Communism, political Islam, and resistance

Yesterday in a post about the Uighurs wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, I made an allusion to U.S. Cold War policies toward anti-colonial movements in developing nations, which I want to explore further today:

And the United States in particular needs to stop lumping together every rural Muslim male with a gun as an “Islamic terrorist.” It’s not a helpful approach to the conflicts from southeast Europe to northwest China and everywhere south of that (including much of Africa now). It’s just as bad as our refusal to make nuanced distinctions among different Communist-affiliated nationalist independence movements in Africa and Asia during the Cold War.
We’ve heard this before, after World War II, when the United States decided to fight pro-American independence groups like the Viet Minh because of their Communist alignment, instead of embracing fellow anti-colonialists.

In hindsight, many American intellectuals can see that there were alliances to be made, which we rejected to our detriment. But even today, a lot of people — particularly on the conservative end of foreign policy — are still refusing to make the distinctions.

We saw this come up a few weeks ago in discussions over the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The Cold War mentality produced a lot of tangled, unlikely, and unfortunate alliances all around, for both the Americans and the Soviets. Nelson Mandela, while not a communist himself, was willing to work with communists who shared his core principles of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and often (but not always) a unitary nationalism.

The United States ought to have joined in that approach, rather than siding with the crazed white supremacist regime that Mandela was resisting. But we couldn’t see past the communist involvement in the movement.

Why communism?

The reality of the situation in much of the developing world after World War II was that the communists were often the best organized members of the wider nationalist independence movements in those nations. And their affiliation with the independence movements — while sort of contrary to original Marxian views that all borders, boundaries, and national divisions were lies intended to divide the global working classes and turn them against each other — was not a huge surprise, given the influences of Lenin on 20th century communism around the world.

Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, certainly had a range of terrible policies as a leader. But before he became a dictator, he was a key contributor to communist theory.

Perhaps his biggest contribution was toward explaining the merger of colonial economics and political imperialism. When other thinkers were still purely obsessed with overthrowing industrial governments in Europe, Lenin was actually raising pointed criticisms of colonialism and explaining how the extractive relationship was harming poor and working class people both in the colonized and colonizer nations.

(The low-cost or enslaved labor of colonized nations, Lenin felt, had made possible the manufacture of so many cheap goodies back home in the colonial powers that The People in those countries were content enough not to rise up. He further argued that colonialism was just one tool of a global financial system geared toward big business capitalism and that it provided the cheap, raw resources necessary to fuel the wealth accumulation of the industrialists’ growing mega-companies. Lenin wanted to cut the legs out from under the big capitalists and spur their European workers to rise up, and neither development was helping.)

So the Soviet Union, despite what was essentially its own colonization of the outer periphery of the former Russian Empire, ended up expending a lot of energy and resources in aiding independence movements in developing regions. The deal was that you would get help in exchange for becoming a communist and pledging to support the Soviet Union.

And so it was that many activists in the developing world joined communist movements out of a sense that Lenin’s theories and Soviet assistance offered the best route to political and economic independence for their home countries.

More broadly, they also saw communism as a way toward a more egalitarian and inclusive society than the divide-and-conquer political strategies of the occupying powers and the economic inequality they were fostering as they created ruling elites, whether white or native.

The Soviet Union, while actually quite socially progressive compared to much of the West at the time, was of course deeply flawed in many ways and extremely brutal at times.

But from the perspective of someone already living under a brutal, unequal, and impoverished colonial occupation (or post-colonial system like the apartheid regime in South Africa), it makes sense to consider communism as a way out.

Communism was offering colonized and occupied peoples self-determination, a path toward industrialization, and the promise of widely distributed and improved living standards that were probably higher than what colonialism and apartheid were offering. Even if the improvements communism could achieve might be less than what well-regulated and politically free market-capitalism might have been able to achieve, neither of those — simply put — were on offer under colonial and white supremacist rule. So communism would have looked pretty good at that point.

Rebuffing potential friends

Even so, many communists in emerging nations during their independence and early post-colonial movements actually tried to befriend the United States because they saw it as a freer alternative to following the Soviet model and they believed Americans — who had thrown off mercantilist colonial rule first and held certain truths to be self-evident for all men — would be sympathetic to the struggles of people who wanted freedom from colonialism, national independence, and upward social mobility for all.

Unfortunately, Americans were often too blinded by ideological taxonomies — and, of course, concerns over maintaining business interests of American multinational firms in developing nations. This resulted in classifying everyone as Red or Not-Red, even if that meant opposing friendly movements that identified as predominantly communist during their resistance phase against oppressive colonial and post-colonial regimes.

It also often meant supporting brutally undemocratic regimes who happened to identify as anti-communist, usually because that country’s main national opposition was communist or because pitching one’s self as a guardian of American business and political interests was a convenient means of acquiring military aid to suppress one’s populations.

