Best Friends For Now

It’s been a rough year for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s most powerful ally, the United States, struck high-profile diplomatic deals first with Syria and then with Iran, their most hated foes. The threat of U.S. military intervention in both countries is now receding, and relations with Iran might even be reaching something less than outright hostility. And the House of Saud is voicing its long-simmering displeasure in public:

[…] And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.

This year’s talks with Iran may dilute the West’s determination to deal with both governments. What price is “peace” though, when it is made with such regimes?

The foreign policy choices being made in some Western capitals risk the stability of the region and, potentially, the security of the whole Arab world. This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs.

The anger behind this statement is almost as transparent as the insecurity it reveals. Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni Gulf monarchies in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are strong American allies, but they’re not durable ones. What happens when — not if — the United States abandons them?

America’s relationships with these countries, especially with Saudi Arabia, have always been anomalous. Major U.S. allies are generally stable liberal democracies who share similar political and socio-cultural values. (This wasn’t always the case, especially during the Cold War, but it’s getting better.) Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom share a language, a common heritage, and deep cultural ties. France, Germany, the other European democracies in NATO, and Israel are bound to the United States by the turbulence of history and a shared worldview. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines were practically rebuilt in the American image in the second half of the 20th century. More often than not, America prefers allies who resemble America.

So what does the United States share with the Gulf monarchies beyond a common Persian foe? Certainly not America’s republican ethos. All six GCC members are either absolute monarchies or cosmetically-constitutional ones. Bahrain, with their neighbors’ armed support, violently cracked down on Arab Spring protesters in 2011 while the United States looked the other way. A Saudi political activist had the temerity to argue earlier this month that the Kingdom should embrace constitutional monarchy; for this, a secret court sentenced him to 300 lashes.

Nor do the Gulf monarchs share the deep American respect for human rights. Legal protections for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and religious and ethnic minority rights are limited or non-existent. For those not fortunate enough to be born male, straight, or Muslim in most of these countries, persecution is the norm, not the exception. Five of the six are rated “Not Free” on Freedom House’s Democracy Index; Kuwait alone stands at “Partly Free.” Saudi Arabia still hasn’t even signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It’s hard to see the Saudi-American alliance continue, especially at this level of mutual commitment, once transitory geopolitical crises abate and current economic priorities shift elsewhere. (Those oceans of oil may be vast, but they’re not infinite.) It’s a familiar pattern in U.S. foreign policy since World War II. The world is littered with the ruins of American-backed dictatorships who suddenly found themselves without weaponers once the Soviet Union fell and their utility passed.

The Saudis and their neighbors understand this. You can see this fear manifest itself in the Kingdom’s own words, pledging to “go at it alone” and to bring “stability” (read: Sunni regional hegemony) to the Middle East by themselves — as if this didn’t mask their fundamental insecurity about the regime’s future.

And you can see it in the United States’ attempts to placate the restless ruling houses that ring the Persian Gulf. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced on December 7 that the United States will start selling weapons directly to the Gulf Cooperation Council:

Speaking at the Manama Dialouge international security conference here, Hagel encouraged GCC members to create a military alliance and said he’d like to better integrate the US missile defense systems with those of the GCC to enhance collective capabilities.

“We would like to expand our security cooperation with partners in the region by working in a coordinated way with the GCC, including through the sales of U.S. defense articles through the GCC as an organization,” he said. “This is a natural next step in improving U.S.-GCC collaboration, and it will enable the GCC to acquire critical military capabilities, including items for ballistic missile defense, maritime security, and counterterrorism.”

Hagel said the Pentagon “will better integrate with GCC members to enhance missile defense capabilities in the region,” adding “the United States continues to believe that a multilateral approach is the best answer for missile defense.”

