Monday, October 27, 2014

When will the wealthy get their wake-up call?

In an NY Times Op-Ed, Paul Krugman describes the political struggles in Hong Kong and discovers--surprise!--the wealthy of Hong Kong are trying to suppress the votes of the bottom 50%. Sounds a lot like what's going on in America, right? Krugman's conclusion: "The truth is that a lot of what’s going on in American politics is, at root, a fight between democracy and plutocracy. And it’s by no means clear which side will win."

You don't have to be a genius to see the vast wealth of CEOs and Hedge Fund Managers. Wherever you live, you can find enclaves of beautiful homes for the wealthy and vast stretches of mediocre homes for everyone else. The best property in any town is captured by the wealthy: The wealthy have the property next to the parks, the homes with views, the huge lots. The wealthy live in the nice neighborhoods with trees and garbage collectors and little boutique shops full of stuff that only they can afford to buy.

The wealthy really can't hide what's going on. They tell their supporters that all this can be theirs, too, if they just work hard enough and long enough and vote Republican. But even the dullest resident of the poorer districts can see those houses on the hill and those penthouse apartments and understand that he or she will never be living there. 

No amount of money spent on fancy propaganda is going to keep the 99% from the realization that they don't live in a mansion and don't own several houses and don't earn enough to buy those things. The 1% will never be able to convince the immigrants who do many of the menial jobs in this country that their lives will be better if they don't get the right to vote.

So I don't think there is a question about which side will win in the end. Eventually the non-wealthy among us will realize that immigrants are likely to vote with us and against the wealthy. That is precisely why the wealthy don't want to give citizenship to immigrants, even though it is the wealthy who benefit most from the maids, cooks, janitors, dishwashers, waiters, gardeners, security guards, night watchmen, and nannies who have come to this country to work. The 1% enjoy the unjust and unfair economic system just the way it is and they are fighting like Hell to keep it that way. The wealthy call this selfish attitude, "Conservatism," when it is really just "Greed."

The wealthy will lose because the non-wealthy are not nearly as stupid as they think we are.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

ISIL falls into a trap in Kobane

Recently, pictures taken on the border between Turkey and Syria showed a curious sight: A line on Turkish tanks pointed toward a town where ISIL forces were attacking Kurdish defenders. The tanks were sitting there, watching in a row, while in the valley below, people were being killed.

The Turkish tanks were respecting a traditional convention that is rapidly becoming obsolete. They were stopping at an international border. I say it is becoming obsolete because so many wars are being fought without traditional borders. ISIL, the military force that the Turks were watching on that border, has been attacking places in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Part of their success comes from their ability to attack across borders, then retreat to their strongholds in Syria.

The terrible situation in Syria is another reason why borders are obsolete. The UN protocols for war crimes and human rights crimes are predicated on a country's borders being inviolate. The UN Charter and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court both condemn wars of aggression, which are wars where one country attacks another without itself being threatened. This opposition to wars of aggression implies that sovereign nations should never be attacked by other nations without provocation.

The sole exception to this rule would seem to be whenever an attack receives the approval of the UN Security Council. The Security Council is a political body, however. It is likely that any decision to sanction an action taken by the Security Council will have opposition, regardless of how justified the action may be.

In this case, when Turkey lines its tanks up on the Syrian border, Turkey is presumably defending itself from attack while at the same time observing the UN prohibitions on aggressive war. Neither of these presumptions are likely to be true. The Turkish tanks, while motionless are actually preventing ISIL forces from retreating into Turkey along a long, somewhat porous border. The Turks are supporting the efforts of American and Arab jets, who have been relentlessly pounding ISIL positions with high explosives. So there is a battle going on here that violates the UN Charter, but one could argue it does not violate the natural laws that require the strong to protect the weak.

The residents of Kobane are not, strictly speaking, Syrians. They belong to a Kurdish minority and practice a form of Islam known as Shi'a. The people attacking them right now are Sunni Moslems, but so are the Turks who are protecting them. More than 100,000 refugees, many of them Kurds, have crossed the border into Turkey. So the tanks are protecting those refugees.

The tanks are on the high ground, solemn and still. The fighters of ISIL do not dare to attack them. Although the fighters in Iraq's army may be badly trained and poorly motivated, this is not true of the Turkish army. Young Turkish men must serve in the army for 6 to 12 months, which receives weapons from the US and other NATO countries. This service is seen as a patriotic duty by the Turks.