Nelson Mandela wasn’t communist himself. But in the communists, he saw brothers-in-arms who shared many of the same beliefs and were willing to help oppose the apartheid regime of the Afrikaner white minority rulers. The United States was ambivalent toward the regime at the best of times and actively refused to oppose the apartheid government at the worst of times.

Rather the criticizing these past associations as we consider the passing of Mandela, Americans should reflect on how ideological blinders have warped our global relations in past eras and what we can do to ensure we are helping the right people and not helping the wrong people in future.

The more we provide help to those who need it and the less we offer aid and comfort to oppressive regimes, the less likely people will be to join radical and violent movements or to associate with movements and ideologies we consider harmful.

The United States must lead by example, not lecture, and must help economically and politically oppressed populations wherever we can.

The challenge today

With the end of the Cold War and the fizzling of many of the remaining “communist” movements in the developing world, “communism” is no longer the source of dangerous American foreign policy conflations. These days, as I suggested in my earlier post, the United States needs to do a better job of making distinctions between resistance movements that use political Islam as a convenient and unifying force against their oppressors or poor living conditions (but which do not pose a threat to the United States and likely don’t even oppose us) and those movements that use an extremist twisting of Islam as part of a delusional plan for a “global caliphate” or whatever.

The latter are angry, unemployed young men who have heard too many conspiracy theories explaining their circumstances and just want to watch the world burn. The former are also dissatisfied with present conditions and see the organized structure and shared identity of political Islam as a means of reorganizing a society away from corrupt and failed rule that benefits a few and toward a system that distributes benefits to the needy and provides basic social services as well as law and order. Some in that category also see a need to incorporate the militarism of early Islam as a motivating force to overthrow the status quo whether it derives from bad local/domestic leadership, a distant and unrepresentative central government (as in Russia or China), or foreign occupation. But this doesn’t automatically mean anti-Western/anti-American views. It’s just one type of response to local conditions.

We shouldn’t be the arbiters of the right to armed resistance oppression, but we do need to recognize who is resisting their oppressive local circumstances — poverty, corruption, occupation, inequality, dictatorship — and isn’t just trying to burn down everything for the sake of it. Between alienating moderate Islamist political parties and frequently blowing up civilians accidentally in predominantly Muslim nations because they might be near someone with a gun, we’re doing pretty badly on that front right now. And again, we don’t need to arbitrate the issue of whose armed resistance is most legitimate if we are pursuing policies that support liberation of all oppressed populations and encourage non-violent solutions.

Unlike with the past “threat” of “global communism,” there are way more people today who identify as Muslim than those who identified as communist at its peak. Learning to employ and display a nuanced understanding of who the real enemies are — the dangerous radicals who seek global revolution, chaos, and general violence — will be crucial to earning trust and good will from a large portion of the planet, whether they live under oppressive or free governments.

Last Uighurs released from Guantanamo; Here’s what to know

central-asiaIn 2001, during the opening weeks of the War in Afghanistan, the United States military — partly coming in alongside Taliban arch-rivals the “Northern Alliance” — got to experience firsthand the deeply complex and fluid border regions of (and surrounding) northern Afghanistan, which are far more vaguely defined in reality than on maps. The wider region remains home to a multitude of different ethnic groups, religions, languages, and cultures. Some of these populations are still semi-nomadic and many, at the very least, don’t constrain themselves reliably to the modern borders of the countries.

“East Turkestan”

One of the places (just barely) bordering northern Afghanistan is China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Xinjiang, sometimes formerly known as Chinese or East Turkestan, is China’s largest administrative area. It is located in northwest China, north of the Tibet region, and it shares borders with several former Soviet Republics, plus Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Xinjiang is nearly evenly split between China’s overall majority ethnic group the Han and the ethnic minority Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs) — who are the largest ethnicity in the Xinjian region, a situation which is highly unusual for Chinese minority ethnic groups nationwide.

Uighurs argue (probably correctly) that they are an oppressed minority in China. The Communist Party, in return, doesn’t trust them, both because they are dissimilar from the rest of the country and because they actively waged an Islamic insurgency during the 1950s against the People’s Republic of China. This rebellion was nominally in support of their Nationalist allies, who had fled to Taiwan after the end of the Chinese Civil War at the end of the 1940s, but was of course largely motivated by a desire for self-rule after many generations of outside domination.

In fact, Uighur support for the Nationalists was a rare exception to their historic trend of generally resisting all outsiders, including a Soviet invasion in 1934, the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and various Chinese dynasties that attempted to assert control over the area throughout history.