The GCC’s purpose is — with apologies to Lord Ismay — to keep the Americans in, the Iranians out, and the reformers down. Successive American governments have sold weapons to the individual GCC member states, first to deter Iraq (to whom Washington once sold weapons) and now to deter Iran (to whom Washington also once sold weapons). Selling weapons to the GCC as a whole is a natural step for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

But, if past is prologue, it’s also a step that could haunt unborn generations of Americans to come.

On Scottish “Independence”

First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, in preparation for next September’s independence referendum, released a 670-page white paper last month outlining the course an independent Scotland would take on the world stage. It’s a bold, perhaps overly optimistic document that envisions easy continuity of relations with the European Union, NATO, and the United Kingdom. The Scottish government pitches independence as the nation’s chance to set a different path from its southern neighbor:

Independence means that the decisions about Scotland that are currently taken by governments at Westminster – often by governments that have been rejected by the majority of people in Scotland – will be taken here instead.

This is true, in a way. But this claim sidesteps how much influence over economic, foreign, and defense policy will still be wielded by non-Scottish actors.

Let’s assume Salmond and the SNP get everything they want. By sharing the pound sterling with Westminster, Scotland would be wedding its much of its economic policy to that of a foreign government’s. (Gordon Brown once called the SNP plan “self-imposed colonialism.”) Like the 27 other member states, Scottish foreign policy would be heavily influenced by its role in the European Union. Scottish businesses and industries would still be fully subject to all manner of EU economic and trade regulations. Holyrood would still abide by the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. Scottish defense policy would be determined largely by its role in NATO. As Scotland’s first prime minister, Salmond may discover in 2015 that he simply swapped Westminster for Brussels and Washington. This can hardly be called independence.

A better solution would be to structurally overhaul the United Kingdom itself. This idea is not new. One hundred years ago, British political discourse was dominated by the question of Irish Home Rule: should Ireland have its own parliament within the United Kingdom? Proponents hoped that a sub-national parliament in Ireland would bridge the gulf between nationalists and unionists. Eventually, Parliament passed the Third Home Rule Bill, only to see it delayed by the start of World War I and eventually scrapped after Irish nationalists rose up in 1916. Modern Scottish independence activists, conscious of the historical symbolism, scheduled the referendum for September 18th, 2014 — one hundred years to the day after the Third Home Rule Bill became law.

Irish Home Rule sought to address systemic flaws in the British system, but others saw the logic behind local parliaments and suggested more extensive reforms. In 1912, Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed what he called “Home Rule All Around” to federalize the United Kingdom:

Another great reason for the settlement of the Irish question in the present Parliament and for disposing of the Home Rule controversy now, while we have the full opportunity presented, is that the ground is thereby cleared for the consideration of claims of self-government for other parts of the United Kingdom besides Ireland.

[…] I spoke of the establishment of a federal system in the United Kingdom, in which Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and, if necessary, parts of England, could have separate legislative and Parliamentary institutions, enabling them to develop, in their own way, their own life according to their own ideas and needs in the same way as the great and prosperous States of the American Union…

Churchill’s proposal envisioned a United Kingdom divided into between ten and twelve parts, each with their own local parliament for local concerns. Ireland, Scotland, and Wales would each gain a parliament; the other seven to nine would be carved from England, perhaps corresponding to the seven ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms known as the Heptarchy. Above them all would be the national parliament in London, which would then be free to focus on national matters.

I am perhaps at an unfortunate age for making a prophecy. I am ceasing to belong to the young men who dream dreams and I have not yet joined the ranks of the old men who see visions; still I will run the risk of prophecy and tell you that the day will most certainly come — many of you will live to see it — when a federal system will be established in these Islands which will give Wales and Scotland the control within proper limits of their own Welsh and Scottish affairs, which will free the Imperial Parliament from the great congestion of business by which it is now pressed, and which will resound and conduce to the contentment and well-being of all our people.

