Tag Archives: USA


Flags Matter

Flags are symbols, full of historical meaning.  Just ask Emily Thornberry.

Following the despicable shootings in Charleston, South Carolina last week, there has been renewed debate over the Confederate Flag, the banner under which the secessionist Southern states fought the American Civil War.  Some people claim that the flag is simply a symbol of Southern culture and ‘heritage’— that flying that flag is merely an expression of an independent, libertarian spirit.  But that is disingenuous.  The Confederate cause was explicitly racist, about fighting for the right to subjugate black people.  Ta-Nehisi Coate catalogues the unequivocal words of those men who rallied their fellows to the ideology of white supremacy, and argues “Take Down The Confederate Flag—Now“.   The recent discussion has unearthed this article by Christopher Hitches from 2008, where he excorates the former Governor of Arkansas and (at the time) Presidential Candidate Mick Huckabee for lauding those who would fly the Confederate flag.  A “straightforward racist appeal” for votes, Hitchens called it.

On a more positive note, watch this wonderful TED Talk, done in the style of a radio show, by Roman Mars (my favourite podcaster).  His show, 99% Invisible, is all about design, and the talk is about the importance of flag design.

Roman outlines the principles of good flag design, draws attention to some good city flags, some bad city flags, and some truly terrible city flags.  He also explains why we should care.

A well-designed flag could be seen as an indicator of how a city considers all of its design systems: its public transit, its parks, its signage. It might seem frivolous, but it’s not. .. Often when city leaders say, “We have more important things to do than worry about a city flag,” my response is, “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner for people to rally under to face those more important things.”


Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week.  Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable.  The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.

If this is a real trend then it’s appalling.  As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly.  Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage).  Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society.  Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.

I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?


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!