They are, essentially, another of the many small and diverse warrior cultures of Central Asia, which we’ve seen in action in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the past decade — except that they happen to fall within China, on the map, as opposed to one of the “Stans.” And indeed they are more closely related to the ethnic groups in those areas than to the rest of China, which is one of the sources of conflict.

The population, as is true of much of the Western half of China (outside of Tibet), is heavily Muslim. As a result — and due to its borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan — they have been somewhat accidentally caught up in the Global War on Terror.

Wrong place, wrong time

During the confusion of the initial invasion of Afghanistan and efforts to catch those responsible for 9/11, the U.S. military rapidly detained a lot of people suspected of possible al Qaeda involvement and shipped them to the Guantanamo Bay military base in the U.S. exclave in Cuba.

Among them were 22 Chinese-born men who are ethnically Uighur and were living in exile in Afghanistan or the surrounding countries when U.S. special forces arrived in late 2001. Some of the Uighur detainees admitted involvement in the anti-Beijing “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” separatist group, which China considers to be a terrorist organization.

Beyond the specific detainees in Guantanamo Bay, some of the activists for Xinjiang’s independence are indeed associated with so-called “Islamic terrorism,” but this is arguably a new cosmetic face of a much longer resistance against Beijing. (As an aside, there’s a compelling case to be made that the same is true for the “Islamic terrorism” once again rocking the Caucasus region of Russia, in that Islam has become the latest face of a much longer resistance against a distant capital that favors a different ethnic group.)

It’s certainly true that some Uighurs have taken up arms once more against the Chinese government in the past couple decades, and many of those fighters have even gone to militant training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there’s still not much evidence that this is due to any desire for global jihad against the West, rather than due to convenience with so many nearby “experts” in the waging of modern insurgency.

Moreover, in terms of the detainees in Guantanamo, many were simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, while living as exiles outside China. None of those Uighurs who were taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2001, it seems, were associated with or particularly sympathetic toward al Qaeda.

Amazingly, this fact was determined by the government as early as 2003, a full decade ago. Yet, because the United States could not repatriate them to China due to their likely status as anti-governmental rebels, all the men were still in detention by 2008, when a judge finally ruled that the United States had to find new homes for them.

Suggestions of moving them to the United States — including to Newton, Massachusetts, where some of their defense lawyers lived (which seems to me like a pretty solid recommendation of their characters even after having been held for years without charge) — were universally met with unreasonable howls of terror by Americans.

Gradually, some of them were resettled in various countries around the world — usually through expensive deals with the U.S. government for various goodies, in part to offset diplomatic or economic retribution from China for agreeing to take in anti-Chinese rebels.

But it was not until the final day of 2013 that the United States finally released the last three Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay, to Slovakia, one of the six host countries. A full twenty of them were only released in the last eighteen months — again, despite having been cleared of involvement with al Qaeda back in 2003.

Rethinking Muslim insurgencies

China is no doubt still very upset that the United States didn’t just hand over “their” ethnic minorities for punishment, particularly after Uighur militants recently staged a suicide car-bomb attack in Beijing’s Forbidden City at one of the Communist Party’s biggest symbols in the country: the huge picture of Mao.

But perhaps China should consider a different strategy to end resistance in Xinjiang, much as the United States needs to change its approach to counterterrorism in Central and Southwest Asia. Addressing the root causes of discontent — often ultimately economic more than inherently identity-based — and returning autonomous or sovereign political control to various oppressed minority populations would go much further than endless military campaigns that cost many lives and a lot of money but never truly end resistance.

And the United States in particular needs to stop lumping together every rural Muslim male with a gun as an “Islamic terrorist.” It’s not a helpful approach to the conflicts from southeast Europe to northwest China and everywhere south of that (including much of Africa now). It’s just as bad as our refusal to make nuanced distinctions among different Communist-affiliated nationalist independence movements in Africa and Asia during the Cold War.

In fact, as we heard in 2004 from one detainee, we might be missing out on opportunities to make new friends:

One of the Uighurs held at Guantanamo went before a special tribunal on Friday to argue that he was not an unlawful enemy combatant and should not have been arrested in Afghanistan and kept in the detention camp here. The man, a 33-year-old with an artificial left leg, told the military panel that he was not an enemy of the United States and that he hoped America would one day help the Uighur independence movement.

We’ve heard this before, after World War II, when the United States decided to fight pro-American independence groups like the Viet Minh because of their Communist alignment, instead of embracing fellow anti-colonialists.

Unfortunately, as with recent terrorist attacks in Russia, the U.S. media is already beating the war drums to label the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in China and Central Asia a major threat to the United States, even though they have nothing to do with us and aren’t opposed to us.

Let us hope that the United States government will be chastened, at least briefly, by its grave mistake with the Uighurs we picked up in Afghanistan 12 years ago.