He wasn’t far off. Scotland and Wales gained their own regional legislatures in 1998 under Tony Blair’s Labour government. (Northern Ireland also gained, lost, and regained one in the 20th century, with its current Assembly established by the Good Friday Agreement.) But England, in whole or in part, still lacks a legislature exclusively dedicated to English issues. English issues are instead debated in the British parliament, where Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish MPs can vote and debate on them.

The solution to the English question is as simple as it is obvious: a devolved English parliament, separate from the Parliament of the United Kingdom and coequal to its Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish counterparts. But looking more broadly, it would reshape the debate over Scottish independence and British sovereignty. No longer would devolution be seen as a stop-gap measure to appease separatists, but rather a genuine and more equitable means of governance.

An independent Scotland would still be inextricably linked and shaped by the United Kingdom, to the European Union, and other forces beyond its control. In many ways, the Union will still exist whether Scotland wants it or not. Why not work instead to make sure it’s a good one?

Checks and Balances and Coups

The Egyptian army today gave President Muhammed Morsi and the rival political factions 48 hours to resolve the political crisis that has plunged the powerful Middle Eastern nation into chaos. If they do not, the generals say, those political factions will be provided with a “road map” to “heed the will of the people.” The underlying threat — the return of direct military rule of Egypt — is unmistakable.

Reversing democratic elections by force is always disturbing. Military coups have an overwhelmingly dismal track record throughout history at furthering democratic norms and human rights. The instability that coups inherently bring often leads instead to further economic turmoil and political repression, despite whatever coup leaders promise to the contrary. Look to Mali, where a military coup in 2011 triggered a chain of events that led to Islamist-aligned forces conquering northern Mali and then a French-led military intervention to restore order. (Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, to his credit, recently apologized to the Malian people for what his actions had wrought.)

But is this one justified? Civilian control of the military is a defining feature — some might say the defining feature — of any liberal democracy. But it’s not the only one. Public anger over economic stagnation and government repression fueled this crisis, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempted purge of Egypt’s often-defiant judiciary earlier this year helped precipitate the current mass demonstrations. Morsi and his allies gained control of the presidency and the legislature through fair and free elections, and they now seek to reshape the judiciary in their own image through new laws. Would Morsi’s unchecked majoritarianism not also be fatal to hopes of a pluralistic, competitive Egyptian political process? Should the Muslim Brotherhood write the laws, enforce the laws, and now interpret the laws because it won a single election? Can that be truly considered democracy? Without institutional checks and balances, is there a role for the Egyptian army to serve as a check on government power when the Egyptian public so vividly demands it?

If there were easy answers to Egypt’s problems, they would have already found them. I don’t know what’s coming next for Egypt; anyone who claims to know is lying. What happens in the next few weeks will shape the Egyptian political system for decades and perhaps generations to come. Will it be for better or for worse? I defer to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who was asked in the late 1960s about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789. Cryptically, Zhou replied, “It is too soon to say.”

Digging Deeper into PRISM, Part 2

Things have only gotten murkier since I wrote about PRISM, the National Security Agency’s recently-revealed digital surveillance program, on Friday. For starters, the Washington Post has drastically altered its original story since publication, expanding it from two pages to four and rewriting key assertions. (Some of the changes can be seen here, although further ones are likely.) Among the most significant changes was a tweak of its opening paragraph (emphasis mine):

[Original] The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

[Revised] The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

While everyone knows the NSA surveils foreign targets — it is, after all, their mandate — they’re constitutionally prohibited from spying on domestic targets. Changing those few words radically affects whether or not the NSA has overstepped its legal bounds. It’s not a good sign for what could be one of the most important news stories of our generation.

Soon after the Guardian and the Post‘s original articles, The New York Times published its own piece that, while confirming the program’s existence, also directly challenged the two newspapers’ assertions about its scope and nature:

But instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.

The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.

This is a far cry from the unfettered direct access that had been suggested elsewhere. Other outlets, speaking with deep-background sources in both the tech companies and in the intelligence community, echoed this description. CNET blamed it on a misunderstanding of the PRISM PowerPoint slides:

Recent reports in The Washington Post and The Guardian claimed a classified program called PRISM grants “intelligence services direct access to the companies’ servers” and that “from inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes.”

