Countries that “don’t matter”

Me: Iceland has a very high rate of out of wedlock births, pretty much half of all births there, actually –but the Icelanders are pretty accepting of that and it’s not a big deal.

Libertarian Roommate: Iceland, haha. I wonder what it would be like to be from a country that doesn’t matter. I mean, Iceland, you could wipe it off the map and no one would care.

Bring on the crazy: organ selling and duels to the death edition

Last night, while I was sitting at the kitchen table and trying to write about attacks on the press in Afghanistan, my roommate (henceforth Libertarian Roommate) sauntered in and started talking about how awesome it would be if people could sell their organs –all of them even ! At once!– for profit. I sighed and jumped into a debate that ultimately consumed the entire evening and drew in our neighbor, B.

Libertarian Roommate argued, I kid you not, that “It is profoundly immoral for government to tell me what I can and cannot do with my body”— in relation to selling organs, even to the point of for-profit suicide with the suicide’s family receiving the cash payout after the “harvest.”

I told him I was against organ selling and suicide, and that I thought he was off his rocker. I said that organ selling is something the rich will never do, and will be a new hell for the poor to confront in their desperation. I also said that it would almost certainly involve coercion, with at least some people being pressured or forced into selling their innards to support their families. I said it was inhumane, and would turn large numbers of people in the developing world into disposable sacks of spare parts.

Libertarian Roommate shrugged and said something about organ selling not being more inhumane than working at McDonalds, and that he would know, because he worked at McDonalds.

Then, the conversation segued to dueling, and why it is “profoundly immoral” and “taking away freedom” for public duels to the death for fun and/or profit to not be permitted in the United States.

Libertarian Roommate envisioned a macabre scenario in which he and our neighbor, B, each swallowed half a bag of diamonds (bear with me here) and then fought to the the death, bare-handed, with the loser being ripped open and the victor getting all the diamonds.

My response: WHAT THE FUCK!?

“You know what would make it even more awesome?” Libertarian Roommate asked, rhetorically, of course. “If Pay Per View televised it. Yeah, that would be sweet.”

Again: WHAT THE FUUUUUUUUCK!?

“I don’t think people have intrinsic value,” he told me. “I don’t believe in human rights.”

By now, B had joined the fray, and was trying to convince my roommate that the things most normal humans understand are wrong by about age five (slavery, cold-blooded murder, gross exploitation, etc) are, well, wrong.

What have I gotten myself into?

Oversight? What’s that? (Sorry, it’s been a while.)

I was, in the words of many a Capital Hill douchebag, “cautiously optimistic” when I read this today in the Washington Post.

A massive federal plan to revive the U.S. financial system ran into intense skepticism today on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties questioned whether it would work and demanded protections for taxpayers with tough oversight.

Oversight! Now there’s a role Congress hasn’t taken very seriously in the past seven years. But, if real, this attitude shift is welcome –a bit late, and a bit cynical coming from Republicans– but very, very welcome nonetheless.

For reasons best expressed by Naomi Klein, I am still pretty worried.

The second [phase of the economic shock] comes when the debt crisis currently being created by this bailout becomes the excuse to privatize social security, lower corporate taxes and cut spending on the poor. A President McCain would embrace these policies willingly. A President Obama would come under huge pressure from the think tanks and the corporate media to abandon his campaign promises and embrace austerity and “free-market stimulus.”

So, even if there is strict Congressional oversight of the “bailout” and it’s followed by much greater regulation of Wall Street, it’s still likely that those of us who bear the least responsibility for the crisis in the first place (especially the poor) will ultimately pay most dearly.

Cheery, no?

GOP Wall Street Socialism

So, our always prudent government is bailing out Wall Street as it collapses like a house of cards. My extreme free-marketeer roommate is being strangely silent about this, and prefers to argue with me about whether or not “black privilege” exists (It does not.) Maybe the I should send him Glenn Greenwald’s latest column and see what he thinks.

Greenwald’s take (emphasis mine):

…whatever else is true, the events of the last week are the most momentous events of the Bush era in terms of defining what kind of country we are and how we function — and before this week, the last eight years have been quite momentous, so that is saying a lot. Again, regardless of whether this nationalization/bailout scheme is “necessary” or makes utilitarian sense, it is a crime of the highest order — not a “crime” in the legal sense but in a more meaningful sense.

What is more intrinsically corrupt than allowing people to engage in high-reward/no-risk capitalism — where they reap tens of millions of dollars and more every year while their reckless gambles are paying off only to then have the Government shift their losses to the citizenry at large once their schemes collapse? We’ve retroactively created a win-only system where the wealthiest corporations and their shareholders are free to gamble for as long as they win and then force others who have no upside to pay for their losses. Watching Wall St. erupt with an orgy of celebration on Friday after it became clear the Government (i.e., you) would pay for their disaster was literally nauseating, as the very people who wreaked this havoc are now being rewarded.

