On Being An American

‘When the soul of a man is born, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight.  You talk to me of nationality, language, religion.  I shall try to fly by those nets.’ — James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I participate in a certain web forum for the discussion of geopolitics where the number of participants is just a handful, but the viewpoint diversity is very strong, ranging from my strongly market liberal views that are pretty disdainful of government action in most dimensions, to those on the right who are more or less recognizable conservatives, to social democrats, and even our court jester: an old school Marxist tankie who spends his days and nights posting article after article from TASS and other outlets of overt Russian dezinformatsiya

Occasionally, one of the other participants in responding to something I’ve said or in drawing my attention to one issue or another will refer to US government institutions as mine. For example, “your Supreme Court”, or “your Congress”; that sort of thing. Now, I almost never take Internet discussions seriously, and even less often take them personally, so it’s interesting that alone of all the things we discuss there — war and peace, economics and social dynamics, liberty and tyranny, the works! — it is this simple formulation that, to use an ironically American turn of phrase, drives me bananas.

There are a number of reasons why that may seem odd. The fellow who uses it clearly has no ill intent, he’s simply indicating that I’m an American. And he’s quite right: I am. I’m a US citizen, born in the US of American parents. My father’s family has been here since not long after the Civil War, and my mother’s European ancestors in what is now the US go back to the 17th century. (And that’s not counting an Abenaki ancestor on my mother’s side, since that’s so distant that to claim it as meaningful would be rather disingenuous.)

That said, that doesn’t mean that ancestry is everything, or even the main thing. I’ve long thought that whether one’s ancestors have been here since the last Ice Age or just the last presidential administration, culture is king in determining who an American is. American culture takes a lot of criticism, especially from ourselves, but one thing about it that I’ve always appreciated is how easy it is to assimilate. No matter where you come from, and how strong your ties remain to that place, your kids may respect your culture, but if they are raised here, they will be American. 

So if I’m an American and don’t think that being American is bad, then why does “your president” bug me so much? There are two reasons, the lesser of which is ideological. If something is “mine”, that suggests I am somehow responsible for it and that I endorse it. Well, I’m not, and I don’t. Perhaps at the local level there a single determined individual can build meaningful influence and effect noticeable change, but when it comes to things like US foreign policy, the decisions made in Foggy Bottom are even more distant from the hoi polloi of the electorate than any ancestor who trudged across the Bering land bridge in search of wooly mammoths to spear for dinner.

The great reason, however, is that the formulation implies that one’s outlook is inexorably limited by one’s national origin, that the color of one’s passport is all that colors one’s perspective. I do realize that it’s a factor, in fact I’ve learned how important familiarity from the inside of a society is to understanding it by reading some of the humorously inaccurate beliefs about American society occasionally made on that forum by those familiar with it only from afar.

But just because one’s culture may be a starting point for understanding the world, that doesn’t mean it’s a finish line for it. By cultivating multicultural experiences and deliberate exposure to other languages, other societies, and the hopes, dreams, beliefs, and fears of those whose roots were fed in distant ground, one can end up with a much more refined view of how we are similar and how we differ. 

Put simply, then, the main reason that formulation galls me is that it suggests that a person’s views are much more one dimensional than they necessarily are. I like to think that I don’t presuppose that of others, and in turn I would prefer they not presuppose it of me. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?

David’s Jolly Roger vs. Goliath’s Stars And Stripes

Pirates Be Here!
Once again Antigua is in the news for threatening to allow open distribution of materials that have been copyrighted by U.S.-based entities. This stems from a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that by forbidding Americans from accessing gambling web sites in other countries, but allowing them to go to Las Vegas and Atlantic City instead, the U.S. government was protecting their own industry by limiting access to foreign competitors. Even though they’ve lost as much as a billion dollars from U.S. protectionism here, the Antiguans haven’t yet taken advantage of the ruling, and it’s widely believed this is the case because of the fear of dire reprisal from the Colossus to the North.

It’s a fascinating case, and one that anyone interested in international trade should follow. In the meantime, though, to help one gain an understanding, one of the more amusing analogies for explaining why the Antiguans have such a strong case comes from Greg Sabino Mullane, who wrote:

They’re doing it flagrantly because it’s explicitly tit-for-tat. It’s their way of pointedly asking “Do we have rules or not?”

Let’s say you and I are sociopathic assholes, so whereas most people might have some kind of implicit social contract, and a sense of how people should act decently to one another, we’re jerks and write up and agree to some formal rules. Among these rules are things like “Neither party will ever hit the other in the head with a hammer and then steal their wallet while the victim is incapacitated.” Call that the WIPO rule.

We have another rule too. It’s “Neither party will ever vandalize the other’s car.” Call that the WTO rule.