Those reports are incorrect and appear to be based on a misreading of a leaked Powerpoint document, according to a former government official who is intimately familiar with this process of data acquisition and spoke today on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not as described in the histrionics in The Washington Post or The Guardian,” the person said. “None of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.”

Mashable also concurred: “In short, there are no back doors, but perhaps there are side doors — although these might very well be standard procedures in cases of wiretap requests.” (In other words, the all-seeing, all-knowing Surveillance State might just be government bureaucrats and tech lawyers cutting down on paperwork.) Mother Jones speculated that if Google, Apple, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley giants “have agreed only to build more secure ways of passing along data in response to individual FISA warrants, that explains why they’ve never heard of PRISM and why they deny being part of any program that allowed the government direct access to their data.”

The real kicker came in a follow-up article on Saturday, where the Post dialed back on its earlier claims almost completely (quoted at length in case of changes):

According to a more precise description contained in a classified NSA inspector general’s report, also obtained by The Post, PRISM allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers. The companies cannot see the queries that are sent from the NSA to the systems installed on their premises, according to sources familiar with the PRISM process.

Crucial aspects about the mechanisms of data transfer remain publicly unknown. Several industry officials told The Post that the system pushes requested data from company servers to classified computers at FBI facilities at Quantico. The information is then shared with the NSA or other authorized intelligence agencies.

According to slides describing the mechanics of the system, PRISM works as follows: NSA employees engage the system by typing queries from their desks. For queries involving stored communications, the queries pass first through the FBI’s electronic communications surveillance unit, which reviews the search terms to ensure there are no U.S. citizens named as targets.

That unit then sends the query to the FBI’s data intercept technology unit, which connects to equipment at the Internet company and passes the results to the NSA.

The system is most often used for e-mails, but it handles chat, video, images, documents and other files as well.

“The server is controlled by the FBI,” an official with one of the companies said. “We do not offer a download feature from our server.”

Significant inconsistencies still remain between the system described by The New York Times and the system described by The Washington Post. This could be due to different company policies; i.e. Facebook might impose fewer intermediate steps between the NSA and the data they request than Google does. But what no longer remains are the original bombshell claims of direct, unfettered NSA access to Silicon Valley servers and data, nor is there supporting evidence for the claims of widespread digital surveillance of American citizens. (In fact, the Post‘s newest article says an entire FBI unit screens data requests to ensure that no U.S. citizens are targeted.)

The Washington Post, which sadly eliminated its decades-old ombudsman position earlier this year, has yet to comment on or even acknowledge the many changes in its PRISM reporting just within the past few days. The Guardian, meanwhile, has renounced nothing. As of right now, their article still includes the following claims:

It also opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants.
[…]
The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

TechCrunch, Mashable, and CNet have explicitly or implicitly ruled this out, as have The New York Times and now The Washington Post in their own reporting. Perhaps the most damning indication is that no news outlet has independently confirmed the Guardian‘s depiction of PRISM.

So what does this all mean? We now know PRISM and a few other NSA programs exist, even if their details remain murky and incomplete. We now know James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, probably lied to the Senate when he said the NSA does not collect massive amounts of data on U.S. citizens. (If not through PRISM, then definitely through the disturbing Verizon metadata court order that has seemingly been all but forgotten.) We’re also finally having a serious, frank discussion about the FISA system, digital privacy, over-classification, the growth of the security-industrial complex, the protections of the Fourth Amendment, and the extent to which we should reshape our society to defend that society. That can only be a good thing after twelve long years.

