20
Aug
17

Real News

Did you trust the media coverage of the rally in Virginia last week? Of course, many people don’t trust the media to report the baseball scores in an unbiased way right now. As we all know, this week Trump made his statement about both sides being responsible for the violence in Virginia last week, noting that there were good people and bad people on both sides. Judging by Facebook and my own personal conversations I’ve had with people I know, the reaction to these statements is either that they were a balanced way of holding both sides to account for bad behavior (minority opinion) or that they were flagrant racism.  I figured we were going to see pretty much the same reactions to whatever was about to happen at this rally in Boston, and having kind of committed myself to my vast and loyal following on this blog, I figured I would head into town and see what there was to see (leaving my pregnant wife and brand-new car at home). So, what did I see, Nazis or liberal toughs cracking down on free speech?  Neither really.

Well, there’s no qualification to not having seen any Nazis. There weren’t any. The notices for the “free speech” rally were clear that some white supremacists were slated to attend, but apparently declined in light of more pressing engagements elsewhere. And ANTIFA beating up conservatives and burning flags? Nope.  Obviously, Boston is a big place and I didn’t see everything, but I did move around quite a bit for about 2.5-3 hours, talked to some people.  The feeling I got was closer to a concert or festival. There were musicians playing, people brought their kids out. I don’t think the cops wanted a bunch of those carts all over the park in the middle of the crowd, but if sausage guy was out there he would have been making a killing. I was in front of the Star-Market next to Fenway when the Sox won the series back in 2004 and I was in FAR more danger then.  I guess I’ll just run through what I saw.

I took the T in and got off at State Street. Its maybe two blocks away from where everything was happening and there was no indication at all that anything was going on.  After last week’s events in Virginia and the buildup I saw online, I was expecting a warzone, and it was just kind of a nice little Saturday.  I walked over to the park and there were a lot of people, but it wasn’t particularly crowded yet. One of the “anti-hate” groups was just starting to march down through the park from the state house to link up with the other group coming in from Roxbury. It was very orderly. There were people acting as sort of “marshals” for the march, staying out to the side and keeping people on the right route and making sure everyone stayed on the concrete paths and didn’t stray into the grass. These marshals had on reflective vests and most covered their faces with handkerchiefs or doctor’s masks. That wasn’t really necessary and as the day went on most of them took them off, but I guess if you’re expecting Nazis it’s better safe than sorry.

I followed along as they made their way over by the Civil War memorial (Union) and as we came over the hill I saw them; ANTIFA! There were about 15 of them, dressed in all black and talking among themselves. There were a couple cops standing nearby, also talking among themselves. The most threatening thing about them is that they all wore facemasks. One guy wore a Soviet flag as a cape. There was a guy in a Captain America costume, but I don’t know if he was with them or just mingling. Everyone gawked and we just continued past. At the base of the hill the group stopped before linking up with the other march and chanted for a little while, and a lot of people were looking around and asking each other questions like “Where are all the Nazis?” confused and honestly a little bit disappointed.

So, the groups linked up and marched up past where the underground parking garage comes up and over to Beacon St. As far as I could tell, that was the end of the march. Everything broke up into smaller groups to listen to speakers. I think a lot of people had a number of reasons for being there, but I was trying to figure out what most people were mainly there for. I have no idea how to estimate these things, but from looking around I would guess that about half the people there were for Black Lives Matter as their primary focus, and the other half there for a general demonstration against hate speech.  When the fascists failed to arrive, the BLM people became much more the focus of events. There were two main areas of speakers in the common. I walked back and forth checking them out for a while and both of them had only BLM speakers. The crowd did thin out a little after this, since my impression is that a lot of people were there against hate and discrimination generally, and not necessarily to support one specific movement. That’s not to say no one was listening; I mean that only a few hundred people were actively taking part at any one time rather than 20k that came out to begin with. I was moving around trying to see as much as I could, so I didn’t listen to everything, but I certainly didn’t see or hear anything from that group that I though was anti-police. Of course, BLM being what it is, they spoke against unfair treatment and the far greater likelihood of a black person being shot by police than a white person, but also differences in the quality of education received by kids in poor black neighborhoods, and other community/race issues. Agree with them or don’t, all I want to say here is that I personally saw several thousand that were peacefully trying to get attention for their cause through normal democratic means. Maybe there are a bunch of violent ones out there, but I’m telling you that they were either not there, or chose not to make themselves known. In fact, there were many police walking around the area in teams, talking to people and generally getting along. No one was hassling them.  There was a big reserve of bike cops right in the middle of the park, maybe 50 of them, and they would send out teams from there to check out spots where someone was getting loud or if they thought someone was drunk, but people were taking pictures with them and it was more or less friendly. (Side note that this just made me think of – this was by far the largest crowd I’ve ever seen in Boston where the majority of people weren’t drunk. I don’t recall seeing anyone I thought was drunk at all in fact, though the smell of marijuana was of course a prevalent.)

Perhaps on purpose, in the interest of using a diversion, when the first BLM speaker started and the biggest crowd was listening in the park, the police took the opportunity to send four officers in slightly more substantial equipment to escort one single “free speecher” who had somehow become separated and left behind the lines by his comrades, up Beacon to the state house. This was the one single time in the day that I thought something bad might happen.

A few people noticed and started to walk next to the cops asking questions about this guy. In hindsight, if I was the police I would have said this guy was sick or something and we were taking him to get help, though he was wearing a Trump t-shirt (which oddly didn’t seem to be the problem because I saw a number of people with Trump/conservative stuff all over the place without an issue, including one guy with a “Hillary for Prison! 2016” t-shirt animatedly talking about the recent performance of the Red Sox) but instead they just pushed away the few people that came close and got a little louder telling them to stay away. In fairness, these four cops with maybe 10,000 people on the other side of the fence were probably really nervous, and maybe I would have done the exact same thing. But what ended up happening is that people heard the cops yelling and started to investigate. Then other people saw a group of people going that way and just followed to see what was up. Very quickly there was a large crowd following along, with the police quickly moving this kid (slightly older than college age I’d say) to the side of the road and pushing him along faster, with the kid inside their circle doing his best to maintain a pretty serious stink-eye at the crowd. Some people in the crowd were chanting “Shame! Shame!” at the kid. I didn’t see anything overtly violent, but if I was the police I would definitely have felt that the crowd was dangerous and threatening. I wasn’t even on the receiving end and I still felt it was getting dangerous. To their credit, the BLM people and some of the “marshals” I saw earlier rushed up and tried to get between the crowd and the police and they were yelling at people “Do not engage with him![ie the kid]” over and over. But of course some idiot threw a water bottle at the kid and immediately a squad of motorcycle cops shot up Beacon behind us with the sirens and lights going and held back the crowd while the first group pushed the kid up a side street before they could even get to the state house. They did get him away from the crowd and got him to a back door of the state house. Once they were around a corner, the motorcycle cops said it was fine to follow and go wherever we wanted, the kid must have been inside. So the crowd followed to see what would happen, if anything.