Then I go and vandalize your car, totally in violation of the rules. I don’t deny it, either. Instead, I explain I had good reasons to do it. “I really wanted to vandalize your car, and it looked so vulnerable. I just couldn’t help it!” but whether I had a good reason or not, you claim I broke our agreement. You might not feel all that hurt about the car, but breaking the agreement… oh dear. We’re sociopaths, but we’re not uncivilized, are we?

After my amazing explanation for why I did it, you ask me: “Are you going to do it again?” and I answer “Yeah, probably. Your car still does look pretty vandalizable, and I really like vandalizing cars.” You answer “What about our agreement?” and I just shrug. You ask, “Are our agreements important?” and I shrug again!!

You go see our mutual acquaintances, perhaps some people with whom I also have some agreements. They’re a little concerned to hear I value our agreements so little. Will their cars be next? They think it over and say, “Yeah, Sloppy broke his agreement to not vandalize your car. You should get even.”

So you do. You hit me in the head with a hammer and I wake up without a wallet. You do it openly, too. Our acquaintances nod with approval, even though you’re breaking the agreement now. I ask, “How can you do that?!?”

You explain: if I think the rules are so important, and I have such a problem with being hit with hammers, THEN MAYBE I SHOULD STOP FUCKING AROUND WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S CARS.

I don’t know what I’ll do. I still really do like vandalizing cars. I’d like to vandalize your car again, and that other dude with whom I have a no-vandalize agreement. But I’m not sure I like this hammers development. OTOH, I don’t know, maybe it’s worth it. The hammers hurt and I don’t like losing my wallet all the time, but the cars! Oh, the cars! That’s so much fun.

Now, the analogy isn’t quite apt because the Antiguans haven’t actually allowed open redistribution of copyrighted materials, at least not yet. But if they do, then the American mainstream media are sure to slam them as the next incarnation of Somalia, so it’s important in advance for people to understand who really started the trouble — and it’s not Antigua.

Political Persecution Of Indian Filmmaker Kamal Haasan

Note: A friend of mine in Tamil Nedu wanted to speak out about the censorship of Vishwaroopam, a film from Indian cinema legend Kamal Haasan, but he’s concerned about retaliation. The following are his remarks.

Well the dictator we have as Chief Minister Jayalalitha has used minority religious groups (Islamic groups) to stall the release of Vishwaroopam because Kamal Haasan once said the Congress minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material. Now this has triggered a ban on the movie in its principal revenue making zone, Tamil Nadu, a 65 million populous state in India where there would be houseful shows shown so the film maker and actor Kamal can get back his money as he has pledged his property and assets all together in this film. The pyrotechnics in the film are of Hollywood standards and in his vision to take Indian cinema to global standards, has lavished money in production costs. Most Indian celebrities are trying placate and express their views but none of them stand against the state government.

Spoiler alert: Well it is a film about an Indian muslim spy who is an undercover Indian cop who sneaks as a mole into the Taliban camp in Afghanistan and turns a traitor and have the American forces gun them down eventually foiling the ploy to have bio and nuke bombs planted into doves and pigeons and sent all over the world by Afghan terrorists. There are a few instances of holy Quran verses chanted as soon as a killing scene. (Or probably that’s what the politicians have been using to instigate minority religious groups to stall the movie’s release).

Now the irony is they have shown such themes in many such movies however this has been picked by the government because our Chief Minister Jayalalitha is against the central government and since Kamal once said in a function openly that central minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material and also to the fact that the satellite right went into the hands of he opposition parties owing to their higher bid, she wants blood and has create a needless controversy by provoking the minority Muslim groups.

Now the film has been made at a budget of a billion Indian rupees. Thats two times the assets owned by he producer and actor and superstar Kamal Haasan who has been a huge contributor to Indian cinema industry. He is an ant, if you understand my analogy, who does not stop working and has an amazing filmography and is worshipped in these parts of he world. But sadly is fragile as the government is playing spoil sport.

Vishwaroopam’s piracy hunt has been in huge proportions lately as millions of Facebook fans have been reporting torrents and download sites 24/7/365 and have been standing guard. Each one of his fan has taken an oath that until he gets out of debts through the good box office show of his movie released world wide we would not indulge in piracy and would only watch films in theaters. And we have travelled far and wide just to watch the movie in our neighboring states. But still those are worth peanuts and only Tamil Nadu release can see through his debts.

Please Join Me In Helping Hawa Akther Jui

This is not a conventional blog post for me, and those who are disturbed by accounts of severe domestic violence may find it unsettling.