Supreme Court: 6th Amendment optional again

First an overview — here’s the full text of the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (emphasis added to relevant sections for this post):

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The U.S. Senate website handily provides a plain-English summary of the modern rights derived from this amendment. One of them is that:

Defendants in criminal cases are entitled to public trials that follow relatively soon after initiation of the charges.

This is intended to make sure that people aren’t jailed indefinitely without charges or a trial, as well as to minimize the risk of keeping innocent people in jail for years before a jury can get them freed.

The other key right to note is the right to have legal counsel help a defendant with his or her defense, a right which was extended to apply to state cases through the 14th Amendment (which imposes the U.S. Bill of Rights onto every state).

The Supreme Court first applied this latter part to state cases in a (possibly inadvertently) narrow ruling in Powell v. Alabama (1932), in which they found that in capital cases — ones where the death penalty was on the table — defendants must have access to their lawyers to plan a defense.

But defendants in non-capital cases were not really covered in that opinion, and low-income defendants in general were left to fend for themselves in obtaining counsel until a much later decision in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the subject of the film “Gideon’s Trumpet.” In that case, the court ruled that states had to provide (i.e. pay for) legal counsel for those who did not have their own lawyers, in order to fulfill the spirit of the 6th Amendment requirement, even if they weren’t actively denying access to counsel.

With everything that was going on earlier this year, I completely missed a horrid new Supreme Court ruling which functionally wipes out the public defender right found in Gideon v. Wainwright — as well as the right to a speedy trial. Granted, the public defender system wasn’t close to being a smoothly operating system to begin with, but the Supreme Court effectively announced there won’t be consequences for blatant violations, so it’s just up to the good will of the local governments to follow through.

In this case, a man in Louisiana was not given a trial for seven years, which is by no means a “speedy trial.” When he sued, the state admitted in the lower courts that the reason for the delay was on them and their failure to adequately fund and provide him legal representation. Later, during appeals, they tried to retract this admission and lay the fault on the defendant, saying he had repeatedly delayed the trial. Seven years is an awfully long time, and it’s hard to imagine a defendant trying to delay his own trial for that long — unless perhaps he understood that it was the only way to ensure he actually received some kind of representation.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court said the State of Louisiana didn’t need to provide any compensation for the defendant for failure to provide a speedy trial and didn’t really punish it for failure to shore up its clearly inadequate public defender system.

And so it was that five justices decided this year that there don’t really need to be consequences for states who don’t execute the requirements laid forth in Gideon v. Wainwright. And that’s a problem — because the whole point of that decision was that failure to provide legal counsel to a defendant who doesn’t have his own, due to circumstance, translates in practical terms to failure to uphold his 6th Amendment right “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

So now, after this ruling, what incentive do states have to maintain their public defender systems? Not much. Because there are also no consequences now for failing to provide a speedy trial, states can maintain the illusion of not denying access to counsel by just indefinitely postponing a trial.

The only likely consequence of that is the cost of imprisoning the defendants. But most states probably figure these people would go to prison anyway after their almost inevitable plea bargains, arranged by their hurried public defenders, and so that’s a wash. Plus, given the number of states heavily reliant on for-profit prisons and detention centers — who provide a lot of campaign cash to judges and legislators — there’s even less incentive to speed up the process.

I miss the old Supreme Court rulings when they still understood the difference between a literal interpretation of text and an interpretation that factors in functionality and real-world practice. Without a public defender, if you’re poor and can’t afford a lawyer, you don’t get “Assistance of Counsel.” That’s the real-world reason we have public defenders now in state cases.

Think of the moment on all those crime procedural shows when the low-income suspect (whether guilty or innocent) clams up during interrogation and asks for a lawyer. Earlier in the episode, of course, we probably saw the person get a warning (during their arrest) that they have the right to an attorney — and that if they cannot afford one, one will be appointed for them. So, on paper, we know and the character knows that they can ask for an attorney to be present during questioning. At that point, the detective character will usually say something about how the defendant should just answer the questions now to save the time and trouble of waiting for hours before the public defender shows up.

Because, off paper, this is how it really works. Nobody wants to sit around silently in an interrogation room for hours, so they start talking without their constitutionally-guaranteed counsel assisting them. Even if they’re actually innocent, they will probably say something that can (and will) be used against them in a court of law.

Now imagine that instead of it taking a few hours to see a lawyer, the public defender doesn’t show up to provide assistance until seven YEARS later. That’s not a 44 minute TV episode. This is the problem the country faces today. If you can’t afford your own lawyer, that’s just too bad for you, because it’s totally luck of the draw on whether and how fast you’ll ever see one.