More amazingly, they’re free to walk away without having to disgorge their gains; at worst, they’re just “forced” to walk away without any further stake in the gamble. How can these bailouts not at least be categorically conditioned on the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains from those who are responsible? The mere fact that shareholders might lose their stake going forward doesn’t resolve that concern; why should those who so fantastically profited from these schemes they couldn’t support walk away with their gains? This is “redistribution of wealth” and “government takeover of industry” on the grandest scale imaginable — the buzzphrases that have been thrown around for decades to represent all that is evil and bad in the world.

Or, as Mischa put it (in his gchat away message), “All Republicans are Socialists above a hundred million dollars.”

And it’s not just Mischa, apparently the Brazilians are thinking similarly.

Other countries are debating it. The headline in the largest Brazilian newspaper this week was: “Capitalist Socialism??” and articles all week have questioned — with alarm — whether what the U.S. Government did has just radically and permanently altered the world economic system and ushered in some perverse form of “socialism” where industries are nationalized and massive debt imposed on workers in order to protect the wealthiest. If Latin America is shocked at the degree of nationalization and government-mandated transfer of wealth, that is a pretty compelling reflection of how extreme — unprecedented — it all is.

But there’s virtually no discussion of that in America’s dominant media outlets. All one hears is that everything that is happening is necessary to save us all from economic doom.

This last point is important, and very scary when you really reflect on what it means. The near total lack of dissenting voices in Congress and the media is another sign of how ossified democracy has become in the United States. Everything government does is ok, because it’s government doing it.

UPDATE: Ummm, or not.  Sort of? We hope?

Learning Dari, and other stuff

I’m being tutored in conversational Dari by Z, an awesome volunteer from one of the organizations I work for. He’s also giving me cultural advice on how to avoid making a total ass of oneself as a foreigner in Afghanistan. I’ve already come away with a couple of interesting lessons.

1) I’m vampire pale with slightly Asiatic-looking eyes (strange, considering I don’t have any Asian ancestors, as far as I know of) and dark hair. This means that, with the right clothes, I can blend in pretty easily in Afghanistan, according to Z. Not sticking out, in the words of blogger Pyjama Samsara, “like a dog’s balls” can only be a positive thing.

2) I keep mixing up the phrases for “No thank you, I don’t eat that” and “No thank you, I don’t want to buy that.” Thus, I will tell some Kabul clothing vendor that I don’t eat shoes, thanks anyway!

What if…

Something happens to render our November 4th presidential election not free and fair by international standards…what then?

This was a hypothetical I posed to my Democratization classmates on Tuesday.

For a good thirty seconds, my classmates were stunned, and stumped. S was the first to break the silence, “Well, ideally, the Department of Justice investigates, prosecutes those responsible, and a re-vote is held.”

Ideally. Right. But do we think that would really happen? Most of my classmates, and even the professor, seemed uncertain at best.

My friends, this is a problem.

The key to my neighbor’s house*

“Peace is more than the absence of violence.” It was a saying people working for the international community would often use in Bosnia, where I had a human rights internship last year. There was a deep truth to that statement. Peace is about so much more than an end to warfare, it’s about human security, justice, reconciliation, and reconstruction. It’s something that takes years, decades even, of painstaking work by everyone from high level diplomats and politicians to ordinary people. It’s the unsexy work of disarming and reintegrating former combatants, rebuilding infrastructure, locating, burying and mourning the dead, prosecuting war criminals, reforming legislatures, prisons, schools, and police forces. Peace accords are necessary because they enable all these things to happen, but they’re still just the first step, the basic ending violence part.

Now, Iraq. Pundits and politicians gleefully taut the success of The Surge, because violence has indeed decreased since it began. But that’s not the whole story. And the areas of Iraq where gunfire no longer rings out all day certainly aren’t “at peace,” despite what supporters of The Surge continue to argue.

Yes, the decrease in violence has been real, but the reason for the new calm should be cause for alarm, not celebration.

Ethnic cleansing. What an awful term. It became part of our lexicon after the Bosnian war, and, while linguistically problematic, its meaning is pretty straightforward: people of one ethnic of religious group are killed or exiled from the area they lived in until that area no longer has any members of the persecuted group. That is what has happened in Iraq, and why many formerly anarchic and violent areas, especially in and around Baghdad, are now ominously subdued.

Newly released satellite images back up what human rights and humanitarian organizations have been saying for some time now. Via Reuters.