But ultimately, all we’ve done is gone from knowing nothing to knowing something, and we’d be fools to think we now know everything. There are still gaps and holes and I’m not sure we know enough yet to make any sort of judgment. For his part, Edward Snowden, the confessed NSA leaker, sounds genuinely concerned about the impact of digital surveillance in American society and the NSA’s powers. I’m not sure about the wisdom of seeking refuge in Hong Kong, though; were I a Chinese intelligence official and I learned a declared U.S. intelligence operative carrying troves of highly-classified cyber-surveillance information had arrived on my shores, I wouldn’t even hesitate to pick him up. The diplomatic ramifications of his exodus could eventually eclipse the reason behind it.

Cynicism and paranoia are so prevalent in our culture that it’s easy to assume that Snowden, a 29-year-old IT contractor in Hawaii, has truly thrown back the curtain on the mysteries of the National Security Agency. I’d be lying if I said I was convinced. I don’t think Snowdon is wrong per se; rather, I think that he thinks he’s right. His evidence, some of which has yet to be revealed, will ultimately show whether his perception matches the reality. As of right now, it’s hardly conclusive. With so many changes and contradictions, I’m not satisfied that the Guardian and the Post did their due diligence on PRISM or any of the other leaks, probably out of an eagerness to beat one another to breaking the story. That’d be troubling in and of itself, but with a story of this magnitude and significance it’s almost unforgivable.

I don’t think Snowden is all wrong and the government is all right, nor do I think the reverse of that. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. If his evidence proves what he claims, it will. If it doesn’t, it won’t. Whether or not he did the right thing by leaking it hinges on that assessment — as do, perhaps, a great many other things for American society.

[NOTE (6/10/13): This post was originally titled “Lies, Damn Lies, and PRISM.” Nobody’s complained about it but I’m worried my attempt to make a witty reference to Mark Twain could be misread as an insinuation that the National Security Agency, its employees, The Guardian, The Washington Post, their journalists, or Edward Snowden are liars. That’s not an assertion I’ve intended to make. Out of an abundance of caution, I’ve changed the title to something less accusatory and appended this note. Apologies for any confusion.]

Digging Deeper Into PRISM

On Thursday, The Guardian and The Washington Post published highly-classified National Security Agency documents revealing a massive Internet surveillance program called PRISM. Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill write:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

[…]

The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.

In short, there are three key revelations about the NSA/corporate relationship:

  1. Through PRISM, the NSA has direct access to company servers containing millions of Americans’ personal information.
  2. The NSA’s direct access to company servers is willing and participatory on those companies’ part.
  3. The NSA’s direct access to company servers is nevertheless unmediated by those companies. (Guardian: “But the Prism program renders [the consent of internet and telecom companies] unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.”)

One slight problem emerged after the program was announced: Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and the other companies allegedly involved are all disputing the central assertion of these reports. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page, among others, both explicitly denied that they’ve provided “direct access” to their servers or data centers to PRISM or any other U.S. government surveillance program. As you’d expect for leaders of major corporations commenting on matters of national security, Zuckerberg and Page use the typical legal hedging — “we review each government request for data carefully” and so forth — but on direct access they’re all but categorical in denying it.

The direct access distinction matters because the true scope and nature of the program matters. In a companion editorial to his report, Glenn Greenwald — a man who has never exaggerated or misrepresented U.S. government programs or actions in his career — drew comparisons to the worst abuses of the Nixon administration when referring to PRISM and whistleblowing:

The times in American history when political power was constrained was when they went too far and the system backlashed and imposed limits. That’s what happened in the mid-1970s when the excesses of J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon became so extreme that the legitimacy of the political system depended upon it imposing restraints on itself.

According to a lone source, PRISM is a surveillance apparatus seemingly so vast, so invasive, and so unchecked that it directly threatens the Republic. Yet the tech companies themselves publicly and privately dispute that source’s key assertions. The Guardian itself can’t even find a single tech executive to confirm off-the-record that their company participated in the program or one similar to it or, most importantly, that the NSA had direct access to any of their servers.

