Thursday, February 28, 2013

Finlandization Wins Out

Americans may not remember the buzzword ‘Finlandization’, and it is certain that they will not be permitted by the mainstream media to witness the extraordinary press conference taking place in Moscow today between Russian President Putin and French President Hollande, which has been going on for half and hour, with the two presidents now taking questions from French and Russian journalists.

This press conference which I’m following on France 24 (France’s English channel available on my local public television station), is strikingly informal, as opposed to strictly regulated White House versions. In response to one of the questions the two presidents explained their differing views on achieving peace in Syria and Hollande defended the French action in Mali. The closing question from a Russian journalist concerned the relationship between the two Presidents. Recalling that during their first meeting, last year, there was no evidence of warmth between them, the journalists wanted to know whether this situation had improved.  President Putin responded that he should just approach, and would ‘feel the warmth’. In response, Hollande noted that the Russian president’s habit of speaking frankly was very a great asset.

How far history has travelled in twenty years! Having lived in France in the eighties, I can testify that the American-invented ‘threat of Finlandization’ (under the threat of tanks rolling across Europe, a  foreign policy of neutrality under the influence of the Soviet Union),  was invoked tirelessly in that country to justify ever-increasing demands for military spending (although France had left NATO), and in particular the installation of Pershing missiles in the neighboring West German republic.

For some time now I have been noticing that Russia is following a very obvious policy of rapprochement with Europe. In my 1989 book ‘Une autre Europe, un autre Monde’ in response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s dream of a ‘Common European Home’, that the Soviet Union was to big to be considered as part of Europe, but that it should cultivate close ties with the European Union, as well as with China and India and the Middle East, the other four major entities of the Eurasian continent.)

This is now coming to pass, notwithstanding the untold billions spent by the United States in an arms race whose principle purpose was to prevent the Soviet Union’s tanks from rolling across Europe and into Paris, ‘crushing freedom’.

Since that time and true to that spirit, the United States followed the Vietnam debacle by engaging in failed military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet all of these efforts have merely delayed the inevitable France’s English language channel, France 24, took great pains to point out that France and Russia have been historical allies going all the way back to Catherine the Great and notwithstanding Napoleon’s invasion.

Today, as if the Cold War had been merely a bad dream, the French President was accompanied on his visit to Moscow by a plethora of French industrialists, as well as by the historically pro-Russian French Socialist Jean-Pierre Chevenement who resigned from President MItterand’s cabinet over the first Iraq War. As evidenced by the two president’s statements, France and Russia are drawing closer, as the geography of the Eurasian continent dictates.

Meanwhile, on Eurasia’s Pacific rim, the United States gears up against the latest ‘threat’: however China too is once again a Russian ally....

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why is Greece Hiring Blackwater (now Academy) Guards?

When you hear that announcement you assume the Greek government doesn’t know what it’s doing. Then comes a statement: “We’re hiring private security firms because we’ve cut police salaries and can’t trust them anymore.”

Whoever made that statement on behalf of the Greek government obviously didn’t realize what it revealed: governments cut the salaries of police along with those of other workers, police join with other workers in demonstrations against the government, government pays what is probably ten times more to bring in foreign toughs to handle them all.

Such behavior adds yet another brick to the wall that is being constructed around the world between governments and the governed as part of a grim reality: there are two many people chasing the modern dream, and those at the top are determined to retains the means to satisfy their outrageous requirements.

Sunday, February 24, 2013



Yesterday I wrote about three events that signal a changing world.  Today I realized I had forgotten to mention a fourth: the disagreement over whether there should be limits to free speech.

In recent days in France there was a spate of anti-Semitic attacks on Twitter. The French high court ordered the social network company to "set up as part of the French platform an easily accessible and visible system that would allow users to alert the site to illegal content which constituted an apology for crimes against humanity and incitement to racial hatred".

An initial French ruling came in October, shortly after German police had requested that Twitter shut down an account used by a German neo-Nazi group.

In Russia, Pussy Riot sympathizers last week marked the first anniversary of the ‘blasphemous’ event in a Moscow cathedral that ultimately led to the imprisonment of two singers.

These stories illustrate interpretations of freedom of speech that, while not identical, all differ widely from that which Americans take for granted.  And this raises a serious question, as ever greater parts of the world come to grips with modernity.