The system needs to work better than this, and there ought to be consequences for states for being so lax about upholding their end of the deal that it doesn’t do the job it was created to do. But the Supreme Court doesn’t see it that way. As long as you eventually get a lawyer, even years later, a majority of the Supreme Court feels that your right to counsel has been met. And don’t even ask about a speedy trial. If you had wanted that, you should have waived your right to counsel and pled guilty.

Op-Ed: Chinese Peacekeepers in Africa?

Excerpt from my latest op-ed on the need for Chinese peacekeepers in South Sudan:

China has long been a major, if quiet, contributor of troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world. In the violent aftermath of an alleged attempted coup this week in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, the time is ripe to think about changing that stance. As China rises in world status, it must also take on more global responsibilities.

The United Nations mission in South Sudan reported that 400-500 people were killed in street battles and crossfire, within the first two days alone. As many as 20,000 civilians may have sought refuge on UN bases in the country.

South Sudan became independent from the rest of Sudan by referendum in 2011, and its strongest foreign partner is China. That country buys 82% of South Sudan’s oil exports and provides infrastructural development investments. Indeed, China was a major player in securing the peaceful partition of Sudan last decade, as the largest trading partner of both states.

First Amendment refresher (Duck Dynasty edition)

I don’t really know what “Duck Dynasty” is or who the guy in question is, but that’s not really going to be the point of the post. Other people have already done more than enough to critique his highly problematic comments to GQ, which ran the gamut from revisionist racism to antisemitism to homophobia. I’ll leave it to those folks to tackle the content of the remarks.

I’m more interested in the crazed reaction by some U.S. conservatives to the man’s indefinite suspension from his TV show as a result of his bigoted statements.

In particular, comments from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — who seems far too eager to embrace this hateful man as a fellow Louisianan — caught my attention because of how wildly misguided they were. Jindal referred to the suspension as a messed up situation.” He added:

“In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.”

Setting aside the weirdly off-base comparison to tasteless (and appropriative) but not crazily bigoted performance by Cyrus earlier this year, we immediately arrive at the straw man claim implying that TV networks don’t support the First Amendment anymore, but once did.

Let’s cross that argument off right away: the networks are not suppressing someone’s right to be heard — he got heard already, in GQ — and this isn’t a news program breaking news that the powers that be might want held under wraps. It’s an entertainment program and his comments weren’t really in line with the show’s core mission which I presume involves hunting ducks on reality television (or establishing a heritable leadership system based on duck lineages?). So that’s a misdirected argument.

Congress shall make no law

bill-of-rightsAnd now we arrive at the second argument, that the first amendment is being violated by suspending this man for his vile comments. This is, simply put, mind-bogglingly idiotic.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Curiously, it does not say, “Privately owned television companies must give everyone air time to say whatever they want to, without repercussions, and must not suspend any of their employees for expressing views the network disagrees with.”

Conservatives, Jindal among them, seem hell-bent on trying to convince everyone that “Freedom of Speech” under the Bill of Rights means anyone has the right to say anything, anywhere, at any time, with zero consequences or rebuttal.

Most frequently, of course, we hear this trotted out in opposition to “political correctness” — the closet bigot’s disparaging term for showing a modicum of sympathy toward others’ feelings and life experiences. Despite the extreme comments made by this Duck Dynasty guy, he’s getting the same defensive treatment, even though government is nowhere to be seen in the equation.

For whatever reason, conservatives are under the mistaken impression that if you say something, whether it be factually wrong or socially offensive, no one is allowed to correct you or dismiss you due to the First Amendment. In fact, as is quite obvious from the text of the amendment, the only party restricted from limiting your free speech is the government. Everyone else is free to respond and even punish you, if in a position to do so.

This is not a mistake or loophole. This is very intentional in the design of the amendment and its subsequent interpretation by many a Federal jurist.

Balancing act

There are essentially three factors to be balanced on the issue of freedom of expression in any scenario. It’s impossible to accommodate all three fully, and so we weigh them against each other, as a society, for both general purposes and specific cases. These factors are:

  1. Your ability to express your belief/opinion
  2. Your expression’s security consequences
  3. Your expression’s consequences for other people’s rights

The first factor is always present. Usually only one of the other two is a major consideration at a time, in specific cases.

The second is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the one about whether government can restrict your expression/speech if it will endanger the public. We weigh that factor based on how immediate the threat is, what kind of danger would arise from it, etc.

While it’s not very common here in legal cases, other liberal democracies have placed great weight on the third point. Europe, for example, has many laws against hate speech. The premise is that hate speech does not occur in a vacuum, but rather within a cultural context, and is very damaging — mentally, emotionally, etc. — to the targeted population. Hate speech, by this reasoning, is thus an infringement of the rights of others to be left alone and not be psychologically abused by horrible bigots constantly.

