Peder D4

Discussion of politics and other odious things

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How To Handle Dictatorships

We're in an odd moment here in the West.  After the cold war was won, we wound down, leading some to declare that we had reached the 'end of history'.  That obviously wasn't true and we've now been at war for more than a dozen years.  The odd thing is, despite many military victories, we have no idea how to actually win. 
Foreign policy under Obama is, well, hard to define.  It places a high value on international consensus.  It avoids conflict, especially conflict that would put US troops on the ground.  It cherishes 'soft power' approaches.  And it really hasn't changed the world for the better. 
Not that the Bush approach worked any better.  The military did its part in conquering forces in the field but then things fell to pieces.  Nations refused to be built and the world decided that the US was the bad guy.  No one looks to the Bush years as a model on how to move forward.
So what do we do?  Allow me to spitball some ideas.

Tie foreign aid to reforms.  One of the reasons why the situation in so many poor countries is so helpless is because the political structure is rotten and corrupt.  What if we made foreign aid conditional on reforms to fix those systems?  We could attack bribery pretty easily.  We could also include things like freedom of the press and other basic rights.  Figure out the top priorities and very publicly tell the dictatorships that unless they clean up their acts, the money stops.
Pay dictators to retire.  Another enduring problem is that once an autocrat takes power, they hang on to it until death.  Sometimes, like in North Korea, that means the family takes over and there is little hope of peaceful regime change.  On some level it's galling, but the world would be better off if some of these despots were given a pile of cash and the deed to a Mediterranean villa.  One of the prime strengths of the Western world is that countries periodically trade power to other countries without bloodshed.  We should do what we can to encourage that.
Threaten cultural retaliation.  If you've read 'The Looming Tower' by Lawrence Wright (and you really should!), then you'll know that Al Qaeda and their spiritual brethren are motivated by the idea that non-Islamic ideas are decadent and will corrupt the soul.  What would happen if we found a way to tell leaders of terrorist groups that we would use culture to retaliate to any attacks from them?  What if we threatened to broadcast our most decadent channels, say Bravo and MTV, onto every TV in their country?  What if every radio picked up station after station of pop music?  Would that give them pause?
Outsource nation building.  If we do find ourselves again in the awful place of having to force regime change, we should break it into two distinct phases.  The US (and any probable coalition) can handle the military side.  The big problems come after.  The people there rightly fear imperialism and resent the foreign troops.  So we call in someone else.  Ask the UN to rebuild.  That takes away the imperialism fear and allows the foreign troops to withdraw. 
Confidently assert pluralistic values.  If we really want a future world where conflicts over race, religion and creed are rare, then we need to show how that's done.  We need to push examples of how different people can live comfortably together.  This will mean less searching for specks in our own eyes and some bragging about the areas where we do a good job.  It will mean standing up for principles like free speech without the depressing 'but' that so often follows.  It will mean reasserting assimilation and the melting pot. 

These may not work but our current ideas aren't so hot.  They might be worth a try.

Labels: ,

Friday, January 09, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

Points are numbered to make responses easier.

1. Let's start with the basics.  This image should not justify murder. 
It may be disrespectful and distasteful but in a free society, drawing and publishing such a picture should not carry a death sentence.  It also should not carry a fear of prison or fines or any such thing.  Possibly it will bring social penalties but that risk is up to the artist and publisher.
2. A free society depends on the ability to dispute, criticize and ridicule members of authority.  This can be messy but it's necessary.  As Voltaire said, 'To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.'  No person or institution is granted that position in a free society.
3. Not everyone agrees with the second point.  Here is Anjem Choudary in the US Today, writing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.
Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
That last sentence seems to say, 'they were warned and they had it coming'.
4. I have no idea how widespread this thought is among Muslims.  Obviously some millions of Muslims live in the US and other countries that share our notion of free speech.  The vast majority of them seem able to deal with the prospect that something personally precious to them may be ridiculed.  Hopefully Mr Choudary's viewpoint is held only by a tiny minority.
5. It would be good for us, and the world as a whole if we could help make that minority even smaller.  As J.S. Mill said, 'If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.'  We are better off with more and more speech, not less.  Even if that speech makes others uncomfortable or offended.
6. I don't know how good of a job we do really explaining the concept of 'free speech' to the rest of the world.  Of late, we've done a really terrible job of explaining that a commitment to free speech means that listeners just might hear some terrible things.  You might hear things that make you conclude that the speaker is a terrible human being.  You might hear things that make you angry.  You might hear things that make you feel a little sick inside.  Freedom isn't always pretty.
7. What's the alternative?  The only way of avoiding all of the bad stuff is to wall off sections of speech.  This means (per Voltaire's point) figuring out who is in charge and must not be criticized.  It also means (per Mill's point) that minority points of view must be silenced.  An adult society rejects those choices and deals with the possibility of being offended.
8. So how do we communicate this to those who aren't convinced?  By being steadfast in our defense of allowing people to talk.  If someone makes art that is anti-X, we stand up and defend their ability to do so.  We stop looking for ways to tell each other to 'shut up'.  That means terms like 'micro-aggression, mansplaining and privilege' should be used to open up avenues of conversation, not bring it to a halt.  It means a rather thorough reexamination of the concept of 'hate speech'.  Any time we are telling someone else that they must shut up, we give credence to the arguments of someone like Mr Choudary and his belief that people should stop talking in ways that bring him offense.
9. None of this should be taken as saying that people shouldn't criticize speech that they don't agree with.  If you see obscene art, tell the artist and gallery that you find it offensive.  If you read sentiments you disagree with, talk back and explain why you disagree.  This may get messy and loud.  So be it.  That's better than the alternative.
10. Of course, another way of dealing with offensive art and the like is to simply roll your eyes and ignore it.  This is another way that mature, pluralistic societies work together.  They avoid the worst arguments with a sort of 'live and let live' attitude.  We could use more of that.  We'd be better off if we could comfortably go to a restaurant even if we disagreed with the politics of the owner.  We'd be better off if bakers could simply bake cakes without worrying whether they were topped by two brides or two grooms.
11. Large numbers of people can live together with other people who say and do things that they find disagreeable.  We've proved that.  We should be exporting these ideas to any of the rest of the world that will listen to them.