ISIL has a fighting force of approximately 35,000 men. Their propaganda claims they are an unbeatable force of highly motivated muslim fighters. Recent American tv shows have bolstered the claims of ISIL by attacking all Muslims as sympathizers with ISIL and its tactics. ISIL has seized several cities and gained control of western Iraq, but their force is still small and they have few allies in the region. Saudi Arabia has admitted giving aid to ISIL at one time, but official spokesmen have asserted that that the aid has been stopped.

It has been estimated that 500 ISIL fighters have been killed by these multi-national air attacks. An additional 1500 have likely been seriously wounded. Therefore, ISIL has lost 5% of its entire army in the attack on Kobane. This fact supports the idea that the anti-ISIL forces have been using Kobane as a killing ground, a place where ISIL fighters have been lured in with the prospect of an easy victory.

The dedication of ISIL fighters, who are advertised (by ISIL) as fierce jihadis, has also been brought into question by testimony from a captured ISIL member.  He has admitted fighting with ISIL, but says he was forced by threat of beheading to join the battle. He also says that ISIL drugs young men before sending them out as suicide bombers.

There may be some doubt as to the veracity of this young man's story, but there is no doubt that ISIL would use those tactics--and worse--to recruit new fighters.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Bill Maher debates Ben Affleck on Islam

Recently Bill Maher caused a sensation on the internet by claiming that Islam is more like a criminal enterprise than a religion. What other religion, he asked, threatens to kill you if you don't agree with their religious practices?

Maher and his guest, Sam Harris, then brought out a laundry-list of complaints leveled at Muslims: they subjugate women, they execute apostates (Muslims who renounce their religion), and they execute people who defame Islam or the Prophet Muhammed.

Ben Affleck responded by calling Maher's comments racist. The definition of racism is the application of a set of stereotypical characteristics to an entire race. So, when you condemn Islam because ISIS commits atrocities in Iraq, you are spreading racism. In fact, it is people with microphones, like Maher, who do the most damage by spreading racism. Reza Aslan, a scholar of middle eastern religions, says that Maher has been attacking Islam for a long time but people have just started to notice the damage he is doing.

Maher doesn't see it that way. For him, as also for Sam Harris, Islam is an evil religion. Muslims may reject the actions and beliefs of ISIL, 
but hold views about human rights, and about women, and about homosexuals that are deeply troubling.
Harris says that Islam is the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas.

Is Islam as bad as all that?

We need to understand that this debate is not just about Islam, but religion in general. Harris and Maher are not just critics of Islam, they are famous atheists who are making money from attacking religion. Harris, in particular, has made a career by attacking religion.

So we have to ask, would people be likely to approve this attack on Islam if they understood that the attackers, Maher and Harris, have said similar things about Christianity? The circumstances would be quite different if Maher had said, Christianity is a terrible religion, but Islam is even worse.

To his credit, Affleck pointed out the absurdity of the attacks on Islam. You can't judge a religion with a billion adherents all around the world by the actions of a few extremists in Iraq. The US Constitution made a good rule, that religions should be allowed to practice their beliefs without interference from the government.

Affleck admitted that ISIL had committed some atrocities. So what do you want to do about it? He asked Maher. Kill more people? Hasn't there been enough killing already?

Affleck may have struck a nerve with that question, because Harris first came to prominence as an Islam basher after the 9/11 attacks. His views provided a rational basis to go to war against Iraq. They still provide an excuse to start yet another war in the Middle East, and there are plenty of people who planned the last one still hanging around, urging Obama to send in the troops.

This program went viral, probably because Affleck was on it. Affleck was sandbagged by these two professional muslim-haters.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why shouldn't the Chinese people fight for Democracy? A question on Quora.

Over a thousand people on quora voted for an answer to this question that concludes: "If you think democracy is good, that is okay. Revolutionizing the entire system requires real urgency, when the society is ready to pay the cost. But now, the Chinese system works just fine."

An engineer has written the answer to this question. Hundreds of people have upvoted the answer. In the answer, the engineer compares the government of China to an internet protocol. This is a very bad analogy.

The consequences of continuing an operable though inferior protocol are negligible in terms of human rights or quality of life. The consequences of continuing a Communist system of government are huge. 

Communism is a form of oligarchy. As with all oligarchies, the ruling class gets many privileges while everyone else looks the other way. When it comes time to vote, as with the answer upvoted here, everyone says, yes, this is a fine system. The oligarchy does not look kindly on anyone who tries to oppose its power in any way, no matter how insignificant. So your vote doesn't count, except that if you vote against the oligarchy, you could suffer serious consequences. This is why, when elections are held in an oligarchy, everyone says the government is just fine.