It was at this point that I did see some people trying to start trouble. As the crowd followed up the side street toward the state house there was a group of people, maybe 15 or 20 young men, the oldest about 25 years old, pushing their way to the front of the crowd swearing at people and trying to get everyone riled up. (I hadn’t really noticed how weird it was to be in a public place in Boston and not hear any swearing at all until these guys got going.) They were jumping up on stoops along the way and were yelling anti-police stuff and telling people we were going to storm the state house.  I’m bad at estimating, but I would say there were probably 250-300 people going down this street, which was pretty thin, with these couple guys bouncing around. When we got to the back door of the state house the crowd bunched up and there was a line of police in some beefier gear. Everyone stopped and just looked around and waited for something to happen. Some of these kids pushed up to the front and were yelling at the cops, while others climbed onto stoops and balconies and yelled from behind the crowd. Most people around me were more confused than anything. A lot of people were asking if this was where the Nazis were, they heard yelling and just figured.

There’s a big arch in the back of the state house and under it a police armored car started edging out and laying on the horn. Behind it a different set of police came out of the state house in the real deal riot gear – shields, helmets with hard plastic fronts, batons – and started jogging up toward the crowd. It was like a spell was broken. I would say the feeling of the crowd was “Wait a minute, we’re not here to mess with the cops, screw these idiots”. The crowd didn’t just disperse, it was like it deflated.

Some of you may feel like I’m contradicting what I said earlier about there not being any evidence of people looking for violence. Maybe I should qualify that by saying that there wasn’t anyone related to any group in particular that was looking for trouble. Most of these guys didn’t have on shirts, the others didn’t have any slogans on their shirts, they weren’t carrying any signs, they weren’t shouting anything related to any group just general incitement. The only people I could say for sure were related to any group, BLM in particular, were actively trying to keep people away from them and were apparently acting in some kind of “official” capacity because they came flying over from the speech area as soon as they saw the crowd on Beacon. Weirdly, that small group of ANTIFA had migrated over toward the state house, but didn’t move when they saw the crowd. They were just kind of hanging around smoking cigarettes.

Even with ANTIFA the only openly violent signage I saw was from three kids dressed all in black with big clunky boots and cargo pants (maybe I can get some help here, I’ve heard pseudo-military civilian gear like this referred to as “tactical”, is this an appropriate use?). There were two guys and a girl and each had a sign saying something like “The only good Nazi is a dead Nazi” and “Its ok to kill Nazis”. Physically at least, these kids were the opposite of threatening. They probably weighed 200lbs between the three of them, with their boots on. They were no older than 20 and the two guys were in the throes of acne that looked like it needed urgent medical attention. While the crowd was moving toward the state house they were sitting on the curb playing with their phones. If I was a radical anarchist I would have almost thought it was cute, but I’m solidly Gen X enough to shake my head at these Millennials. Christ, are you guys here to beat up Nazis or text each other about it? Stop worrying about when Kayden’s mom is coming to pick you up and go stomp something. Look at those boots, there’s not a scratch on them!

Sorry.  Millennials. Ugh.

Speeches were still being made when I left. People were still milling about, but otherwise not much was going on. So, conclusions: The anti-hate/BLM groups were entirely peaceful. Out of 20,000 people I would say there were maybe 100 tops that were any degree of threatening or violent. Which is amazing because if you pick any 20,000 people out of the city of Boston at random, I would expect far more than that. Go to a Red Sox game, people are awful. We don’t know too much about the “free speech” group because only about 40 of them showed up. They talked to each other in the park bandstand for a little while and then they got escorted out by police.  The Nazis, white supremacists, fascists, etc. got wind of the city’s reaction to them and stayed away. Would they have been violent? I guess we’ll never know. But, and this is my personal opinion here, I don’t think you can be a non-violent Nazi or white supremacist. The whole basis of the group is the violent suppression of other groups. It’s like saying you’re a non-violent member of Al-Qaida; you believe in and support what they do, but you haven’t actually blown anything up yet. It’s ridiculous.  Anyway, it’s just as well they didn’t show up. The only good Nazi is a Nazi that stays home and freely expresses his beliefs in online forums and a lame-assed newsletter.

The winners of the rally:

  1. Best sign: “Alt-Right-Delete”
  2. Best t-shirt: A plain white shirt that says “Fake shirt, sad.”
  3. The guy dressed as Captain America. He wins.
06
Aug
17

Arising From Complications

With the recent failure of the senate Republican health care bill, there has been a lot of commenting on health care – how bad it is, how good it is, what should be done, what shouldn’t be done. Trump says we should let ObamaCare fail through its own problems. Is that going to happen? Even Democrats say there are plenty of problems with ObamaCare, but that we should just work on fixing them rather than dismissing the whole system. Even though most Republicans at the time it was originally passed said that we should not have a universal healthcare system, that it was not economically feasible, the platform now is to repeal and replace, meaning that even without ObamaCare, some kind of universal system should apply. So, what are these problems? Where do they come from? Are they fixable or will the system fail?

It seems odd after eight years of his constant presence on TV and in the news, but you might remember how Obama kind of came out of nowhere. Before his speech at the 2004 DNC pretty much nobody had ever heard of him. But man could he give a speech. Whether you were behind him or saw him as a dangerous threat, all could feel that this was someone of consequence. He made a ridiculously short run from Illinois state senator to US senator to president. His admirers would say that this was due to the inspirational force of his vision for the country. But most detractors, and even some supporters, hesitated, thinking “wait a minute, this guy has no experience…with anything…at all.” And that view is completely legitimate. Obama was fairly young and had almost no experience managing anything except his own image.