PRISM’s existence has been independently confirmed but seemingly little else about its methods or capabilities has been independently verified beyond a single source. Both The Guardian and The Washington Post have substantially revised their original articles since first publishing them on Thursday and will likely continue to do so, although The Guardian‘s core allegations remain unchanged. Other outlets have also now raised the possibility that PRISM isn’t the sprawling, all-consuming domestic spying program the newspapers describe.

Silicon Valley’s denials and refutations could, of course, be the product of a vast, far-reaching conspiracy against American civil liberties. Or they could be telling the truth.

Revolutionary Wars

Josh Keating had this interesting observation today on Syria and foreign fighters:

There’s a quantitative portion of [David Malet’s new study of foreign fighters in civil wars] as well, with data showing that the number of civil conflicts involving foreign fighters has increased since the 19th century — this could be due to globalization or just to better reporting — and that insurgencies involving foreign fighters tend to be more successful at toppling governments. I suspect this is because it tends to be more organized and formidable insurgencies that have the resources for international recruitment, not because foreigners are any more effective on the battlefield.

Applying this analysis to the American Civil War yields some interesting insights. The Confederate States of America constituted the most organized and formidable insurgency in 19th century civil warfare, equaled perhaps only by the Heavenly Kingdom in China’s Taiping Rebellion, yet Confederate overtures for international support failed at every turn. Britain and France flirted with recognizing the Confederacy as an independent state, but never seriously, and abandoned the idea altogether after the Emancipation Proclamation. Whether foreign fighters supported the Confederacy mattered little, as they would’ve been unable to break the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the South to join the fighting.

Indeed, contemporary revolutionaries and freedom fighters often sympathized more with the Union than with the insurgency it faced. Giuseppe Garibaldi nearly accepted an offer by Lincoln to lead the Union Army in 1861 but declined when the president, still depending on the support of the loyal border states, refused to declare the conflict a war against slavery. When word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Europe in 1863, Garibaldi named Lincoln “the great emancipator” in a letter filled with effusive praise:

It is America, the same country which taught liberty to our forefathers, which now opens another solemn epoch of human progress. And while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you.

Interest in the American struggle wasn’t limited to nationalists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both corresponded privately and wrote publicly on the Civil War with astounding lucidity of its causes and course. They and many other socialists, viewing the Civil War as a struggle against slavery and aristocracy, fervently supported the Union cause. Marx himself drafted a letter on behalf of the First International congratulating Abraham Lincoln on his 1864 re-election:

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epoque, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

[…]

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Neither Marx nor Engels would ever set foot in the New World. (Garibaldi briefly visited New York City in 1850, but never returned to the United States thereafter.) Whether the Union was lost or saved would have little impact on their personal lives or political goals. But they and countless others perceived the Civil War not as a parochial struggle for political supremacy but as part of a broader struggle for liberty and against oppression. Northerners and Southerners also shared that conceptual framework, albeit towards different ends.

That tendency to extrapolate broader significance to discrete events, whether accurate or not, also undoubtedly motivates many of those fighting and dying on all sides in Syria today.

How Not to Write About North Korea

Writing responses to every column on the Internet with which I disagree would be impossible, but yesterday’s column on North Korea by Chris Roper in The Guardian was so thoroughly ignorant, misguided, and disappointing that I felt compelled to examine it further.

It’s a happy truism. Scratch a politically correct liberal, and you’ll find a human being. And it appears that racism is the default state of being for humans. Don’t ask me why, it just appears to be the way we are. Perhaps when those happy-go-lucky Catholics tell us we are all born in sin, this is the sin they mean.

“Don’t ask me why, it just appears to be the way we are” isn’t a strong foundation for the argument that all human beings are inherently racist. Since race is a socially constructed concept, it’s hard to believe that discrimination and hatred based upon that concept isn’t also socially defined and mediated. In any event, asserting without evidence that all human beings are racist doesn’t bode well for the rest of this column.