The Chinese government gives great advantages to the people who run the industrial organizations, the entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs acquire great wealth and privilege. So you have a country where the rural population makes 1/3 as much per capita as the urban population and the top 1 per cent own 1/3 of the wealth. See Income inequality in China for details.

Surprise! The result of the economic system in China is almost exactly the same as the result in the US: A small number of people own most of the wealth. Both these countries are oligarchies, so the outcomes are inevitably the same. 

There are many reasons why the people living in an oligarchy do not rise up to throw off their masters. In China, the government watches the people very closely for any signs of rebellion. The oligarchy there pays special attention to any groups trying to organize for any reason. The oligarchy knows that any group that tries to challenge its power must first organize.

As a result, the Chinese government imposes strict press censorship. The penalties for printing anything against the government are severe. The government imposes the death penalty for 55 crimes, including white-collar crimes like embezzlement. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese government executed more people than the rest of the world combined. See Human rights in China.

Human rights organizations have accused the Chinese oligarchy of denying basic human rights to its people. The Chinese oligarchy responds that, since there are differences between people, there should be differences in human rights that are given to the people. This practice is an example of Chinese claiming the existence of Chinese exceptionalism, just as Americans claim American exceptionalism excuses many of their violations of international human rights treaties, such as when they invaded Iraq without provocation, or when they tortured prisoners of war.

Given the absolute control by the Chinese oligarchy over its people, and its denial of basic rights like the right of free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom from torture (guaranteed by the fifth amendment in the US constitution), the likelihood of any uprising against the Chinese government is very small. So the answer to the question, Why shouldn't Chinese people fight for democracy, is that the oligarchic system of government in China prevents any organized resistance and punishes any perceived resistance severely.

Whether the Chinese are really happy with their present government is a completely different question. Let me answer it with another question: Assuming that you are not a member of the ruling oligarchy, would you be happy in a country where the oligarchy routinely commits human rights abuses and your chances of escaping poverty are almost nil?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cannabis Not As Addictive As Heroin--By A Long Shot

The Telegraph, a British newspaper, has published an article about a marijuana study as if it were a major new study. In fact, this study has been around for more than 20 years, in one form or another. Its author, Wayne Hall, is the primary exponent of the idea that marijuana is harmful to health and dangerous to its users. There is nothing new in this study, aside from the addition of a few studies that add very little to our understanding and nothing to the debate on marijuana legalization that is currently going on.

The Telegraph article repeats misinformation that has been disputed by recent studies. For example, the article states that marijuana use doubles the risk of psychological disorders. But a recent study failed to find any connection between marijuana use and psychosis.

The Telegraph article also states that marijuana use doubles the risk of a car crash. The National Institute of Health (NIH) states that the influence of alcohol on fatal crashes is well-established, but
studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents.
Statistics taken in states with Medical Marijuana Laws show that fatal traffic accidents decrease by 8 to 11 percent after marijuana is legalized, possibly because marijuana is used as a substitute for alcohol, which is much more likely to cause traffic accidents.

The headline of the article claims that cannabis is addictive as heroin. But the article quotes Hall as saying that,
If cannabis is not addictive, then neither is heroin or alcohol.
This statement by Hall indicates that there is some ambivalence in his mind about whether cannabis is addictive at all. In a New York Times blog article, Hall again admits the doubt around this statement by saying
[s]ome people remain skeptical about whether marijuana dependence exists but let’s assume that it does.
We can just as easily assume that it doesn't.

The word "addiction", according to the World Health Organization, refers to behavior, not physical dependency. Indications of addiction to prescription drugs are

denial of drug use; lying; forgery of prescriptions; theft of drugs from other patients or family members; selling and buying drugs on the street; using prescribed drugs to get "high."
Notice that these behaviors do not all apply to illicit drugs like marijuana, which must be bought on the street and which are generally used to get "high."

The number one risk of taking marijuana is the possibility of arrest and imprisonment. This is not an inherent aspect of the drug, but the result of laws and attitudes that unfairly target marijuana users. In comparison with other drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine, cannabis, especially in small doses, is relatively harmless.

Norm Stamper, former police chief of Seattle, states unequivocally that

[a]ny law disobeyed by more than 100 million Americans, the number who’ve tried marijuana at least once, is bad public policy. As a 34-year police veteran, I’ve seen how marijuana prohibition breeds disrespect for the law, and contempt for those who enforce it.