In his first two years in office in particular, this caused a lot of problems, to add to the problems we were already facing, a recently disintegrated economy for example. It’s great, and necessary, for a president to have a vision for the country, ideals to stand behind and lead from.  But the US government is pretty big. Just the white house staff itself is massive. People disagree and sometimes don’t get along. In such cases Obama’s style early on was always to try to build consensus. He would exhaust all sides of a problem and try to get all participants in meetings to agree on a course of action. When it wasn’t possible, he often pushed off decisions, trying to let people cool off and come back at it fresh.  Finding consensus is great, it’s the best way move forward, if it’s possible. But sometimes, when all sides have been heard and common ground can’t be reached, the boss needs to step in and be the boss. Early on, Obama was reluctant to do this (oddly since many of his detractors painted him as some kind of tyrant, a more realistic criticism early on would have been to call it weak leadership). This reluctance to force an issue, would sometimes lead to his ideas being watered down, or guided away from his original intentions by more forceful personalities in the administration like Larry Summers or Rahm Emmanuel. Sometimes his vision would be lost, some might say to political reality, some might say to lack of assertiveness.

Obama’s original idea for healthcare reform, greatly influenced by a friend and close advisor Peter Orszag, was to focus on evidence-based medicine. Some background – In 1967 a Dr. Jack Wennberg at Dartmouth College began doing research using newly available data from the recently formed MediCare and MedicAid programs. These huge programs provided an amount of data, across geographical region, that had never been available before. His research was to track the medical outcomes of various procedures and treatments across geographical areas. He discovered that while the effectiveness of some procedures (back surgeries being one major example) did not vary from place to place, the rates of those procedures did vary. He found that the number of procedures done in an area were not usually tied to the demographics of that area, but rather to the number of practicing doctors offering the procedure in that area. IE a certain percentage of people in any given place will have back problems, but areas with more back surgeons will have more back surgeries, and this was not correlated with the number of people or rates of success. The research indicated that doctors have a tendency to recommend the testing, treatment, and procedures that they themselves specialize in, and that this is not tied to the necessity of the treatment or the likelihood of success.  Wennberg founded the Dartmouth Atlas Project to study and promote evidence-based medicine, which is to say the use of treatments that actually work and are necessary, rather than what can be profitably billed.  His goal of course was greater efficiency and the good of his patients.  But there’s more to it.

Billings for expensive, and unnecessary, treatments go to average people and insurance companies. Greater costs increase the risk that insurance companies see, which drives up premiums. Aside from saving patients the pain and suffering coming from unnecessary treatments, evidence-based medicine would result in savings for insurance companies and the patients themselves.  Obama and Orszag saw in this an opportunity not just for something that was good in itself, but as a way to build something better – a complete reform of the healthcare system.

Their idea, in a very quick review, was to have the government promote (some might say enforce) evidence-based medicine by regulating what would be reimbursable by MediCare. They would tie payments from MediCare to the use of evidence-based medicine. In their view, this would simply be an understanding that if the government is going to pay for a treatment, there needs to be some kind of reasonable expectation that it has a chance of being effective. People would receive better treatment, insurance companies would have less risk and could lower premiums. Many doctors would, of course, resist this, seeing it as the government looking over their shoulders and dictating how they should be treating their patients. As a trade-off, part of the reform process would include a reform of the laws guiding malpractice suits, giving doctors extra protection. This would lower doctors’ malpractice premiums, and be economically good for their professional liability insurance companies (a different set of insurance companies). But why would anyone care about saving insurance companies all this money and risk? They’re already making tons of money. They’re big boys, they can take care of themselves. Well, the last part of the agreement would be that by lowering the amount of risk insurance companies have on their books, and most likely increasing their profits, the government would then get the insurance companies to agree to extend coverage to riskier parts of the population, who would not have had coverage before. The plan was to use the reform to provide better treatment that made more economic sense, and then use the profits to finance an extension of coverage to everyone.

But there was another group in the white house that felt differently. They felt that this idea had too much focus on the economic side. The drive should be for universal coverage first, and forget about the hospitals that are overcharging and the insurance companies profiting off premiums. They saw the issue as a moral one, and while the economy was crashing and people were out of work, working with insurance companies to increase their profit was immoral, no matter what the end goal was.  And Obama was by no means unsympathetic to this view. A moral argument carried a lot of weight with him.

Add to this the fact that selling the original plan would be extremely politically difficult, and not just from republicans opposing it for party reasons. Doctors would oppose it for fear of the regulations and government interference in treatment. Health care providers would oppose it because it would reduce the lucrative billings going out for treatment that may not pass muster, plaintiff attorney firms would be opposed to malpractice reform, and those firms put tons of money up for candidates that work against it.

In the face of this resistance, and in the interest of trying to find consensus between the two groups, some aspects of the original plan began to be dropped, watered down. With the recent economic crash, there may have been enough political support to push through the original view of health care reform, but as time went by this weakened. By the time the bills were actually being put together, Obama had put a lot of his political capital and energy into the process, and his name was irretrievably tied to it. He could not afford to not pass some kind of healthcare bill. And so, it was back to his go-to move – making a hell of a speech, painting an inspirational vision with a strong moral argument, ie everyone deserves health care insurance coverage. Effectively, the effort was no longer in favor of health care reform, but for health insurance reform, without an emphasis on the economics of the problem. He was able to put together enough votes to pass this, and here we are today. But mandating that everyone have insurance made little economic sense, and this has caused the problems we’re seeing now. By forcing insurance companies to accept more risk, they have no choice but to raise premiums or pull out of unsustainable markets.

So instead of focusing on repeal, which is clearly unpopular, why don’t Republicans just point out these problems, most of which are acknowledged by Democrats. Republicans could be making endless speeches on the failures of the Obama administration in this area, pointing out the downsides that were not considered, pointing out specific solutions that can be done to fix the system and they can be the heroes.  Well, there are plenty of political reasons why they can’t do that – free market ideals, the opposition of lobbyists, etc. But one thing that would be hard to get around is that the plan that actually might work, is the un-watered down, uncompromised original idea of health care reform – make hospitals do what works, pay for what’s reasonable, and pass on the savings.  It’s probably a non-starter to argue with Republicans that the problem with ObamaCare is that it’s not Obama-y enough. But maybe they can take comfort in the fact that the one to blame for that is the man himself.