The basic question is this: does individual freedom of action (here meaning speech), trump the good of an entire society?  In the United States  the answer has been a resounding ‘yes’, based on the First Amendment, which provides no limits to the right of free speech.

In drafting the constitutions of post-war Europe, Western leaders had vividly in mind the role played by Nazi Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels in whipping up hatred of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, Gays and any other group that differed from the Aryan norm, as did the drafters of the U.N.‘s founding documents. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948 provides, among other things that:

"Article 29 (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society."

The post-war European constitutions followed suit linking the notion that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”, to acts not only of deed but of speech that could threaten that right. Indeed, the European Convention on Human Rights drafted in 1950 by the then newly formed Council of Europe, and which all new Council of Europe member states are expected to ratify at the earliest opportunity, provides the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas. However it states that:

"(Article 10): “The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary."

It’s clear from these documents that across the pond different values hold sway from those passionately defended by many Americans.  Post-war Europe reacted to the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism that gave rise to it by ensuring that governments (who declare war) be responsible for the overall well-being of their citizens.  This is not only the basis of the welfare state - an economic construct - but of limits on freedom of expression/speech which Americans find unacceptable.

And yet, these notions do go together: if the state - as the embodiment of the notion of community - is expected to take responsibility for the material well-being of citizens, how can citizens not expect it to define laws of social decency?

The American constitutional tradition rests on the notion of freedom to believe, originating in the Protestant rejection of a venal Catholic church and insistence on the right of each human being (men, at the time) to relate to God without interme-diaries. In the late eighteenth century  little harm could come from the unfettered expression of contempt for another - or his religion. Congress engaged in heated arguments - as European representatives continue to do. The founding fathers could hardly have imagined a time when debates would have to be politically  correct.

For the purposes of this discussion, it could be said that the era in which we live began at the end of World War II. Having led the fight against Nazi Germany, Europe’s socialist and communist parties acquired strong parliamentary representation, resulting in constitutions inspired by the egalitarian and responsibility-oriented U.N. charter, and that of the Council of Europe. Meanwhile, although it championed the founding of the United Nations, the United States remained wedded to the eighteenth century ethos of its own Constitution.

While Europe gradually lost its colonies, the United States gradually acquired new civil rights for its minorities. But it was the European codification of rights that newly independent nations adopted, not the American. And it is the United Nations Charter of Human Rights that has become the international norm, not the amend-ments to the United States Constitution. The former recognizes that rights must be accompanied by responsibilities, on the part of both citizens and governments. The latter places individual rights above all else, giving rise to insoluble contradic-tions.

This might work in the abstract, but precisely, in a world in which mass religions compete against secular states for the right to dictate morality, the American left needs to recognize that its attitude toward free speech is incompatible with its egalitarian ethos.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Three Indicators of a Changing World

- A Russian child adopted by a Texan family recently died of ill treatment, probably putting a definitive stop to Russia allowing Americans to adopt its orphans;

- Rafael Correa, who is protecting Jullian Assange from extradition to the U.S. in his London Embassy, was re-elected President of Ecuador by a large margin;

- U.S. students ranked 27th in a recent math survey.

These three news items illustrate the opposing views of the role of government evident across the world today. A majority of countries - the Non-Aligned Movement alone represents 120 - agrees that governments have a larger role than simply protecting their nations from attack. Most would agree with Russia that government has a responsibility to protect individual citizens.

In his campaign to regulate firearms, Obama said that a nation’s first priority is to protect its children, yet many Americans do not believe that government has a role to play in the way children are treated at home. This basic ethical stance is affecting our relationship with Russia as fundamentally as is our plan to put missiles in Poland, Romania and Turkey, on its borders. At times bureaucrats go overboard in their efforts to protect children from their own parents. However, most countries today believe that together with cradle to grave healthcare, the government rightly defends children from parental abuse.

Equally as importantly most people today support whistle-blowers, as the power of government increases exponentially in response to world crises over the goods needed to continue our lifestyle. The little-known Latin American country of Ecuador has one of the most far-sighted constitutions in the world, drafted with the help of one of many non-profits trying to save the world before it is too late.  It includes specific references to Mother Earth, as well as providing for full sovereignty over natural resources and the protection of each and every minority. Rafael Correa’s reelection reflects not only approval by the country’s peasant majority of his social commitments, but also his courage in standing up to the United States.

