Sochi: Imperial Russian minority deportation center

Circassian-WarriorIn addition to the much more contemporary mass slaughter of ethnic Chechens by the Russian Federation (and earlier waves of deadly internal deportations by the Soviet Union), there’s the simple, horrifying reality that the Sochi Olympics are being held pretty much at ground zero of a 19th century genocide/mass expulsion.
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Italy still not on board with democracy, really

italian-republic-emblemAnother ten months, another failed Italian prime minister. The next prime minister is expected to be the Mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi of the ruling Democrat Party, who has been summoned to the presidential palace to see about trying to cobble together a new governing majority coalition and cabinet.

Because, as you may have realized from the above, he’s not actually a member of parliament, he will presumably be proclaimed a “Senator-for-Life,” the appointed position granted to Mario Monti at the end of 2011 so he could become Prime Minister. Under the constitution, the President can appoint anyone to the Senate and then invite them to form a cabinet as prime minister. It’s more or less undemocratic, but it’s constitutional.

Monti, a former career EU official at the time with no elected experience, proceeded to select a cabinet composed entirely of other non-elected “technocrats” (apolitical experts), so he could enact austerity measures. He was succeeded by the now-outgoing Enrico Letta, just last year, after losing an election. Letta wasn’t exactly elected either by the country, but he was at least an elected member of parliament who managed to form a majority from within his fellow members across the three largest parties.

He was brought down by a no confidence vote Mayor Renzi instigated last week. Both Letta and Renzi are Democratic Party members but Renzi took control of the party leadership in December 2013 and didn’t feel like waiting his turn — or even being elected to parliament first.

Post-World War II Italian politics have been increasingly wracked by instability due to having several major parties in parliament — usually 3 or 4 at a time — often with strong geographic alignments in the second tier parties. This all adds up to no one party usually being able to form a majority and certainly not one that can survive no confidence votes easily.
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Abolition of Russian serfdom vs Abolition of US Slavery

It seems like the emancipation of 23 million serfs in Russia in 1861 was a lot better organized and planned out than the emancipation/abolition of U.S. slaves during the American Civil War happening at the same time. In part, this difference would likely have stemmed from the fact that the Imperial Russian government could act by fiat and receive compliance. Moreover, the serf-holding landowners in Russia were way more indebted/obligated toward their government (than the already literally rebelling Southern American slaveholders) and thus couldn’t resist such a decision from the central government.

But, more importantly, the committee that planned the Russian emancipation also did a lot of theorizing on how to handle emancipated serfs in a manner that didn’t trap them on old lands and gave them some economic opportunities. Freed serfs didn’t exactly get 40 acres and a mule either — and it was still a pretty bumpy outcome — but it was a lot closer to a comprehensive and effective dismantling of the system in a responsible manner. The U.S. approach seems to have ended up at “you’re free now, problem solved. ok, next thing on the agenda,” which immediately led to slavery-by-another-name practices like abusive sharecropping contracts.

President Lincoln was elected by a pro-abolition party (even though that wasn’t personally his primary or even secondary campaign plank). Many of his generals repeatedly tried to brainstorm and implement measures — such as the aforementioned, abortive 40 acres land grants proposal — to deal with the slaves encountered in the South while suppressing the rebellion (and he objected to all of them). So obviously, in spite of (and because of) the Civil War going on at the time, a lot of people in the United States were thinking about this issue on some level.

I would have hoped somebody in the Republican Party or government or military would have at least had a working group on implementation of abolition. After all, this wasn’t a foreign concept because the northern states already had plenty of experience with dismantling their slave-inclusive economies with relatively minimal disruption. Yes, they consistently had fewer slaves, but they still figured out something that worked. So the information and ideas needed to plan for this eventuality — foreshadowed as early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — should absolutely have been there by 1861.

But instead, U.S. abolition was implemented chaotically and indecisively over the 1860s, with little plan for what to do with/for all the freed people, and with little enforcement (especially after the removal of Federal troops at the end of Reconstruction) to prevent abuses.