Most people who pursue a degree through eLearning end up having to overcome some sort of adversity to get to graduation. But for most of us that means trying to balance work, family, and study. Sure, that’s a challenge, but it’s nothing compared to the story of Hawa Akther Jui. She’s a young woman in Bangladesh who, like many, decided that she wanted to take advantage of higher education. But her husband, who was working abroad, disapproved of her ambition. She defied him, continuing with her education anyway. On his return to Bangladesh he blindfolded her, gagged her, restrained her right arm, and cut off all of the fingers on her right hand.

He has been arrested for this horrible crime and is likely to be punished severely. Ms. Akther has said she has no desire to have anything more to do with him. But this is not his story, it’s hers.

It’s said that who you are isn’t determined by what happens to you, but instead by how you respond to what happens to you. And Ms. Akther’s response to this is that she is more determined than ever to complete her education. Her right hand cannot be repaired — her husband and one of his relatives ensured this by discarding her fingers so that by the time her family could recover them it was too late for them to be reattached. But she has been been relearning how to write, saying, “I have now started practising writing with my left hand. I want to see how far I can go. I never imagined that my fingers would be chopped off like this because of my studies.”

I’ve never met Hawa Akther Jui, nor even heard of her before I read the BBC article and other articles about what happened to her. But I feel drawn to try to help her, if possible. I expect that she has medical, educational, and living expenses, and I am willing to contribute $100 to help defray them. If you’re reading this, and you would like to help also, please contact me by email to steve@hiresteve.com. I have the contact information for the Bangladesh-based BBC reporter who interviewed her, and would send her the money through him. In the event that Ms. Akther does not need or want any money raised, I would instead donate it to the Asian University for Women, also located in Bangladesh.

No one should have to face this sort of thing, particularly not as a consequence for trying to improve one’s lot in life. If you would like to help, even just to send a little, please get in touch. I’ll be sure to post updates so that everyone who helps finds out what happens.

Freedom In North Africa

“Thank you Facebook!” — Egyptian protester, recorded by NPR

El tahrir
Three cheers for the people of Tunisia and Egypt! May those in every nation rise up so boldly to cast off those who would oppress them! The last few weeks have been “Fall of the Berlin Wall” quality for those of us who care about liberty and the developing world. It’s especially gratifying to see that protesters in other countries are inspired by these grassroots revolutions, and that dictators in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen are losing sleep over this.

One thing that’s interesting here is the discomfort that U.S. officials seem to express in admitting that their three decades of support for the regime in Egypt means that they can expect the next government there to be markedly less friendly, even as it (hopefully) will be much more democratic. Some American commentators have also remarked that since the U.S. didn’t do more to prop up Mubarak even now that similar dictatorships, especially those in the Persian Gulf, will become less compliant to U.S. interests.

Amazingly, they say this like it’s a bad thing. But one of the lessons of 2011 is that when you stand up for dictators rather than democracy, the world can see that you really stand for nothing. American policy makers have talked emptily about their wish for democracy in the Middle East for years, but it’s obvious to everyone, particularly Middle Eastern democrats, that they really couldn’t care less about this. The Cold War has been over for twenty years. Even if support for right-wing dictatorships was necessary as bulwarks against communism, and I’m not saying it was, that rationalization reached its sell-by date a long time ago.

Another case in point is the Republic of Somaliland in the northern part of what still shows up on the map as Somalia. There has been a functional republic there for years, with peaceful transition of power through elections and everything. It’s completely unlike Mogadishu. But decision makers in the U.S. government won’t even recognize its existence, much less support it. With friends like that….

By the way, I chose today’s quote for a reason. I was one of the ones who was unimpressed that Mark Zuckerberg was Time’s Person of the Year last year rather than Julian Assange. But given the pivotal role that social networks played in coordinating the efforts of those who rose up against Ben Ali and Mubarak, perhaps they weren’t just being cowardly, perhaps they were also inadvertently prescient. Either way it’s nice to see that the Internet is living up to at least some of its promise for being an equalizer when it comes to who gets to wield societal power. But especially given that the U.S. diplomatic cables leak helped to inspire the protests in Tunisia, I still say that Assange — warts and all — deserves to be Person of the Year.

U.S. And Chinese Economic Trends

“Although China and United States are competitors, China and the United States are indeed partners in trade.” — Zhu Rongji

I saw this Reuters article on how economists foretell of U.S. decline, China’s ascension, and since my teenage son is studying Mandarin, I posted it to his wall on Facebook. My mom, also an avid Facebooker, suggested we read the reader comments also, since there was a lot of disagreement. So I thought I’d elaborate on why I sent it to him.