Therefore, those societies have empowered their governments to restrict freedom of speech in the areas of hate speech and other inflammatory categories. They believe that government is the best vehicle for curbing such speech and maintaining social harmony.

Marketplace of ideas

In contrast, the United States has developed a much more libertarian approach to freedom of speech, based on the 18th century ethos of the Framers. They believed in concepts like the marketplace of ideas, where viewpoints could be traded on a free exchange. Early concepts from Adam Smith’s late 18th century work on the study of economics and trade came to be seen as apt metaphors for how ideas circulate.

So just like competition allows some providers of goods & services to rise to the top in real markets, the libertarian view on speech says that the best solution to problems like hate speech is to let it compete freely with counter-speech — rather than government intervening as regulators — and the rationality and supremacy of less horrid counter-speech will prevail.

Thus, if the public responds angrily to some idiot’s hateful comments, this is not an infringement of free speech. It is the system “working” according to the American principles of how the intellectual free market is supposed to work.

In pure free market economics, if people vote with their wallets against one company’s product, it’s meant to fail. Likewise, if people vote with their wallets against a TV network keeping someone on the air and the network pulls that person, it means that that person has failed. The free market has spoken.

Saying that a network shouldn’t pull someone for expressing hate speech because it’s counter to American ideals of freedom of expression is completely wrong. Saying it’s counter to the First Amendment is just totally irrelevant as well as being wrong.

The system worked

We can and should have a debate at some point about whether our “marketplace of ideas” approach to hate speech is really the best course — it does take a pretty severe toll on the minority and disempowered populations who take the brunt of the hate, in contrast with the comfortable intellectual exchange between unoppressed white, straight, cis males — but for the moment, this is the system we have and, in this case at least, it more or less worked as intended.

But it only works if the public is allowed to do its job and shoot down and de-fund terrible hatemongers to punish them for their views. When someone gets suspended or fired by the private sector for expressing hateful views publicly, that’s the outcome we’re supposed to see. That’s not a “messed up situation.” That’s the enforcement mechanism.

Freedom of speech in the United States just means the government (usually) can’t tell you to be quiet. It has never meant freedom to say stupid things without consequences.

When old-school propaganda meets the internet age

The irony of the internet age and the rise of social media under autocratic states is that it not only hasn’t brought an end to traditional replacement-of-reality-with-alternate-reality propaganda (à la the Soviet Union’s totalitarian media) and toppled all the dictators, but it has actually provided new opportunities for some of the propagandists. Propaganda is not just co-existing but flourishing, at the moment, even in places with ample internet access.

Person of the Year

Case in point: Egyptian government propagandists on state-run and pro-coup television were so eager to promote their new dictator, General Sisi, that they convinced everyone that Egyptians could control the outcome of TIME magazine’s person of the year selection and ordered them all to vote for him in the magazine’s online reader poll — which has no affect on the final choice for the magazine (which the editors pick). More Egyptians voted in the global internet poll, open to anyone, than the number of Americans or Indians who voted. Then when General Sisi won that reader poll, Egyptian media produced a fake cover of TIME and reported (falsely of course) that he had been officially chosen by the magazine as Person of the Year.


Obviously, given their easy access to outside media, most internet-using Egyptians are probably well aware of the distinction, whether or not they voted for him in the poll. It’s worth remembering, however, that a lot of Egyptians still get their news from television media and, unlike their Twitter-savvy brethren, aren’t necessarily exposed to alternate sources of information. So if the TV says TIME magazine picked their nation’s leader as the global Person of the Year, and shows a cover to prove it, then they might not know otherwise.

American TV News

Television is by nature an authoritative, one-way medium that many viewers can’t contradict or fact-check easily (and tend not to, even if they can). Thus, propagandists can exert a heavy influence without much to challenge them. And in the modern era, they can couple it with the power of the internet rather than being undermined by it.

The Egypt story might seem provincial and irrelevant to us in the United States, but let’s not forget that a majority of Americans — particularly from the older generations — still get their news from television each day. The influence of TV news producers, while substantially more open to challenge in the United States than in Egyptian state media, is still a powerful force with a rigid narrative.

Viewers receive a narrow (partly by nature of the time-restricted format) and often repetitive message and are strongly encouraged to put their trust in the networks — local, national, or cable — that they are being told The Truth. Network brands are marketed like other products through heavy promotion. The promos urge people to maintain high brand loyalty to a particular delivery service of what is (theoretically) open information that should — if it’s really The Truth, as advertised — be more or less the same across brands.