Take North Korea, and the current hoo-ha about its threat to launch missiles against the US. It seems that some people think it’s okay to caricature Kim Jong-un based on his ethnicity, culture and appearance. Ooh, look at the little dancing fool with the crazy hairstyle! If we did the same to, say, China’s Xi Jinping, there’d be a massive outcry. On the face of it, China is up there with North Korea in terms of human rights abuses and lack of democracy, but we don’t spout off on public platforms about those crazy Chinese and their weird customs.

First, caricatures of world leaders are ubiquitous and most of the negative ones, like those of George W. Bush throughout most of the 2000s, aren’t racially charged. That doesn’t mean that racist caricatures haven’t existed in the past, like those of Japanese leaders during World War II in the American media, nor does it deny that racist depictions of Kim Jong-un and North Koreans are out there, but it does mean that caricatures and mockery shouldn’t be taken as inherently racist.

Second, Western nations and human rights organizations frequently criticize the Chinese government for the abuses it commits. None of them would agree with the statement that human rights abuses in China are anywhere as bad as human rights abuses in North Korea. In China, the free press is constrained; in North Korea, it is non-existent. In China, travel is restricted; in North Korea, it is forbidden. In China, the rule of law is weak; in North Korea, it is illusory. Treating all regimes who violate human rights as equivalent and interchangeable only minimizes the depths of abuses in places like North Korea.

Just because the North Korean culture is so utterly alien to much of the West, we allow ourselves to caricature the North Koreans and their leader. Admittedly, if you’re raised in a system of culture that doesn’t favour the theatrical and the hagiographic, you’re going to find the sight of prancing soldiers a little weird. But think about it before you join in with the chorus of ridicule: for the so-called civilised West, there’s probably very little difference in the quality of the disdain they feel for our own dancing Jacob Zuma.

It’s a little ridiculous to say Western culture, which gave us Versailles, the Olympic Games, and George S. Patton, doesn’t favor theatricality and hagiography. Military parades, which I presume is what Roper refers to by “prancing soldiers,” also take place in every country that has both a military and a parade. The North Korean military parade trope is only so prominent because that’s often all we see of the reclusive country. (We can thank the regime’s absolute control of the North Korean press and aggressive propaganda campaigns for that.) The Zuma quip appears to conclude that since mocking the South African president for dancing would be racist and wrong, mocking North Korea for its military parades is also racist and therefore wrong. I’m not sure that logic is, well, logical.

Of course, we have the self-same West to thank for the fact that North Korea exists at all. I’m oversimplifying massively, but the arbitrary division of Korea by the Allies after World War II is certainly a contributing factor to what we’re confronted with today. It’s kind of like Saddam Hussein-era Iraq, another gift bestowed on the world by the greed of western powers. And the American involvement in using North Korea as a pawn in their Cold War jousting with Soviet Russia means that the Kims have usefully had as caricatured an enemy to use for propaganda purposes.

Rarely do respectable newspapers publish paragraphs so rife with falsehoods, misrepresentations, and ignorance. I don’t know how Roper defines “the West,” but it certainly didn’t force the Soviet Union to prop up Kim Il-sung’s puppet regime in the late 1940s. Nor did “the West” pay for Kim Il-sung’s train ticket to Moscow in 1950 where he begged Joseph Stalin to give his assent to North Korea’s plans to conquer the South. The aging Soviet despot gave it, and “the West” sent thousands of troops to fight a three-year war against North Korean and Chinese forces to save South Korea from communist rule. Given the disparity in human rights and economic prosperity between North Korea and South Korea today, it’s a good thing the United Nations did. Indeed, “oversimplifying massively” would be using terms like “the West” so broadly that they lose all substantive meaning. Whether using phrases like “the greed of western powers” and “the so-called civilized West” in an exhortation against caricaturing an entire nation would be irony, hypocrisy, or both is also an open question.

