scale, dreams he had as a teenager with his nose buried in pulp fiction.

I haven’t read the Foundation series, but I gather it involves grand master plans for the whole galaxy, put into practice by a dedicated bunch of benevolent intellectuals. I know this, because series has been cited as influential on another ideologue – Osama Bin Laden. The phrase ‘Al Qaida’ literally means The Base, or Foundation

On the surface, the most improbable explanation of the name is that Bin Laden was somehow inspired by a Russian-born writer who lived most of his life in the US and was once the world’s most prolific sci-fi novelist (born in 1920 in Smolensk, Asimov died in New York in 1992). But the deeper you dig, the more plausible it seems that al-Qaida’s founders may have borrowed some rhetoric from Foundation and its successors (it became a series) and possibly from other science fiction material.

Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that there is an intellectual link between Osama Bin Laden and Newt Gingrich. To make that connection would be to unfairly libel Issac Asimov. However, the fanatical American Right are usually happy to make tenuous links for political smears (Sarah Palin’s quip that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” the most high profile example). So part of me would love to see Gingrich hoisted by that petard!

Strategic Ignorance in the US Primaries

The Republican Presidential Primary debates are frightening. From the audiences at these events, we’ve had the booing of a solider because he is gay, the cheering of the idea of someone dying because they didn’t have health insurance, and the enthusiasm for the executions of potentially innocent people. Meanwhile, the candidates seem entirely ignorant of foreign affairs or proper fiscal policy, and instead double down with their demonstrably untrue lies about President Obama.

This is clearly evidence of an extreme intellectual and moral decay – the sort of thing that, if unchecked by good people, could end up at some pretty unpleasant and illiberal end points: war, torture and extreme poverty. Let us hope that Obama prevails in the 2012 election.

In trying to comprehend why the Republican prospective nominees are so ignorant, it is easy to assume that it stems from an underlying stupidity. But this post from Chris Dillow introduces the concept of ‘strategic ignorance':

Ignorance – normally a weakness – can increase one’s bargaining power. For example:

… The man who doesn’t appreciate the cost of a breakdown of negotiation – say who doesn’t know how much a strike will cost – will adopt a tougher negotiating stance, and so extract more concessions, than the man who doesn’t.

Applied to the presidential primaries, the idea here might be that many of the candidates are being willfully simplistic and ignorant in order to get votes.  In the wider US political system, they’re being ignorant in order to increase their barganing power in Congress.

This tactic is of course deeply cynical, disingenuous, and wrong.  However, I find it a strangely reassuring analysis, because it suggests that the Republican nominees aren’t actually as nutty as they appear.  If (or when) they achieve office, and faced with actual governing decisions, the cynical political player might at least pick the option which diffuses the chance of war or economic depression, when the genuinely ignorant leader might sleepwalk towards catastrophe.

My guess is that the nominess fall into two camps: The genuinely frightening (Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum) and the cynical (Newt Gingrich, Gov. Rick Perry, Gov. John Huntsman, and Mitt Romney). Congressman Ron Paul feels like he should have a category of his own: A zealot, but self-aware in a way Bachmann and the others are not.

“[The Republican Party] consists half of people who think like Michele Bachmann and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michele Bachmann and that leaves very little room to work things out,” – Barney Frank, the witty Speaker of the House we never had.

Via the Daily Dish.

In the UK we have plenty of terrible politicians, but very few who fall into the former group, of frightening zealots.  The negative virtues of cynicism and opportunism, which we deplore, also provoke compromise and middle-of-the-road choices, which we admire.  Ann Widdecombe (now no longer in Parliament) and Nadine Dorries MP might plausibly be added to the former category, but even they seem to be more self-aware than their American counter-parts.  Could this be because our constituencies are less gerrymandered and more diverse, preventing extremism that can exist when you have a whole continent of disparate values bundled together into a single political system?

The Cost of Terrorists and Dictators

Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:

Has any single human being, either directly or indirectly, cost the United States more money than Osama bin Laden? Even a very partial, very haphazard, tallying of the costs from 9/11 reaches swiftly into the trillions of dollars. … Has any single individual even come close to costing America that much? Adolph Hitler is probably one of the few candidates

That reminds me of this link I posted in 2005, pointing out the cost of the Iraq War was in the region of $1.25 trillion.  Professor Keith Hartley suggested that it would have been cheaper and quicker to have paid Saddam Hussein and his family a few billion dollars to go into exile.