The Fox Delusion

Fox News Channel, of course has taken this philosophy much further. They brag that they are the highest-rated cable news network … after years of convincing viewers — who skew older and count on television to be factually accurate — that the news world outside (except for right-wing talk radio, of course) is filled with lies and treachery, and that only Fox News Channel and its hosts’ radio shows are able to bring you The Truth. So everyone on the conservative end of the spectrum jumped on the bandwagon long ago and stayed put, resulting in its rise to the number one spot (while liberals split over a range of sources). For a regular viewer, adjusting that dial away from Fox News means being exposed to the “liberal media” conspiracy beyond.

Fox News Channel broadcasts are riddled with demonstrable errors — not just in analysis, but in basic statements of empirical, encyclopedic facts — as many a media fact-checking website has shown every day. Its viewers know better by now than to check outside the channel or its partners for the facts, though, so there is little danger they will be exposed to reality. When they go to vote in U.S. elections, they are doing so based on information received almost entirely if not solely from one news universe that has built all its analysis upon totally fabricated underlying facts. It’s not just skewed interpretations being delivered to viewers, but even foundational “facts” lacking in truth.

All this holds true even in an age of easy access to a literal world of factual information, via the internet. The internet, for a Fox viewer, instead of a source of contradicting reality, becomes a network of websites affiliated with Fox News or run by other devotees and like-minded ideologues.

Thus, as I have discussed extensively before, Fox News, right-wing talk radio, and the conservative blogosphere have established an entire unchallenged, closed-loop parallel universe of news “reality,” much in the way a totalitarian government’s state media would. And just as with Egyptian TV’s fake TIME magazine Person of the Year cover, Fox News Channel is able to propagate its elaborate fiction through traditional means, with help from the internet, rather than being genuinely subverted and exposed by the internet, as we might have expected.

What does the future hold?

The internet, social media, and freer access to information around the world will undoubtedly play a major role in opening societies and exposing fictions presented as news — and certainly the U.S. internet community has already been ripping apart fraudulent news stories in the traditional media for many years and forcing corrections (from outlets that aren’t trying to create a parallel reality).

But for the moment, at least, the rise of the internet is not the cure-all for propaganda, whether on U.S. cable or on authoritarian governments’ TV stations. The meeting of the internet and propaganda isn’t like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West. The narratives and fictional worlds of propagandists don’t dissolve instantly in the presence of access to information. But eventually, they will crumble.

The interim period will not be without consequences. How do people, including Egyptians or Fox News fans, react when confronted by the harsh light outside the cave? Ultimately this confrontation will inevitably occur, as it always has, despite the propagandists’ efforts to steer people to favorable sources. Whether the clash with reality occurs in the form of the loss of U.S. election if you were under the false impression that everyone agreed with the worldview Fox News nurtured in you, or in the form of realizing at newsstands in a few weeks that TIME magazine hasn’t put Dear Leader on the cover after all, people seem react in two ways.

The first reaction is turning in anger to wild conspiracy theories that explain the disjunction — i.e. that inscrutable minority forces must be controlling outcomes — and encourage extreme responses to “correct” the conspiracy — i.e. that the opposing faction must be destroyed. The second reaction is accepting that the propagandists have misled their audience about The Truth outside.

Sadly, many people find discovering themselves massively wrong or realizing they have been to duped to be extremely embarrassing or humiliating. (Being manipulated is something that happens to other people.) And so these people generally resist accepting they have been conned at all costs, even if it means embracing the extreme conspiracy theories and doubling down on their misguided beliefs. And that’s when the politics in a country get really scary.

Deja vu in Thailand and Ukraine

I think there are some pretty interesting parallels between the current wave of protests in Thailand and in Ukraine, as barricades are thrown up yet again in the capitals.

The central theme in both is a recurring cycling back and forth of two major political and economic factions under the same sets of leaders, reversed more by political upheaval than constitutionally-approved changes in government, without any sign of a permanent resolution.

In Thailand

After the 2006 military coup against the rural-backed, Red-led government, there was an uprising in 2008 by the Yellow faction and then another uprising in 2010 by the Red faction, which leads us to the current uprising (Yellow).

Commitment to democracy in Thailand is pretty low, in both the military and the urban middle class/business elites. (The latter are both generally aligned with the Yellow faction, against the Shinawatra family’s Red faction. The military and riot police tend to side with the Yellow faction but sometimes intervene against both sides.)

Then again, the Redshirt protestors in the capital’s downtown area in 2010 were basically attempting to lead an armed popular overthrow of the government and were only suppressed when the military decided to remain aligned with the Yellow-led government and cracked down. So, they’re no winners on the democratic values front either.

Now, it’s certainly not unheard of for political parties in developed democracies to have overt, semi-official, or informal party alignments based on class (middle class vs. populist poor) or geography (urban vs. rural and/or suburban), if not both. In fact, it’s probably the norm, if you look at the UK, Japan, France, the United States, etc.

