Wednesday, July 8, 2009

MSNBC: World Running Amok?

Iraq and Afghanistan. Pakistan. Iran. Honduras. Nigeria. Somalia. Uganda. Palestine. The list goes on-and-on.

On MSNBC, the question was raised as to whether the world is running amok these days. Is there greater violence? And is the new media feeding the unrest?

In a way, yes. Media is being used by people for propagandistic reasons: to sow ethnic tensions, breed distrust, and to foment conflict. However, that can be done even more effectively through traditional mass media: print and television and radio broadcast systems.

For centuries, atrocities and uprisings have been the source of civil changes. Paintings, printed cartoons and articles in newspapers, and popular songs inspired, and were inspired by, the American and French Revolutions.

Goya was commissioned to depict the atrocities of the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on Spain in the 19th Century.

A century later, in the same nation, Picasso painted his famous Guernica in the teeth of the Spanish Civil War, capturing the shattered spirit of his nation by depicting the bombing of a village by Fascist forces.

The 20th Century added the radio report and movie newsreel, which affected the popular support of World War II. And in the latter half of the century, television reports dramatically altered public perceptions of many conflicts, from Vietnam to the Balkans.

So today we have podcasts from battlezones, and Twitter and YouTube revolutions. Should we expect any less?

During the history of the world, powers-that-be and counter-regime movements all used the available technology to promulgate their visions and foment conflict and raise their points of view to their domestic audiences and to appeal to the masses overseas. To its credit, at times media has also been used to sooth tensions, promote unity and call for peace and resolution of violence.

Conflicts have gone on for millennia, so human violence is not new. The technology to conduct or put down civil instability and insurrection is more advanced today. The technology to report about such civil disorder and martial action is more advanced and permeated globally than ever before.

In absolute terms, I would argue that global violence is increasing greatly in potential terms, but has so far only been bubbling up modestly in actual incidence rates.

There has never before been 6.7 billion people in the world. Thus the total amount of potential and actual violence is greater these days simply because there are more people who can, and do, enter into conflict.

Yet we should also thank our lucky stars. While we have many regional wars around the world, we have so far, fortunately, avoided an all-out regional or full-scale world war between major powers, potentially involving weapons of mass destruction.

The question is: what are the desires of people today to use their communications technology? To resist unjust oppression, to promote truth, or to stir ancient enmities and fuel bitterness based on falsehoods? What are the aims and purposes? What is the trend globally towards raising the bars of tension and violence, or to find civil and just solutions to the world’s problems without resorting to the fist, the bullet, the bomb, or the IED.

One thing is certain. Between 1914-1918 there was the First World War. Between 1939-1945 we had World War II. Since then, though anti-colonial wars and the Cold War, and various regional conflicts have been bloody and brutal, we have avoided further nuclear war, and we have avoided a total war on a global basis between superpowers.

Today’s violence is troubling because it harkens back to the days of the Balkans Wars that proceeded World War I, or the expansionist wars and jostling for global dominance that proceeded World War II. Many regional wars can each become flashpoints for larger conflicts.

Each conflict, when taken in isolation, can be rationalized for why it exists. From the uprisings against the oil-backed regime in Nigeria, to the Muslim extremist conflicts of Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the violent mobs of Uyghurs in China. Solutions to such chronic problems are more elusive, especially when the populations involved would rather remain in conflict rather than seek mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.

Americans can sometimes be at odds with our own nature when it comes to consideration of other nation’s civil unrest and uprisings. It is natural rebellion against tyranny. Should we support such causes, much as we venerate the original American Revolution? Or is it the work of power brokers and even criminal elements disguising themselves under layers of propaganda capitalizing on popular unrest?

Media is required to see the acts of repression of brutal governments. Media is required to expose agents provocateur bent on causing violence regardless of whether it is justified or not, for their own private agenda’s benefit. Media both promotes the acts of terrorism by making them more visible, and it also makes possible states to repress civil disapproval through propaganda and social controls. Yet media is also required to put all such stories in context and perspective.

The world has not yet run amok. Not yet. It is vital for humanity to collectively discuss what needs to happen to prevent a global war over the course of this century as we suffered from in prior centuries. It is appropriate to confer, both as political regimes and as private citizens and public groups to devise strategies to prevent an unprecedented risk to the billions of people around the world presently and in the decades to come.

It is also folly to believe good wishes and thoughts alone can prevent calamity. For everyone who benefits from a peaceful, stable world economy, there are those for whom the concept of peace is anathema. The harmony and stability do not serve their ends.

We must also allow for the just expression of grievances and changes to social structure over time. There must be permissible “safety valves” of civil unrest to allow peoples to collectively choose their own desired states rather than live with domineering regimes that offer “peace and stability” in false measures through insidious means. For one person’s peaceful and pleasant society is often another person’s brutally repressive regime.

This past week has been the celebration of the U.S. Independence Day. A day that marked a declaration to the world of the principles of liberty and the ends to which people would go to oppose repressive tyranny. Yet increasingly, many people around the world worry that the U.S. has become the same sort of dominant, repressive power that we once fought to overthrow.