I’m not saying that North Korea deserves our respect, far from it. The Guardian’s comparison of North and South Korea is revealing about what a terrible place North Korea is. And it’s true that the North Korean Kims have actually bumped Ms Kardashian off the number one spot on the popular “Ten Kims That Make Global Extinction A Not Entirely Tragic Thought” list that National Geographic’s magazine compiles every year.

The third sentence, which I have bolded for emphasis, was actually published online by a globally-renowned newspaper.

According to the data, a South Korean lives 10 years longer than a North Korean, 79.3 years versus 69.2. For every 1,000 live births in South Korea, 4.08 of the infants die on average. In the North, a tragic 26.21 die. And the homicide rate per 100,000 people is 2.6 in the South, and 15.2 in the North. And the stat that means nobody in North Korea will ever read my column: 81.5% of South Korea has access to the internet, but less than 0.1% of North Koreans do.

So sure, it’s a messed up place.

I don’t doubt that Roper disapproves of North Korea’s government, but it’d be hard to be less sincere about it by rattling off a few dehumanized statistics. North Korea is a carceral state from which no escape is possible, dotted with city-sized concentration camps housing almost 200,000 “enemies of the state”. Its totalitarian regime spent six decades shaping an entire society towards rabid xenophobia and military confrontation with the West solely to justify its own brutal grip on power. Millions of North Koreans suffer and starve so that Kim Jong-un and his inner circle can build nuclear weapons and threaten to turn neighboring nations into “seas of fire”.

So sure, it’s a messed up place.

But that doesn’t make it okay to devolve to old patterns of jingoistic racism, and turn “North Korean” into another iteration of the terrible N-word. Recently, the Washington Post ran a story quoting John McCain referring to “the crazy people” running North Korea, and there are headlines along the lines of WND.com’s “Diplomat: ‘Crazy’ N Korea deserves hard line“. It’s the kind of rhetoric that makes diplomacy difficult and aggression more palatable. I’m okay with calling Kim Jong-un an evil dictator, but not with a blanket statement about crazy people.

Is it possible that John McCain is calling North Korea’s leadership “the crazy people” not because he’s a jingoistic racist, but because North Korea’s leadership is threatening nuclear war against South Korea, Japan, and the United States for no reason whatsoever?

Is it conceivable that John McCain finds the North Korean government’s threat to launch nuclear weapons against the United States of America – a superpower wielding more military might than any organized society in the totality of human existence has ever possessed – so ludicrous and detached from reason itself that the only possible explanation is pure madness?

Could that be why he chose to refer to North Korea’s leaders as “crazy people”? Or is it more likely that he harbors a hatred of all North Koreans so virulent that its only historical parallel is the bigotry historically faced by African-Americans?

In State of Mind, Nick Bonner and Dan Gordon’s amazing 2004 documentary about the Mass Games in North Korea, he follows two young girls around as they get ready for what should be the culmination of a dream of theirs: to perform in front of the Gracious Leader. They practice for a year, and, of course, Kim Jong-Il can’t be bothered to turn up, despite (if memory serves me) having a choice of around 40 performances to pick from. But what I mostly remember from the film (and this is a facile reading, which is necessary to interrogate) was the fact that most North Koreans seemed to have little problem with the style of leadership. So when we make fun of the craziness of Kim Jong-un, we’re making fun of an entire belief system and culture, which is racism at its facile best.

Because two young girls seemed happy to glorify a Stalinist cult of personality that sends entire families to concentration camps if a single relative dissents, Roper concludes that “most North Koreans seemed to have little problem with this style of leadership.”

Because most North Koreans seem to have little problem with this style of leadership, Roper concludes that mocking the 28-year-old leader of the world’s last totalitarian state, whose father and grandfather spent six decades shaping North Korean society into absolute obedience through brutality and starvation, is “racism at its facile best.”

Few things are more discouraging for this young unemployed writer than the knowledge that someone was paid to write what I just read.