Alcohol creates physical dependency and results in diseases such as heart disease, cancers of the liver and esophagus, and many other harmful conditions. Nicotine addiction creates physical dependency leads to heart disease and lung cancer. Marijuana use may or may not lead to physical dependency, has never been proven fatal, and is not proven to cause any form of cancer through prolonged use.

The Center for Disease Control puts the number of deaths annually attributable to alcohol use at 88,000, and states that
economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption in 2006 were estimated at $223.5 billion, or $1.90 a drink.
The CDC puts the annual number of deaths caused by tobacco smoking at 480,000. This includes at least 41,000 deaths from second-hand smoke, meaning that the victims did not actually smoke tobacco themselves, yet still died from it.

Marijuana use in conjunction with alcohol may cause some traffic fatalities. Men who smoke marijuana are more likely to have unprotected sex and expose themselves to risk of AIDS. But there is no solid evidence that marijuana use alone causes any fatalities at all.

So why does the Telegraph consider it important to publish an article filled with lies about a relatively harmless drug? Even more to the point, why do American courts still sentence thousands of non-violent drug offenders--mostly minorities--to prison sentences for marijuana use?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Breaking News From Bleeding Missouri

Here is a legal update for the events that happened over this past weekend for the FergusonOctober mobilization and an accumulative assessment since Mike Brown was murdered on August 9th.

There is now an incredible, burgeoning legal collective in St. Louis that is working with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) and the National Lawyers Guild, as well as other groups like the ArchCity Defenders. The legal collective showed grace under pressure this past weekend and will continue to support the pending criminal cases, help to monitor police presence/misconduct at ongoing demonstrations, track arrestees through the system, and play other support roles.

This past weekend was especially active with numerous protests in Ferguson and across St. Louis County. You can see more about the weekend <>here, but this is some legal info:

More than 80 NLG Legal Observers were trained in the days leading up to the weekend, establishing a new robust group of LOs for future protests. The NLG worked with the local ACLU chapter to dispatch LOs such that every action over the weekend had ample green hats in the crowd.

There were nearly 100 arrests during the weekend of resistance, all of which were municipal offenses.

Friday included a march on the prosecuting attorney Bob McCullough's office in downtown Clayton. The main march of several thousand was on Saturday through downtown St. Louis, and included a breakaway march to Police Headquarters. None of these actions resulted in arrests.

Saturday night, 20 people were arrested at a sit-in at the Quick Trip gas station in the Shaw area of St. Louis, near where VonDerrit Myers was killed by an off-duty police officer last Wednesday. In fact, since then, near-daily protests have occurred in the Shaw neighborhood. The night of the murder, protesters successfully ran police out of the neighborhood, but since then the police have been fairly aggressive, using riot gear, forming police lines and pepper spraying crowds indiscriminately. Five Shaw protesters were arrested last Thursday, three of whom were charged with felonies (destruction of property), including one protester who was assaulted by police during his arrest (additional resisting arrest charge).

More than an hour after the arrests at the QT on Saturday night, an NLG Legal Observer, Steven Hoffmann, was arrested on site and charged with unlawful assembly. This brings the total number of LOs arrested since August to 5.

Sunday night, two large marches in the Shaw area joined to form a bloc of more than 1,000 protesters, which converged at St. Louis University for a sit-in at the clock tower, which is still going on right now. There have been no arrests at SLU, and the University has indicated that it would not make arrests as long as protesters remain peaceful.

On Monday, there were several decentralized direct actions across St. Louis, including:
- a clergy civil disobedience action at the Ferguson Police Department (37 arrests)
- "Show Me $15" actions at 3 different Walmarts (27 arrests)
- a civil disobedient action at a fundraiser for St. Louis County Executive candidate Steve Stenger (9 arrests), and
- a banner drop at the Monday Night Football St. Louis Rams game (no arrests).

Everyone who was arrested during the weekend of resistance is now out of jail. However, two people arrested last Thursday in Shaw and charged with felonies are still in jail. The legal collective and MORE, with the help of the Guild, are working to get them out.

Total Arrests:
There have been a total of approximately 350 political arrests since Mike Brown's murder. The vast majority of protesters were arrested on municipal charges, but 40 people have been charged with felonies (mainly burglary, destruction of property, assault on a police officer, use of a deadly or dangerous weapon, and resisting arrest). Most of those charged with felony burglary were also charged with misdemeanor theft.

The NLG has worked to find attorneys for all of the felony arrestees who contacted the legal hotline, which is approximately half of those charged. Other felony defendants currently have public defenders.