I marvel and worry this year. Not so much for the survival of the centuries-old American experiment in democracy, as for the vitality and long-term viability of the new hatchling popular movements for justice around the world. Will they lead to peaceful redress of civil grievances, or plunge the planet into countless fractious civil wars?

Will we, as a civilization, be trapped by our centuries of past means to solve our problems, or will we evolve? Unless we devise new means to settle differences, we will have a hundred Guernicas played out through Twitter and YouTube every year.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Reflections on the Honduras Presidential Removal

The following comes from a Facebook thread regarding the situation of Manuel Zelaya begun by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. His own opening comment was as follows:
Baffled by Honduras situation. The Supreme Court and the democratically elected Congress voted unanimously to remove President Zeleya [sic], who was in open defiance of a court decision about an illegal dismissal of the military command, and about to stage an illegal 'election'. And yet, this action is universally condemned internationally as a "coup"? There must be facts of which I am unaware? — Jimmy Wales (30 June 2009 6:17 pm)
He later accepted the “friendly amendment” of the correct spelling of “Zelaya.”

It reminded me of the quote by Benjamin Franklin wittily delivered in the musical 1776:
Why, Mr. Dickinson, I’m surprised at you! You should know that rebellion is always legal in the first person – such as ‘our’ rebellion. It is only in the third person – ‘their’ rebellion – that it is illegal.
— Benjamin Franklin
Another Facebook friend of his stated:
i think the point everybody is missing is that the UN et al cannot condone a government that has seized power in a coup -- by taking the president at gunpoint in his pyjamas. If the president was acting illegally -- as zelaya apparently was -- impeach him dont threaten to murder him and cart him off to costa rica. The Honuduran military has done far worse than Zelaya. Two wrongs don't make a right and other cliches.
Reflecting from a generally naïve point-of-view, I responded:
It was a coup, though a bloodless one. The proper legal method to get rid of him would have been impeachment, with arrest by a civil authority. The military of nations generally are limited constitutionally because the President is generally considered C-in-C. When you overthrow your boss, it is a rebellion. When the military overthrow a president, rather than a legislature, it violates standard civil government checks-and-balances. Thus, technically, a coup.
In response to my thoughts, another direct reply was made to the thread:
Peter, ... the boss of the civil authorities (e.g., the police) that would have to carry the arrest is also the president. By your reasoning it would still be a rebellion. If a subordinate gets a court order to arrest the boss, what should he/she do?
Which is a good point. So tonight I wanted to dig a little deeper. I happened upon a good friend who was perfect for the necessary detective work! Tonight, I replied as follows:
I am sitting tonight with a good friend who is a very educated socio-political academic from Venezuela. He is helping me go over the Honduran Constitution.

The biggest problem is that there is *no* clear provision in the lengthy document on how the various powers maintain checks and balances. There is no direct clause for how to conduct the removal of the Presidente, or most any other elected official. Impeachment is not mentioned, per se.

However, there are a few clauses to work with, primarily: " usurpación de los poderes constituidos se tipifican como delitos de Traición a la Patria." Usurpation of constitutional powers is treason.

Thus, if you disobey the Constitution, no one need obey you. This is the argument of the Supreme Court. They can theoretically declare anything unconstitutional, thus treasonable, and can immediately have their judgments put into effect. There is no override on their decisions, except by a popular referendum for a constitutional revision.

In review, the decision of the Honduran Supreme Court seems tacitly legal, though highly disputable.

According to one assessment (

"Honduran constitutions are generally held to have little bearing on Honduran political reality because they are considered aspirations or ideals rather than legal instruments of a working government."

For the Constitution itself:

I still maintain my view that this was a quasi-legal coup. While arguably a de jure power of the Supreme Court, it is could be just as arguable that the Supreme Court usurped and overstepped their Constitutional authority. They just had the backing of the military.

Thus, quite conforming to a coup as per Wikipedia: "A coup consists of the infiltration of a small, but critical, segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.”
The truth of the matter is that the Honduran Constitution is a rather poorly-written set of rules to govern from. Anyone used to playing diplomatic strategy games could spend days arguing about the gaps and fuzzy parts. Eventually the consensus of the players would be that the game seriously needs a second edition of the rules, and, in the meanwhile, a full-blown set of errata and addendum.

While the definitions of “high crimes and misdemeanors” is elastic and arguable, the U.S. Constitution has a far more explicit, albeit very brief, method to determine what to do in case of such crises of confidence in a chief executive.

In Honduras, lacking such explicit methods for removal, the national Supreme Court basically has the tacit de jure power to do what they did. It may indeed rub many people the wrong way, given cultural and political biases towards what we are familiar with in our own systems.

I would be quite interested to hear other opinions on such a topic. Was this a de facto coup d’etat, or a de jure removal of an executive in broach of his constitutional duties?

Mea Culpa - A Hopefully Forgiveable Leave of Absence

Due to economic requirements during this recession, I was forced to work quite a bit on other duties for the past two months, often seven-days-a-week, and thus was unable to attend to the requirements of world-watching that is implicit in the Global Understanding Movement. Thus you have my mea culpa maxima.

However, I have not been exactly idle.

Stay tuned! More to come!