Satellite images taken at night show heavily Sunni Arab neighborhoods of Baghdad began emptying before a U.S. troop surge in 2007, graphic evidence of ethnic cleansing that preceded a drop in violence, according to a report published on Friday.

The images support the view of international refugee organizations and Iraq experts that a major population shift was a key factor in the decline in sectarian violence, particularly in the Iraqi capital, the epicenter of the bloodletting in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

This, like so many other horrible aspects of the Iraq War, was likely never even considered when the invasion was planned by our feckless regime in Washington.

A recent short film by an Iraqi journalist working for the Guardian shows in maddeningly vivid detail, just how brutally the war has torn apart the fabric of Iraqi society.

When the war in Iraq finally ends, the process of building peace will only then even begin. A major part of peace building is getting refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their previous towns and villages, but that’s not always –or even often– easy, as the Economist recently noted.

A few [refugees returning from Egypt to Iraq] expressed mild optimism that the situation has improved in their home areas. Many more said they were returning because they had little choice: they were unable to work in Egypt and were running out of money.

Nor were they the first of Iraq’s refugees to come home. Some 50,000 people re-entered the country in the nine months up to last March, the UN believes. Among these were 365 families who came back from Syria in late 2007, wooed by a resettlement offer of $800 per household. But most of that group later told the UN they could not “go home” in the literal sense; their houses had either been ruined or seized by others.

Officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also say quietly that the returns from Egypt, insofar as they were prompted by near-destitution, risk violating one of the key principles of refugee law: the idea that people should not be sent back to their home country against their will. But for the UNHCR and other agencies that care for the displaced, this was only the latest of many cases where the high ideals of international law run up against the realities of power politics.

In the Balkans, the problem of illegally occupied properties was “solved”** by the international community carrying out property law enforcement jointly with local authorities. In Bosnia and Kosovo this literally meant (and in Kosovo it is still an ongoing process) employees of the UN or OSCE going with local law enforcement to evict people illegally living in houses that belonged to refugees, whether or not the legal owners had returned.

In Iraq…who knows? The war itself is not yet over, and, while some parts of the country are not experiencing conflict anymore, others may be just about to ignite.

Still, the war will end one day, as all wars do, and then will begin the long process of putting back together what is left of a shattered society. As a friend of mine who works on property rights for an IGO grimly remarked last year, it doesn’t seem like she or her colleagues will be out of work anytime soon.

*The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda, by Elizabeth Neuffer. Buy it, it’s a powerful read.

**Almost all occupied properties were returned in Bosnia (in accordance with Annex 7 of the Dayton Peace Accords), but the majority of owners decided to sell them, instead of moving back, and not enough protection and support was given to returnees.

9/11/2008

So, it’s been seven years. It feels like it’s been decades since my high school classmates and I crowded around a library computer and watched as the second WTC tower was hit on live TV. I remember the sharp gasps of my teachers and the whispers of, “oh my god, this is the beginning of a war.”

That attack set off a chain of events that have not only changed American political culture for the worse, but continue to reverberate in violent events throughout the world —in dictator’s “War on Terror” justifications for crushing political opposition, mature liberal democracies’ excuses for running programs of enforced disappearances and torture, extremists espoused reasons for murdering journalists and aid workers, and so much else.

And the body-count keeps rising, with no end in sight, just more spilled blood and tears. If this “War on Terror” is really a war, it’s a war that can’t be won by anyone.

Yesterday, Ezra Klein wrote:

September 10th, 2008. Two ongoing wars, an economic crisis so deep as to spur government takeovers of huge banks, and a presidential election pitting two sharply different governance philosophies against each other. And the lead story on the news is lipstick on a pig.

The country is full of bumper stickers that say “9/11: Never Forget.” We have forgotten. And we have forgotten gleefully, aggressively. It’s not that we don’t remember the day, or have lost our appetite to cynically deploy it in service of our political agendas. But we certainly forgot the new and unsettling sense that the world was a dangerous place populated by serious threats. Problems that had once seemed abstract were all too real. But now the dangers are abstract again. A presidential election grinds on, and one side merrily chants “drill baby drill!” Every time I hear it, I wonder how we’ll be judged in 60 years.

My answer: not kindly.

Post-graduation plans

“So, how do I get to Afghanistan?” my classmate, S, asked out of the blue.  S is wicked smart, really knows his stuff when it comes to the analysis side of political science, and, as far as I can tell, isn’t the mild academic type, so I knew he wasn’t joking with me. He was serious.

Still, I must have looked taken aback, because S chuckled and explained that my boss (who is also a university professor) had told him to see me for a one-way post-graduation ticket to Kabul.

“I’m no expert, but I have some ideas,” I told S, as we hurried to class.

Later on, I sent him a message on facebook: “Let’s talk Afghanistan.”