If you find any of this interesting you should check out – “Confidence Men” by Ron Suskind.

15
Jul
17

The Russians Are Really Good At This

Counter-Intelligence   noun coun·ter·in·tel·li·gence \ˌkau̇n-tər-in-ˈte-lə-jən(t)s\:  organized activity of an intelligence service designed to block an enemy’s sources of information, to deceive the enemy, to prevent sabotage, and to gather political and military information      – Merriam-Webster dictionary

“There is no such thing as a former KGB man.”          – Vladimir Putin

 

If you’re only watching the news on TV, or only reading one newspaper, then you probably have no idea what’s going on between the Trump administration and Russia, or indeed if there is anything going on between them.  I’m sure you’ve seen some headlines, repeated every 20 minutes or so, with basically no in depth coverage. Anyone who knows me knows that I am definitely NOT of the opinion that CNN is fake news, but by persisting with such incomplete coverage, they are making the charge much easier to believe. People might think that there is nothing to the reports, because the reports themselves are so thin.  Well, if you’re curious, then here’s a quick, open-source intelligence briefing for you. I don’t claim to be any kind of insider, but this information is out there and supported by multiple sources from both sides of the spectrum. Some of the sources I used are, in no special order: LA Times, Fox News, NY Times, NY Post, Washington Post, Department of Justice releases, the CIA website, the FBI website, Yahoo News, Politico, and more.  This may be a little choppy because a lot of things happen concurrently, so I’ll try to just lay out the facts chronologically, and then I’ll give what I think are reasonable conclusions.

1975-1991 – Vladimir Putin works in the foreign intelligence section of the KGB, monitoring and compiling information on foreign parties in Russia and Eastern Europe.

1986-1988 – Rinat Akhmetshin serves in the Soviet military, transferring afterward to the Second Chief Directorate (Counter-Intelligence) of the KGB. After presumably leaving the KGB he moves to the United States and becomes a permanent resident, eventually becoming a citizen in 2009. He works based in Washington DC as a lobbyist, promoting Russian interests with members of Congress.

2009 – Sergei Magnitsky is a Russian lawyer and auditor. He is working with Hermitage Capital Management, an American owned investment firm specializing in investing in Russia. In 2009 he alleges that he has uncovered corrupt practices and collusion between Russian government officials and organized crime. When these allegations are made, Bill Browder, the American co-founder of Hermitage, is deported and the Hermitage offices are raided by the Russian police. They seize a large amount of material including financial information on several Hermitage businesses. Magnitsky claims that he has uncovered proof that the seized information and material was then provided to organized crime members who used it to undermine and then take over three Hermitage companies. They then forged contracts creating a fake debt of $1billion held by Hermitage. These contracts were submitted to local judges who authenticated them. Then it was fraudulently claimed that this debt caused the businesses to become unprofitable and a $230 million tax return was paid out to them.

When Magnitsky traces the contracts and money and exposes the scheme, he is arrested and charged himself with tax evasion and fraud. He is found guilty and sent to Moscows Butyrka prison. He dies while in prison. The prison authority reports that he died of a heart attack, but a later investigation found that he had been beaten to death.

The US government passes the Magnitsky Act, putting sanctions on certain Russian individuals, companies and organizations suspected of corruption, money laundering, and human rights violations.

2010 – Peter Fritsch and Glenn Simpson found a company called Fusion GPS as a public relations and research firm offering expertise and influence in the media industry. In a few years of operation the company becomes known for political and economic “opposition research”, ie digging up dirt and doing smear campaigns.

2013 – Rob Goldstone, owner of Oui 2, a music PR firm, is hired by Donald Trump to work on the Miss Universe competition. In 2013, the competition is hosted in Moscow by Aras Agalarov, a Russian oligarch and close associate of Vladimir Putin. From 2013 on, Aras Agalarov serves as a go-between for communications between Trump and Putin. Oui 2 now represents Emin Agalarov, Aras’s son, an Azerbaijani singer/songwriter.

The Department of Justice and US Attorney for the Southern District of New York bring a case against a company named Prevezon Holdings (US v Prevezon). Prevezon is a Russian owned holding company based in Cyprus. The case is brought after some of the money from the Magnitsky affair is traced to Prevezon’s transactions in New York City real estate. Prevezon is partly owned by Pyotr Katsyv, a personal friend and close advisor of Vladimir Putin, and executive of the Russian state-owned railway system. Prevezon is run by his son Denis Katsyv. As part of the case, Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for SDNY charges Denis Katsyv with laundering money from Hermitage Capital, and with being in violation of the Magnitsky Act.

A law firm called Baker, Hofstetler is hired to defend Prevezon and Katsyv. Another Baker, Hofstetler client is Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS. Through this connection, Fusion is hired for “public record litigation support”. Their actual work is generating bad press on the case, and against Russian sanctions in general. Part of their work is a smear campaign against Magnitsky. One of the attorneys working for the defense is Natalia Veselnitskaya. Part of the defense, and Fusion’s, challenge is to dispute claims of human rights violations by various groups. Leaders from some human rights groups that take an interest in the case are reportedly contacted by Veselnitskaya and threatened with “investigation” by the FSB (the Russian state security organization, ie the new KGB). She makes it clear to them in no uncertain terms that she is connected and they’re on thin ice. Funds for the defense are provided by the Russian government and are described as “unlimited”.

A lobbying firm is also hired at this time by the Russian government to lobby Congress to get rid of the Magnitsky Act sanctions.  The lobbyist working on this case is Rinat Akhmetshin. When the House Foreign Affairs Committee asks Baker, Hofstetler for a briefing on the involved parties, the briefing is done by Akhmetshin, with Veselnitskaya in attendance.

2015 – US District Court for Washington DC brings a case against a group of Russian hackers alleging corporate espionage against a US company called International Mineral Resources. Akhmetshin is alleged to be running the operation.