Letter: Discrimination in St. Patrick’s Day parade

ireland-flagI submitted this letter to the editor of the Boston Globe last week — I don’t think they published it — regarding this story, which has been brewing for quite some time.

It’s absurd in 2014 that the organizers of the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade are still trying to block open LGBTQ participation. The day is an annual cultural and community tradition, and one certainly long-separated from any religious aspect. The parade aims to celebrate one of Boston’s communities – Irish-Americans – that, like every ethnic community, has LGBTQ members within it. The organizers are telling their own community that not everyone is welcome to be proud of their ethnic heritage. LGBTQ people have always been with us and aren’t going away. Every poll indicates that’s ok with about 9 in 10 Bay Staters. Rather than representing an integral part of Boston, the parade organizers have proven themselves deeply unrepresentative. (As an Irish-American, I certainly don’t feel represented by them.) Instead, they prattle on about “wrong messages” like it’s 1980. Get with the times. If you’re going to host a public parade on city streets, with city facilitation, then no discriminating against any of the city’s residents. The organizers should be ashamed of themselves.

 
While it’s perhaps not my primary self-identity, I am, in fact, old-school Irish-American. Pre-Potato Famine. My first Irish ancestor arrived during the American Revolution to help fight the British, who were still repressively occupying Ireland at the time. He fought in the Battle of Bennington in upstate New York. I don’t take kindly to people trying to suppress other people’s freedoms and identities, particularly when it’s coming from Irish-Americans, who’ve faced their share of terrible discrimination and should do better.

American History: A bloody coup in the U.S.

wilmingtonpress_540-2bf0830e2573b95312f000c316a44a5c57c107a2One of the reasons we have a month set aside to celebrate and remember Black History is because unfortunately the teaching of American History tends to leave it out the rest of the time (which is also why there’s never been a need for a White History Month). However, just because it isn’t taught doesn’t mean it’s unimportant or that it doesn’t count. Here’s one historical event I want to talk about today because — sad to say — I only just recently learned of it myself.

Did you know there was once a bloody coup d’état within the borders of continental United States?
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Replacing the War Powers Act

Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) want to get rid of the War Powers Act — slogan: “Consistently Ignored by Presidents Since 1973!” — and replace it with something that might actually work and better reflect realities of U.S. military operations today. Here’s the Wikipedia summary of the existing law, which officially is called the “War Powers Resolution of 1973“:

The War Powers Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war. The resolution was passed by two-thirds of Congress, overriding a presidential veto.

 
The failed presidential veto was by Richard Nixon, the year before his resignation, but Congress was responding to significant public outrage about the secret, unauthorized bombings in Cambodia during the Vietnam War — which, while authorized by Congress, had also never been declared. (In fact, the last formal Declaration of War was part of World War II.)

Although it’s no surprise that Nixon rejected the legitimacy of the law — given his unusually heightened aversion to the legitimacy of applying any law to the U.S. Presidency — every president since then (except for possibly one incident in 1975 under President Ford, who had fairly recently been elevated directly from and by the legislative branch to the White House via the resignations of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon) has also officially refused to acknowledge its constitutionality as a general principle.

Even so, to be on the safe side, presidents have generally unofficially adhered to it by providing the proper notice to Congress more or less as a “courtesy” without acknowledging the resolution as the reason. A few instances are disputed as to whether this notice was provided. Congress has never been able to successfully enforce the resolution or end any conflicts with it, and the Supreme Court won’t get into the middle of that inter-branch fight.

Tim Kaine essentially feels this situation is absurd, as well as out of date, and he wants a compromise that preserves the ability of the executive to act quickly when necessary but also preserves the rights of Congress to have a say and maintain accountability. From the ThinkProgress article (linked above):

Rather than only having to notify Congress after launching military action, Kaine and McCain want the force presidents to consult with legislators prior to sending U.S. soldiers, sailors, and pilots into harm’s way.

Under current law, the president has to notify Congress whenever placing forces in areas where “imminent” hostilities are likely, and is given a sixty-day window to conduct the operation absent Congressional approval and another thirty-days allotted towards withdrawal. The new proposal would reduce that autonomy, requiring the Executive Branch to “consult with Congress before ordering deployment into a ‘significant armed conflict,’ or, combat operations lasting, or expected to last, more than seven days.”