However cheap (relatively speaking) such a deal would be, we know it would never be workable.  Revolutions and regime change stem from the terrible treatment of citizens by their Government and Leader.  These injustices can never be considered ‘corrected’ if the wrong-doers swan off into luxurious exile.  Our sense of what is morally right – that tyrants and genocidaires should be brought to justice (or at least killed) – trumps pragmatic considerations.  We have an inate belief that this approach is worth the continued sacrifice of our soliders, and the chaos and cost in the world economies.  Breaking this understanding, via the sterile calculations of a Cost-Benefit analysis or Return on Investment figures, would ultimately lead to bigger wars.

The Propaganda of Obama

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011

This week, much has been made of the fascinating photograph published by the White House, showing President Obama surrounded by his national security team as they followed the Bin Laden killing, as it happened. The newspapers I’ve read have all carried a knowing analysis of the image, explaining the telling body language and identifying each of the onlookers. Some of the less prominent figures, such as the Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason, suffered the indignity of being unrecognised by the press.

The photo has already been labelled iconic, which I think is an overused word in this era of highly accomplished photojournalism, but it may yet become the most popular photo of Obama’s Presidency (it is one of the most popular photos on Flickr ever). If It does, this will be no accident. The image is as masterful a piece of propaganda as you are ever likely to see.  And, we’ve been here before.

The White House Flickr stream is touted as an emblem of open government. Photographer Peter Souza seems to have a free reign to wander around the Oval office and even the high-security Situation Rooms, with impunity. It conveys a message that there is nothing to hide.

The image in question is particularly good because it seems to portray a very long moment. If Souza had been filming the scene we imagine that it would not have looked very different from the still photograph… apart from some blinking. The uncritical analysis of the image in the press completely accepts this idea. The behaviour of the President during this operation (and indeed all those with a political interest in appearing strong, such as Vice President Biden, Hillary Clinton, and recently embattled Defence Secretary Robert Gates) has been defined by this image. When voters are asked “is Obama a strong leader?” (a hardy perennial in the opinion polls), this is the image they will remember when they agree.

However, a quick look at the photo’s attributes can remind us how manipulated this image actually is. For example, the file name for the image – which is assigned to it automatically by the camera – is P050111PS-0210. The file names of the images published either side of this one in the Flickr photo stream have the suffix 0106 and 0475, which means that Souza took 368 other photos around the same time, which he and the White House communications team chose not to publish. This is standard practice amongst all photojournalists – for every good photo, there are scores that are discarded because they do not quite capture the story you wish to convey. In this case, I’ll bet there are versions of this image that are under-exposed, or have Obama blinking, or of Joe Biden looking gormless, or with Robert Gates picking his nose, or Hillary Clinton with a double chin. Moreover, there will be others where Biden and Gates, on the extreme left and right of the image, are out of shot, which would be unacceptable.

Interestingly, there is a figure in a black jacket, standing next to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who is out of shot. This man stands with his arms folded (very Alpha Male) and he has a prime position behind Clinton and Gates. He must be as least as important as Tomason and Anthony Blinken (advisor to Joe Biden), both of whom have to peek over the shoulder of Bill Daley, just to get a look-in. I am not suggesting that this is some shadowy figure at the heart of a conspiracy – he might be some lesser aide or bodyguard. I just draw attention to him in order to point out how our gaze and opinions can be so easily directed. “If there aren’t photos then it didn’t happen” is an old newsroom adage. Add to that “If you’re not in the photo, then you weren’t there.”

Don’t get me wrong – I like President Obama, and I share his overall political outlook. One can hardly complain that he and his team choose to present themselves to the world in the best possible light. This is the essence of electoral politics, in fact. However, it is the job of the media to cast a critical eye over the images released to us by governments. The fact that Souza’s photo has been so swiftly elevated to ‘iconic’ status suggests to me that media due-diligence has not been performed in this case, which should be a cause for worry. Body language analyses and ‘who’s who’ type photo articles constitute fluffy, filler journalism. They are appropriate for Royal Wedding coverage, but not for matters of major geopolitical significance.