January 2016 – A story is released that there is a dossier of damaging information on Donald Trump originating from his stay in Moscow in 2013. US intelligence confirms that the dossier was created by Fusion GPS and is most likely “kompromat”, compromising information (or disinformation) strategically released by Russian intelligence to influence or discredit a target. The Director of National Intelligence finds “with high confidence” that the operation was personally directed by Vladimir Putin. One of the sources for the “information” used by Fusion GPS is Rinat Akhmetshin.

May-June 2016 – Akhmetshin travels to New York for the release of movie he helped produce, as part of a local movie festival, which portrays the negative effects of Russian sanctions. Veselnitskaya travels to New York on a short term visa, presumably to work on the defense of the Prevezon case. Rob Goldstein contacts Donald Trump Jr. (they know each other from Miss Universe) and tells him that his friend Emin Agalarov knows some people who may be able to provide some damaging info on Hillary that will help the Trump campaign. (Quick recap: Emin Agalarov, son of Aras Agalarov, oligarch and Putin friend, who used to pass information between Putin and Trump, has some information that may help Trump’s campaign.)

First week of June 2016 – Donald Trump makes a number of campaign speeches stating that his team is about to uncover some damaging info that will incriminate Hillary Clinton, and he should have some bombshell news in the next week or so.

June 9, 2016 – Trump Jr. goes to the meeting in New York with Kushner and Manafort. The Russian friends of Agalarov are Akhmetshin and Veselnitskaya. Akhmetshin states that a “packet” was given to Trump Jr., but after some discussions about the purported Hillary info, the Trump party was no longer interested and left.

Second week of June 2016 – in campaign speeches Donald Trump now states that he will not be releasing the damaging Hillary info at that time, but there will likely be something in the future; no specifics.

June 15, 2016 – Democratic National Convention files and emails are leaked by a group of hackers that is later tied to Russia.

Through the rest of 2016 to the election, information is continually released regarding Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party. Intelligence services conclude that Russia is behind the “meddling.”

March 2017 – Shortly after inauguration President Trump fires Preet Bharara as US Attorney for SDNY.

April 2017 – Representative Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA), who has a reputation as the most pro-Russian member of Congress, travels to Europe purportedly to explore the question of legalizing marijuana. While there, he meets in the lobby of the Berlin Westin Grand hotel with a Russian individual to discuss the Prevezon case and the Magnitsky Act. The Russian is Rinat Akhmetshin.  Soon after, speaking to the press about the case and specifically about Bill Browder (deported by Russia, co-founder of Hermitage, partner of Magnitsky) he states “I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods.  This could well be a situation where you’ve got an American billionaire (Browder) who’s been unable to manipulate the situation in order to protect his own activities. That may be the case. I’m not making that charge.” (More than a dozen independent intelligence and law enforcement services from around the world investigated the incident and all came to the same conclusion, supporting Magnitsky’s allegations.)

May 2017 – Rohrbacher meets with Akhmetshin again, this time in his office in DC.

May 12, 2017 – The newly appointed US Attorney for Southern District of New York, direction by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, settles the Prevezon case for $5.9 million. (Recap: the case alleging laundering and fraud of $230 million, and which was about to lead to the seizure of $20 million in New York City real estate assets, was settled for $5.9 million)

 

These are all facts, but they lead to questions. I’ll give you my take.

Was the Trump dossier legit?  Almost definitely not. Was there damaging info on Hillary being provided to Trump? Probably not, though hackers did release info generally.  The damaging info against Hillary and the damaging info against Trump were a “carrot” and “stick” used to influence and undermine a target – Trump.

Was this whole thing a Russian intelligence operation?  There’s plenty of this still to come out, and plenty of info we’re not privy to, but lets consider where some things stand.

-Huge corruption case was settled for short money, without the naming of any Americans involved in the corrupt New York City real estate deals. This is good for Russian interests and for any Americans that may have been involved with large, questionable real estate deals in New York City.

-The Russians’ preferred candidate won the election.

-Members of the current administration have been implicated, and the credibility of the administration undermined. This can be expected to lead to reduced effectiveness with Congress and the American public.

-Any Russians that took part in this have avoided any legal ramifications and all activities, while suspicious, are deniable.

-Any compromising information that does exist is retained for future use.

 

You really have to tip the hat to the Russians here. They are much better at this kind of stuff than we are.

04
Jul
17

Declaration of Independence

In Congress, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Georgia

Button Gwinnett

Lyman Hall

George Walton

 

North Carolina

William Hooper

Joseph Hewes

John Penn

 

South Carolina

Edward Rutledge

Thomas Heyward, Jr.

Thomas Lynch, Jr.

Arthur Middleton

 

Massachusetts

John Hancock

Maryland

Samuel Chase

William Paca

Thomas Stone

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

 

Virginia

George Wythe

Richard Henry Lee

Thomas Jefferson

Benjamin Harrison

Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Francis Lightfoot Lee

Carter Braxton

 

Pennsylvania

Robert Morris

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Franklin

John Morton

George Clymer

James Smith

George Taylor

James Wilson

George Ross

Delaware

Caesar Rodney

George Read

Thomas McKean

 

New York

William Floyd

Philip Livingston

Francis Lewis

Lewis Morris

 

New Jersey

Richard Stockton

John Witherspoon

Francis Hopkinson

John Hart

Abraham Clark

 

New Hampshire

Josiah Bartlett

William Whipple

 

Massachusetts

Samuel Adams

John Adams

Robert Treat Paine

Elbridge Gerry

 

Rhode Island

Stephen Hopkins

William Ellery

 

Connecticut

Roger Sherman

Samuel Huntington

William Williams

Oliver Wolcott

 

New Hampshire

Matthew Thornton

25
Jun
17

Radical Roots

“Findings from the American Terrorism Study (NIJ grant #1999-IJCX-0005 and DHS/MIPT grant #lO6- 1 13-2000-064) reveal that unlike traditional criminality, terrorists are much less spontaneous, engage in substantial planning activities, and commit ancillary and preparatory crimes in advance of a terrorist incident.  Building on these findings, the goals of the current project were to determine whether (1) sufficient open source data exists to examine the temporal and spatial relationships that exist in terrorist group planning, and (2) if such data do exist, can patterns of routinized preparatory conduct be identified.”