That provision would exclude humanitarian missions and covert operations, and the initial consultation could be deferred in time of emergency, but must take place within three days after. The legislation would also raise a new joint committee composed of the heads of the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, and Appropriations in both Houses of Congress “to ensure there is a timely exchange of views between the legislative and executive branches, not just notification by the executive.”

Finally, the law, if passed and signed, would require a vote in Congress in support of or against any military operation within 30 days.

 
Now is a relatively good time to try to introduce such a revision, not too long after an angry Congress (and a well-timed revolt in the UK parliament) managed to talk down the Obama Administration from launching a major air campaign in Syria, proving that Congress still had at least a shred of influence on U.S. military actions after more than two decades of rubber-stamping.

But, in 2008, the Obama Campaign more or less signaled their opposition to a similar proposal. While unfortunate, this is not a huge surprise. Most presidents (or presidential hopefuls) reject out of hand any legal limitations on their powers as “commander-in-chief,” even despite the Constitution’s specific and intentional provision reserving the power to declare wars to Congress (a power typically previously wielded only by the monarch heads of state in the Europe of the day against which the Framers were comparing their system). President Obama doesn’t want to limit his own power (or that of his successors) to act decisively and quickly in the face of the “unknown unknowns,” as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously called them.

Non-state surveillance

In an op-ed in the NY Times Sunday Review, Jeffrey Rosen discusses James Madison’s views on privacy and surveillance. In particular, Rosen argues that Madison made a slightly odd distinction between government invasions of privacy (which he wanted restricted) and the same from businesses or other people (which he didn’t really care about much). Then Rosen asks whether that distinction is valid or even still up to date.

In practice, the neo-Madisonian distinction between surveillance by the government and surveillance by Google makes little sense. It is true that, as Judge Pauley concluded, “People voluntarily surrender personal and seemingly private information to trans-national corporations which exploit that data for profit. Few think twice about it.”

But why? Why is it O.K. for AT&T to know about our political, religious and sexual associations, but not the government?

[…]

That distinction is unconvincing. Once data is collected by private parties, the government will inevitably demand access.

More fundamentally, continuously tracking my location, whether by the government or AT&T, is an affront to my dignity. When every step I take on- and off-line is recorded, so an algorithm can predict if I am a potential terrorist or a potential customer, I am being objectified and stereotyped, rather than treated as an individual, worthy of equal concern and respect.

Justice Louis Brandeis, the greatest defender of privacy in the 20th century, recognized this when he equated “the right to be let alone” with offenses against honor and dignity.

But he also lamented that American law, unlike European law, was not historically concerned with offenses against what the Romans called honor and what in more modern terms we call dignity. European laws constrain private companies from sharing and collecting personal data far more than American laws do, largely because of the legacy of Madisonian ideas of individual freedom, which focus on liberty rather than dignity.

What Americans may now need is a constitutional amendment to prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures of our persons and electronic effects, whether by the government or by private corporations like Google and AT&T.

 

Europe is way more aggressive about trying to curb private amassing of data. Meanwhile, both the U.S. government and private mega corporations — aided by the gushing of the American media — are pitching the concept of “big data” as a godsend and cure-all, thus necessitating mass collection and indefinite storage of data. Can’t throw all the data points in the data stew if you haven’t held on to all of them, the logic goes.

And it’s a fair question raised in this article. The phone company or the internet businesses knowing all our private information (and movements and habits) is allowed freely. Yet the government is supposed to be following various restrictions, due to the Bill of Rights — but why? Why don’t the protections extend to the private corporations? We’ve seen time and again that they willingly turn over all their data for “national security” and “public safety” reasons, sometimes without even being asked through a court order.

Our government need not construct a surveillance state unconstitutionally when corporate America will do it for them.

Addendum: On a partially related note, I highly recommend this article by Virginia Eubanks in The American Prospect: “Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities.”

Marginalized groups are often governments’ test subjects. Here are a few lessons we can learn from their experiences.