Finally, notwithstanding the enormous amounts the United States spends on education, results in the all-important areas of math and science place us behind many other developed nations. In 2012 the PISA study which tests students from 60 countries in math and science, ranked the U.S. 23rd in science and 31st in math. These results would seem to suggest that the extremely decentralized American education system is less effective than those in which central governments are in charge.  (A long-standing joke in France used to be that at any time of day, the Minister of Education knows exactly what is being studied in every classroom, but this system has given way to much greater flexibility while still maintaining strict oversight.)

In the competition between cradle-to-grave welfare systems and cowboy capitalism, increasingly the preference goes to those in which government is expected to at least coordinate citizen well-being.  Unfortunately and largely due to Americans’ lack of information, the United States remains the exception that confirms the rule.



Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Propos the Snow

A propos the gigantic snow storm that blanketed the Northeat today, I received this testimony that was sent to a Friends group debating growth:

"I worked at Boeing for one week less than 20 years, first as a turret lathe operator and member of IAM Lodge 751, in Seattle and later Auburn. Stuck on second shift, after more than 5 years, I trained at Boeing and became a NC programmer in Auburn where I worked until Feb 1999 as a memeber of SPEEA.

I programmed milling machines for tooling needed to manufacture airplane parts.  I now think that the real security of our society and our world depends upon changing how we produce energy i.e. getting off fossil fuels, changing how we farm and refitting our building. There is a strong consensus of our scientists that this is necessary. We listened to our scientists when they said they could build a weapon to defeat Hitler and now we should listen to them again.

This is a huge project, and contrary to the current thinking in Washington (the biggest obstacle to human progress right now), this needs to be done with government spending on the scale that occurred during World War II. There is a research paper at the Institute for Policy Studies (I cannot get the link now while writing this e-mail in Mexico) entitled "Green Dividends". It explains how the government could move the money it now spends on weapons systems at large companies like Boeing, could move this money to projects that helps us get off of fossil fuels, so that no jobs are lost and the industrial part of the military-industrial complex becomes less dependent on military contracts and becomes part of the effort to prevent the worst effect of global climate change. There could be cost-plus contracts if they are closely regulated.
There was a time when I worked at Boeing that they were build a huge windmill in the building beside where I worked at Plant 2. Boeing engineers also developed solar panels that generated electricity from the infrared spectrum as well as the visible spectrum, but then sold the patent when the push for diversification ended. This probably happened during the Carter Administration.

I believe that preventing global climate change would be less expensive than trying to mitigate real climate chaos. If we do this right, we could have full employment for several generations. There are only two places the U.S. government can get the money to do this: from the superwealthy and the huge Pentagon budget. We did not hesitate to use very steep progressive taxation during World War II to fund our mobilization. We must do the same now. Climate change is the gathering existential threat of our time. We can use this crisis to develop the cooperation needed from the nations of the world to deal with the crisis.

John M Repp, West Seattle

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Tragic Trifecta

Today Hillary Clinton officially resigned as Secretary of State, referring to the United States as a force for good in the world.

In two days, New Orleans will host the Super Bowl, and tonight, the BBC marveled that the city ravaged by a hurricane in 2005 is to host the biggest American sporting event. In a rare moment of candor, the British news channel pointed out that there are two realities in ‘The Big Easy’: the lower ninth ward where, it notes, Brad Pitt and friends built some houses, is still a wasteland. According to one of the neighborhood’s residents,  the money donated to rebuild the lower class neighborhood devastated by the hurricane was diverted to the business area. (The Super Bowl will take place in the giant indoor Superdome that housed more than thirty thousand evacues from Hurricane Katrina.)

How familiar that sounds to anyone who is aware of Haiti’s fate after the 2010 earthquake, which was followed by a cholera epidemic: three years later thousands of Haitians are still living in tents and shelters, but several new tourist hotels have been built. I’ve already mentioned the recent Nation article about the shocking set of priorities adopted under the auspices of former Presidents Clinton, and George H.W. Bush, who were put in charge of the Haiti relief operation by the international community.

New Orleans and Haiti, together with the transformation of Kabul into an American replica complete with shopping malls and gated communities, illustrate what the Clintons and Bushes mean by ‘a force for good’.  The problem is,  public events such as the Super Bowl, ensure that most citizens remain oblivious to the spectacle of tragedy.