– DOJ/University of Arkansas study – “Pre-Incident Indicators of Terrorist Incidents: The Identification of Behavioral, Geographic, and Temporal Patterns of Preparatory Conduct”

 

“Little Terry got a gun, he got from the store,

He bought it with the money he got from his chores,

He robbed the candy shop told her lay down on the floor,

Put the cookies in his bag took the pennies out the drawer.

 

Little Kalil got a gun he got from the rebels,

To kill the infidels and American devils,

A bomb on his waist,

A mask on his face,

Prays five times a day,

And listens to Heavy Metal.

 

Little Alex got a gun he took from his dad,

That he snuck into the school in his black book bag,

His black nail polish, black boots and black hair,

He’s gonna blow away the bully that just pushed his ass…”

       –  Little Weapon by Lupe Fiasco

 

What does it mean to say that someone has been radicalized? We hear it a lot now on the news. Someone drives a truck into a crowd, shoots up a nightclub, blows something up, and we hear that they were radicalized, or possibly self-radicalized. How does a person arrive at the point where they are ready to kill randomly and even die themselves?  Are they all just crazy to begin with? Can a violent group take an average, normal person and radicalize them somehow? Do we have to worry about our kids getting radicalized at school or on the internet?  Seems to me that this is the big question in fighting against terrorism. The military can deal with a large organization like ISIS, but what about some guy who’s just going to take a truck and drive it into people? He hasn’t posted a video online or joined anything…just made the decision and did it. Why? And how do we stop it?

Let’s take a look at a few people that have been radicalized. Any real study would need many, many examples, but I’ll just take two for the sake of keeping this post to a somewhat reasonable length. I have a few science friends who may take issue with the small sample size, but this is a blog. I’m more than happy to get a beer sometime and talk about many other examples. You can comment if you think these have been cherry-picked, I think they’re pretty representative.

  1. Mohamed Atta, 9/11 hijacker – He was born in Egypt, his father was a lawyer, his mother from a wealthy family. His sisters ended up being a doctor and a professor. He was trained as an engineer and architect. All very well educated, and not overly conservative as you might be able to tell with two professional women in the family. However, while seemingly not terribly religious, the father was very strict, to the point where the children were not allowed to socialize with any of the other children in the neighborhood, and were forced to stay home and study. Mohamed had no close friends, and obviously no girlfriends. In addition to no friends, the father kept them at a distance from family as well, and basically kept the kids as shut-ins outside of going to school. After graduation from college Mohamed’s father made him go to grad-school overseas in Hamburg, Germany. He lived briefly with a German family until they kicked him out of the house for being argumentative, close-minded, weird with their daughter, and just generally an awkward jerk. He moved into student housing and had the same problem with his roommates who said that he refused to clean or help in any way with the apartment and refused even to acknowledge them when they were in the same room with him. After he graduated he found it impossible to find a job. (One wonders what a job interview with Mohamed Atta was like.) Around this time, he began to be more involved at the Al-Quds Mosque, where they preached a fundamentalist and militant brand of Sunni Islam. Here he found a group of people that legitimized all of the things he had always had trouble with – People outside the mosque don’t like you and think you’re a loser? It’s not because you’re a jerk, it’s because you’re a Muslim and they hate Islam. You’ve never had a girlfriend? Good, you must be very pure, and girls that go out with guys are sluts anyway. Can’t find a job? It’s because the system is rigged by the West, etc. In other words, your problems are not due to a weird upbringing, a terrible personality, or that you’re just not that important, it’s because other people are stacking the deck against you. You’re right to be angry, and it’s good to fight against this unfairness.  In fact, only a very few heroes are brave enough to fight.  This line of thinking was perfect for him, and when some people at the mosque mentioned that they knew some people in Afghanistan, he was ready to go. He had found his calling.
  2. Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City bomber – Born near Buffalo, NY. Parents divorced while he was young and he lived with his father, not seeing much of other family. He was scrawny and severely bullied in school. Without many friends, he spent most of his time alone at home creating a fantasy world where he imagined all the ways he would retaliate against the bullies. He had no girlfriends and later commented to journalists that he had no idea how to relate to girls. Despite spending so much time alone at home, he neglected school work and got poor grades; though he was known to be smart and had gotten into computer programming, which appealed to him because it was technical and solitary. So, to recap – No friends, no girls, little family, bullied, no academic success.

In his youth, one of the only social outlets he had was when his grandfather would take him shooting.  He became deeply interested in guns and they began to play a large role in his fantasies. He would sneak guns into school and show them off, to look cool to some people and as a warning to others.  After years of using guns and interacting with other who did, he thought that the army might be the place where he could fit in. He became a gunner on a Bradley personnel carrier and was a good soldier, being awarded the Bronze Star in the Gulf War. But he was still prone to violent fantasies, claiming to have been cheered on by his unit after decapitating an Iraqi with his 25mm cannon on the first day of the war.  He also had a tendency to always see himself as pushed around or victimized, and to then be seen as a hero when he overcame some kind of adversity. He tried to join the special forces after the war and washed out of the selection process on the second day, leaving the army shortly thereafter with a grudge. The US government then begins to play a larger role in his views, as the world’s biggest bully. He later claims he left the army after receiving orders to execute Iraqi POWs, and when he refused the army saw him as a possible threat and implanted a tracking microchip in his buttocks. After the army, he was basically a transient, unable to find work. He visited army friends across the country, staying with each for a time. He visited gun shows all over and became involved with various conspiracy theory proponents. He spent a lot of time visiting locations that played a part in conspiracy theories, such as Area 51 and a number of sites that were allegedly training camps for Russian or United Nations troops that were going to take over America. With these people, he found support for his anger. The treatment that he received in the army obviously came when they saw that he was too smart and too principled to go along with their plans. He was one of the few who knew the truth and was brave enough to fight the government which was taking our freedoms. The incident at Waco played right into this, and after driving to Waco during the standoff and likely witnessing the actual assault, he felt that it was time to take action against this tyranny.

 

Of course, this is only two examples, but we can see a few overlaps and learn a basic profile or method for someone who might become radicalized.  Think back to people we’ve seen become radicalized, like the ones above, and remember this when watching the news in the future and see if this fits.