As I mentioned in a previous update, MORE is sponsoring ArchCity Defenders, a local legal aid organization, to defend all of the municipal cases, but so far prosecutors have filed formal charges against less than 30 protesters.

The protests and the energy generated by them have helped to establish a new, vibrant, more collaborative legal community in St. Louis, drawing from SLU Law School, Washington University Law School, Mound City Bar Association, ArchCity Defenders, ACLU, and NLG. But, the legal collective in particular, deserves tremendous credit for its amazing work under pressure and its ability to react gracefully and with cooperation despite often chaotic, difficult, and tense circumstances. Local legal workers have sharpened their teeth on these latest actions, and will hopefully continue their awesome work as long as protests are occurring.

It has been an honor to support both spontaneous and planned protests by mainly youth of color and to have the back of an unrelenting revolutionary movement.

In solidarity,

Kris Hermes
NLG Legal Worker VP

P.S. People are now preparing for the possibility that the grand jury won't indict Darren Wilson.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Leon Panetta Told Obama to Attack; Obama Said No

Leon Panetta, who headed both the CIA and the Department of Defense under President Obama, has written a book about his experiences in government with the Clintons and Obama. Naturally, he is taking this opportunity to kick Obama and fawn on Hilary Clinton.

Clinton and Panetta both called for Obama to attack Syria when Syria used chemical weapons against fellow Syrians.
President Obama had called the use of chemical weapons there a “red line.” So when the Syrian military used chemical weapons in August 2013 to kill an estimated 1,400 people, Obama decided to strike. But then the president abruptly reversed himself—without consulting his national security Cabinet members.
But Obama resisted their calls for war. Instead, he participated in a deal brokered by the UN and Russia in which Assad promised to give up his chemical weapons voluntarily. No Americans dead. No Syrian civilians killed by gas.

But this outcome did not satisfy Panetta, who writes,
The result, I felt, was a blow to American credibility. When the president as commander in chief draws a red line, it is critical that he act if the line is crossed. The power of the United States rests on its word,” he wrote. “Assad’s action clearly defied President Obama’s warning; by failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world.
The neocons and now Panetta and Clinton, who are being called neoliberals, are always concerned that other nations will disrespect the US if we don't reach for our guns whenever someone steps out of line. This makes no sense at all. The rest of the world will respect the US if we live up to our ideals. They will fear us if we constantly attack countries on the slightest provocation, such as when we attacked Iraq for having weapons of mass destruction which they didn't have.

The US public may still believe that Bush and the neocons did not make the whole story up, but the rest of the world is convinced that they did. The lies told in the UN Security Council hurt our credibility a great deal more than any failure to enforce a "red line" could ever do.

According to Panetta, Obama made a big mistake by refusing to listen to Hilary and himself on backing Syrian rebels. The Daily Beast quotes Panetta as saying,
Hesitation and half steps have consequences as well—and those remain to be determined.
Actually, the consequences of backing muslim jihadists are well known. Against the Russians in Afghanistan, the US backed Osama bin Laden and helped him build up Al Qaeda. As has been shown in recent weeks, the Syrian rebels included ISIL, another group of fundamentalist jihadis. They are using captured US weapons to create havoc along the borders of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq.

Obama should be commended for trying a different approach in the Middle East. Sending American aid and American soldiers proves nothing but does recruit new Islamists eager to fight the Americans. Obama's strategy could be summarized as, "Don't poke the bear." So far, Obama has been successful keeping us from entering another bloody conflict.

Not deterred from his questionable agenda, Panetta believes Obama should ally himself with opponents of Assad. He says we would at least know whether there are any moderate Muslims fighting Assad. He doesn't prove that would be important, however.

The difference between Obama and Panetta--and, by extension Hilary Clinton--boils down to this: Obama wants to end existing wars and takes risks to do so; Panetta wants to start existing wars to prove that America is the biggest and toughest country in the world.

Panetta wasted no time after resigning from the CIA before joining a small lobbying firm in Washington. His book is doubtless his first step in recruiting new clients from the military industrial complex. No principled American should become a lobbyist seeking to spend more money on weapons of war.

During the fight over the sequester, Panetta was the only cabinet member who testified before congress that cutting the defense budget would harm the US military. The others probably obeyed Obama's instruction. If Panetta had succeeded in raising the military budget during the sequester, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party would have opposed the budget deal.

Panetta is a risk-taker, sure of his own prowess. Obama is risk averse. We should all become more like Obama in this.