But Thailand, which is still (clearly) not an established democracy, is probably taking the alignments a bit literally. That is despite the low likelihood that either side achieving total political control would result in any kind of social revolution of any serious depth.

But until they solve their political geography and class warfare problem — and until they get the military to stop intervening — Thailand isn’t going to break the endless cycle of totally unproductive but headline-grabbing popular uprisings. And for a country whose economy is heavily centered on tourism, the political situation for the last seven years has not been helpful to anyone.

Meanwhile in Ukraine…

I’m not going to comment on why Ukraine seems to capture more U.S. attention than Thailand, but it seems to. Anyway: Russian-aligned Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych recently ended efforts — initiated by his political opposition years ago and already on the skids anyway — to join the European Union, and announced plans to seek closer economic ties with Russia instead.

This triggered huge protests in the capital because the rival faction’s distaste for a foreign policy decision means it’s time to overthrow the government, again, it would seem. They are the largest protests seen since the late 2004 October Revolution.

I could well be wrong — and there are indeed a lot of dominoes falling inside his own government right now — but I suspect Yanukovych is secure in power, contrary to the excited Western reporting.

Ukraine has long been split between the pro-Russian side and the pro-European side (with high levels of animosity on both sides) and there have been plenty of protests on both sides with varying degrees of success since the USSR broke up in 1991. The pro-Russian side, largely concentrated toward the eastern end of the country, which borders the Russian Federation, is largely composed of ethnically Russian citizens, including President Yanukovych. They weren’t happy about the USSR’s collapse and fear(ed) reprisals.

The ethnic Russians fear reprisals because of the many terrible things the Russian Empire and especially the Russian-dominated Soviet central government perpetrated against the ethnic Ukrainian population, such as the Holodomor planned-starvation genocide under Stalin. The ethnic Ukrainian population is concentrated toward the western side of the country and has aligned itself with Europe, like many of the former Soviet satellites and postwar Soviet Republics (Ukraine is an interwar Soviet Republic).

So why is Yanukovych probably not going anywhere (or at least not anywhere far)? For one thing, it’s worth recalling right off the bat that while it’s true the last time we saw protests this big, in 2004, he was the one pushed to the side, the current protests exist because that uprising didn’t actually permanently get him out of the picture. If it had, he wouldn’t be in office now getting protested.

Much like the Thailand cycles discussed above, such is the rota fortunae of ex-Soviet Republic politics outside Russia: the same set of people cycling up and and down, facing Russia then Europe then back again. Lately we’ve seen the pro-Western/anti-Russian president of Georgia, who arrived in a parallel uprising in 2004, similarly finds his political fortunes fading as an opposing pro-Russian coalition rose to power. Other examples are strewn across the Central Asian ex-Soviet republics.

In Ukraine, it’s especially pronounced and more rapid. Current President (and target of protests) Viktor Yanukovych, as prime minister running for president, literally poisoned his opponent with dioxin in 2004 (see this 2006 photo of then-President Yushchenko’s face post-poison attempt), was kept out of the presidency by popular uprising, and then became prime minister again less than two years later. By early 2010 Yanukovych was elected president anyway, barely five years after the “Orange Revolution.”

But the second reason I don’t see him being flung from office is more specific to this situation: the Russians can do all sorts of things to bolster the Yanukovych government and blackmail the rest of the country into certain foreign and economic policy directions, while the EU can’t.

In contrast to the Russians, the European Union has offered very little and continues to be pretty powerless in helping the opposition. I have no idea what big plan they could suddenly float here, particularly given that Yanukovych is the democratically elected leader of Ukraine and, although repressive, isn’t just some guy who seized power and can be pressured from office. Unlike in 2004 when he tried to steal the election, he’s already in office, because he won. A lot of people don’t want him in office, but a lot of people definitely do. That’s the reality of the East/West split in Ukrainian politics and the citizenry.

Most of the EU’s offers to Ukraine are predicated upon Yanukovych first releasing political prisoners from his opposition, which isn’t going to happen by magic. Unfortunately, it’s not like they have much of a carrot or a stick to back that demand up, particularly since he never wanted a European alliance in the first place. Such demands only work when you have something the other person a) wants and b) can’t get elsewhere.

Now, as I said, I could be proven totally wrong here on the outcome of this latest round of protests, but the excitement of first-person POV camera phone shots doesn’t always translate to political reality.

And, even if Yanukovych falls from power again, he’ll probably be right back on top within 5 years. Ukraine won’t solve any of this for real until they solve their East/West Russia/Ukraine divide. The EU would probably me more useful to Ukraine if it made an effort to bridge this divide and bring everyone together so they can compete democratically and constitutionally for power, without endless recriminations and fear of sudden, repressive policy shifts one way or the other.