  • A lack of flexible sources of identity makes someone vulnerable and unstable. A healthy normal person will find their identity in several overlapping sources such as family, friends, work, religion, relationships, etc. These sources are what gives a person a sense of worth, and a sense of importance. It’s necessary to have some flexibility through many different sources of identity so that they can support each other. For example, if you have a bad day at work you might feel better after spending some time with family. If you have a relationship that’s ended, you might rely on your friends to get you through it. If you’re having difficulty with a few of these at the same time, maybe you might find support in your church. When people are limited in these, through family problems, financial problems, social difficulties, then they can grow an unnaturally strong attachment to a single one and view the world through that skewed prism.
  • Anger and frustration at the inability to enjoy or take part in the aspects of life that they see others enjoying lead them to feel weak, unimportant, bullied, victimized.
  • A person in this vulnerable state then finds a group that offers an opportunity to redefine this person’s problems in such a way that their needs are satisfied. The group will frame the person’s problems in a way that justifies the anger, and offers a meaningful identity as part of something larger and more important, a movement, a brotherhood. The group offers them a way to fight back against the injustice and unfairness that normal people just don’t seem to understand.
  • To take a vulnerable individual, who is already interested in a group, and finally radicalize them, the group will not just offer a sense of importance and strength based on opposition to an enemy. By encouraging, specifically, violent acts, and preferably massively violent acts, the group can offer visibility. The person will no longer be invisible to everyone else. When they perform an attack, everyone will see how strong, important, smart, and brave they are. Everyone will see how wrong they were to pick on them, put them down, fire them, refuse to go out with them, etc.

There are factors that in any person can lead to anger, frustration, and self-esteem issues, such as abuse, lack of a functional family, poverty, early trauma of some kind, etc. This is a large group of people, most of which do not become violent, but will sort out their problems as they grow up. One of the most important factors, if not the most important factor, in having the ability to work through problems like this, is to have social outlets. Having a supportive group of friends, a peer group at work, a church community, or an extended family, and ideally having most or all of those at the same time, helps in a few ways – they give a person support to overcome negative feelings, they provide a sense of importance and worth, they make a person a part of something outside themselves and socialize them.  Without the social outlets and without the support structures, you have a person that is vulnerable and apt to become desperate. Individual personality and tendencies will still play a part. A person that has this kind of rough start in life, and hasn’t been able to find a way to fit in, still does not automatically turn violent. They might be a nice enough person that’s just sad and a little awkward, or they might develop addiction problems, or they might just be jerks. But some will harbor grudges against all of the people who didn’t have it as tough as them, people who seem to find it so easy to fit in, and they will foster the anger they feel at the unfairness and even maliciousness of the people/organizations/governments that put them down. These individuals are the most vulnerable ones and if they fall in with the wrong group or maybe just find the wrong website, they might be on their way to radicalization.  The obvious application of this today is to use it to think of terrorists, but also consider if this profile fits with school shooters, hate group members, gang members, etc.

04
Jun
17

Power of Petition

Earlier this week there was a petition going around on Facebook regarding the Paris Climate Accord.  As you probably know, President Trump is taking the United States out of the agreement.  The petition expressed popular sentiment in favor of the Accord.  Based on my own extensive research (scrolling through Facebook) it would seem that there are two main views of this petition – its either a strong show of public support that may lead to change through ground up democratic action, or it’s a toothless, meaningless feel good gesture tantamount to whining.  In some respects, I can see some truth in the latter.  Petitions are not binding. In a Supreme Court decision in 1984 authored by Sandra Day O’Connor (Minnesota Board for Community Colleges v Knight) it was found that “Nothing in the First Amendment or in this Court’s case law interpreting it suggests that the rights to speak, associate, and petition require government policymakers to listen or respond to communications of members of the public on public issues.” That is to say, when people petition lawmakers, the lawmakers are free to throw the petition in the garbage without considering it in any way. So what’s the point?

First, some oversimplified historical perspective. The right to petition has been an established right of free people in the English legal tradition (from which developed the American legal tradition) for hundreds of years. It was deeply ingrained in common law, before people had any explicit political power, that they might appeal to the king’s good graces, and it was expected that if a petition came from a nobleman in good standing it would at least receive some consideration.  When King John (the bad guy from Robin Hood) showed himself to be an unusually despotic and corrupt king, who failed to give any consideration to the interests of his subjects, the nobles forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, which established limits on the king’s arbitrary power. He immediately went back on this deal and the result was the First Baron’s War. Over several hundred years, the rights of nobles and commoners were hashed out here and there, sometimes by a king’s ruling and sometimes in battle. In 1628 another king was felt to be trampling on the rights of his subjects; King Charles I was presented with the Petition of Rights. This was basically an appeal to the king to respect the rights that had been established in the Magna Carta, in common law, and in the various laws passed since that time.  Over time, these appeals fell on deaf ears, which eventually led to the English Civil Wars of the late 1640s.  During these wars the power of Parliament, which derived from the people, was confirmed (in battle) to be supreme in the land, over the power of the king. In 1689 the right of petitioning the monarch, and not being prosecuted for such petitions, was firmly and explicitly established by King William and Queen Mary in the English Bill of Rights.

Now come the Americans.  The settlement of the colonies is ongoing at the same time that these issues above are being worked out, early to mid-1600s. The settlers, of all religious and regional persuasions, sought to establish colonies where they might be free, as English subjects, to pray, govern, and organize their lives as they saw fit. The people of the American colonies came, over time, to find, through various conflicts with the crown, that they were effectively seen as second-class citizens.  They did not just feel that they were being oppressed, but that the king was abusing their rights as Englishmen. These abuses included, of course, taxation without representation, putting overly restrictive limitations on colonial trade, garrisoning colonial cities and even private homes with royal troops, restricting free speech, etc. After appealing to the courts and royal representatives and trying different kinds of civil disobedience such as boycotts and demonstrations, some of the hotter heads (such as Sam Adams, Paul Revere, King George III) felt that there was no way around asserting their rights through force. General Thomas Gage, then governor and military commander-in-chief of Massachusetts, decided it was time to bring the Massholes to heel and on April 19, 1775 sent out some troops to secure the militia armories in Lexington and Concord, MA before things got out of control.  1700 militiamen were waiting in those two towns and the surrounding area to convince them that things were already out of control; to the tune of 73 British soldiers killed, 174 wounded, and 53 missing.  The call then went out and about 15,000 minutemen converged on Boston from towns throughout Massachusetts. Astutely observing that the shit was now hitting the fan, Gage thought he should protect Boston by securing the high ground surrounding the city, starting with Bunker Hill in June 1775, and so forth and so on.  These events confirmed for King George his opinion (shared by many) that people from Boston can be real dicks when they want to be.