I don’t think the U.S. is going to drop out of the economic top ten any time soon, I just think since the end of the Cold War that it’s enjoyed an unrivaled preeminence that is coming to an end. I think there are things that the U.S. could do to put off that trend, like tax reform and immigration reform, but that policy makers don’t understand these issues and that even among those who do there’s insufficient political will to take these things on. That said, I don’t think it’s so much that the U.S. is in decline so much as that other countries are catching up, which doesn’t strike me as a bad thing.

China is also doing a much better job building relationships with countries where incomes are low but natural resources abound. For example, China has been increasing their presence in Ghana’s oil sector at the Americans’ expense. They’re also doing a good job shepherding their own natural resources, for example with farsighted policies on rare earth metals extraction — metals needed in a variety of industries for which they currently are the only economically viable source.

That’s not to say the Chinese have every advantage. Their huge agrarian population keeps labor costs low, but that also means their GDP per capita will be lower than that in Western countries for a long time, even as they get squeezed in the other direction by countries like Vietnam that are emerging as cheaper outsourcing destinations.

The American educational system for all its faults is also better overall than theirs. Even their K-12 system isn’t focusing on the right things. Over there it’s all rote memorization of facts, and very little emphasis on understanding the connections among things — sort of like NCLB tests from hell. That’s an okay system for a manufacturing economy, but a terrible one for a service economy where innovation is key.

So my point wasn’t that the Chinese were taking over the world, just that there’s a difference between a large economy and a dynamic economy, and these days they seem to be both, and there are worse uses of time for a young person than to be learning Mandarin.

The Naming of Names

Recently an American researcher traveled to Barbados and on finding that the world’s smallest snake lived there, cataloged it and named it after his wife, with the binomial Leptotyphlops carlae.

Just one problem — astonishingly, Bajans already knew all about the thread snake, their name for the tiny ophidian living in their midst. And some of them aren’t very impressed that a foreigner has dropped by to rename their fauna as though they were somehow unaware of it.

I’m with the Bajans on this one. All too often academics from the developed world get credit for “discoveries” that give no credit to indigenous peoples who knew about them long before. I’m reminded of how old people in Dominica knew to eat old bread when they were ill long before Alexander Fleming isolated penicillin from bread mold.

I also thought it was interesting that all the images I’ve seen that show how small the thread snake is use a U.S. quarter as a comparison object rather than a Bajan one, especially since they’re the same size. I suppose I understand the point of using an object the size of which is widely recognizable but why not use a culturally neutral one, like a pencil — or a ruler, for that matter?

Dominica: Where the Freedom Is

Note: Recently I was offered a preliminary look at a new index of which countries are the most free, both in terms of civil liberties and in terms of free markets. Here was my response.

I thought your index was interesting, but it had the same problem as all of the indices from which you draw information — small island states are not listed.

For several years I lived in Dominica, the small English-speaking island in the Eastern Caribbean, not the larger Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic on the Northern Caribbean island of Hispaniola. It is on par with anywhere in the world when it comes to liberty.

There is simply no meaningful restriction on civil liberties there. People say what they want, when they want. There’s a guy who literally drives around in a car with megaphones on the roof declaring his opinions on every subject. News media are critical of the government almost to excess, and freedom of religion is respected as well. There are laws against drug use, but few seem to care about them and there are people who smoke marijuana openly. I found more people cared more about the public health effects of drug use than in the use itself.

There is no military, and those in the police service are part of the communities in which they live and work, rather than being militarized and separate as here in the U.S. I found they mostly served to settle individual disputes rather than harass people. (I’ve heard this wasn’t always the case back in the day, especially against Rastafarians, but that things have changed and that the bad apples were dismissed.)

There are controls on immigration, but they are not strictly enforced. Even so, it’s not difficult for foreigners to get a work permit. Their biggest problem with illegal immigration are “Spanish girls” (i.e., prostitutes from Santo Domingo). There are Haitians working there illegally, mostly in agriculture, the island’s dominant industry, but they’re appreciated for working hard, and no one seems to bother them otherwise.

Economics are not quite as good, but still excellent. Taxation is not excessive, and a foreigner coming in to start an international business easily can have a work permit and a ten year tax holiday. There are competitive telecommunications for phone service and broadband Internet, although rates for international phone calls are very high, and it’s well worth using VoIP. There are monopolies for power and water, but thanks to the rainy climate the latter is easily evaded through use of cisterns, and the former is annoying, but nowhere near as bad as in many other developing countries.

So if it’s so great, why doesn’t it show prominently on the indices of free countries? It’s not the only missing entry, as many other Caribbean small islands states are missing as well. I think it’s because their populations are too small. At 70,000 people, Dominica is just 1/3 of 1% the size of the U.S., and some islands are even smaller than that. While that’s bad for the accuracy of freedom indices, I have to admit it’s probably a good thing for those of us who know where the freedom is.