Anyway, most of the Founding Fathers, were cooler tempered.  They wanted to assert their rights, but in a peaceful way, well-grounded in law.  They presented the Olive Branch Petition of July 1775 to the king, laying out the various abuses and complaints and asking for redress. This obviously received no consideration and was dismissed. But having presented it, the Founders were then within their rights, as they interpreted them, to resort to arms and eventually declare independence.  They could say that they had attempted and exhausted all of the other options they might have appealed to.  This was explicitly noted in the Declaration of Independence of 1776; ie that they had rights, those rights were being ignored, they appealed to the government for correction and were dismissed, therefore they must separate and govern themselves.

Though once independent, the question of how to manage popular sovereignty did not go away. The power to make laws rested with congress and people elected congress (see prior posts), and that was pretty much the extent of political power for the average citizen. In the formative years of the republic, the question of slavery was basically ignored in exchange for some kind of unity among the several states. However, in the early 1800s, there was growing opposition to the institution, at least in the North. Without a way to directly address the question, people and organizations sent petitions to their representatives; so many in fact that by the 1830s congress, controlled at the time by a majority from slave states, passed the “gag rule”, which said that no petition that related to slavery could be considered by congress, or even read out in the chamber. This move, though, only raised opposition, since those who might not be moved one way or the other on the question of slavery were still offended by having their right to petition taken away.  The gag rule was repealed due to serious public pressure in 1844, and public anti-slavery opinion had grown to the point where congress was pressured into abolishing the slave trade in federal lands in 1850. Of course, the issue didn’t rest there, but that’s for another discussion.

So, the historical basis part of this blog ended up being longer than I wanted it, but I think it’s necessary.  Rather than simply taking the question of petitioning as an abstract and trying to form an opinion on it without other consideration, I think it is important to see how it has been used in the past, where it comes from, how is it effective and what are its weaknesses (N.B. this is a profitable exercise for any question). I think even this quick review finds a few conclusions:

  1. Petitions at the very least make public opinion known to lawmakers. Not only that, but it makes the force of that opinion known, simply by the display of numbers. After all, binding or not, if you are an elected lawmaker and you know that a significant portion of the electorate feels a certain way, that will certainly inform your decisions in the future.
  2. Raising a petition addresses not only the lawmakers that it is directed to, but also the public at large, and even the petitioning group itself. Those who may not have an opinion, or may not have any interest at all, might see the number of others who do, and may get interested.  A petition can serve to reinforce and renew a group’s determination. Consider that if abolitionist petitions found only few people willing to even sign their name, abolition would hardly have grown into a movement threatening enough to slaveholding states that they would have felt compelled to secede from the union and prompt the Civil War.
  3. A petition, even when unsuccessful, can set a foundation and a precedent for further action. Think of the Founders. Once they had petitioned directly to the king, they could say that they had tried to resolve their issues by every available peaceful means. That is not to say that an unsuccessful petition is an excuse for violence. What it is, is an open display that many people are interested enough in an issue to take action, that they have the ability to organize, and that they are able to effectively communicate their viewpoint.
  4. If a petition is brought, and not considered by the government or opposition, then that denial itself admits something about the opposition. A reasonable opposition might receive a petition and debate it, and then still refuse to honor it, but at least they would have considered it and would have had to state the reasons for their opposition.  A petition that is dismissed out of hand exposes the opposition as unfounded and displays weakness.

These four conclusions show that petitions, while non-binding, are themselves expressions of power.

 

Interested?  Here’s a few links.

Paris Climate Acord – Full agreement and summary  http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php

Sign the Petition – https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/we-the-people-sign-onto?source=s.fb&r_by=18464199

29
May
17

Freedom-From vs. Freedom-To

The purpose of Memorial Day is to remember the sacrifices made by those who served in the military in our country’s wars. I think if you asked pretty much any American, service-member or not, why it is that so many believe the sacrifice is worth it, most would say “Freedom”, as if that simple word is all the explanation that is necessary.  But what do we mean by that? Everyone thinks they have a pretty good idea, but most would be hard pressed to put it into words.  So, if we’re going to honor the sacrifice itself, I think the best way to do that is to take a minute to consider the reason for it.

There are two general forms that freedom can take: Freedom-From and Freedom-To. Freedom-To is the easy to describe kind, the kind most of us think about if we try to imagine what it means. I’m free to say what I want, free to read what I want, free to belong to any political party, free to bear arms, etc. These are some easy to think of freedoms, mostly because they are explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights. But, in reality, this is only part of what makes America a “free country.” Freedom-To can actually be limiting, and is usually the basis of life in authoritarian countries.  The government sets out specific things that people are free to do, and anything else is not a legitimate right. Communist countries and fascist countries, and other forms of authoritarian government, often have a list of specific freedoms, and people are limited to those freedoms, and nothing else.

In the United States, we do have a Bill of Rights for some major freedoms, but we also have a constitution that ensures Freedom-From the limiting factors that other forms of government rely on. Anything that is not specifically made illegal, is legitimate; people are free to do anything at all, unless the community has decided that it should be against the law. This puts the responsibility for true freedom on the people themselves, since they are otherwise free from the things that would put limitations on their lives.  Throughout the history of American society, there have been struggles to refine this, and do away with the things that hinder freedom. Sometimes these struggles have taken the form of a drive for a specific right – right to be a citizen, right to vote, right to marry, etc. But these have only been instances of a larger drive toward a freedom from bondage, freedom from want, freedom from oppression, freedom from racism, freedom from sickness, freedom from intolerance.  The simple goal of the American way of life is a freedom for any person to live their life as they see fit, as long as it does not limit the rights of others to live their lives in their own ways.  Limitations are the opposite of freedom, and Americans today would do well to consider that building on and extending freedom, at home and around the world, means lessening limitations rather than expanding them.