Victor Jara

Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez was a Chilean teacher, theatre director, poet, singer-songwriter, political activist and member of the Communist Party of Chile.

A distinguished theatre director, he devoted himself to the development of Chilean theatre, directing a broad array of works from locally produced Chilean plays, to the classics of the world stage, to the experimental work of Ann Jellicoe.

Simultaneously he developed in the field of music and played a pivotal role among neo-folkloric artists who established the Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) movement which led to a revolution in the popular music of his country under the Salvador Allende government.

Shortly after the Chilean coup of September 11, 1973 and the ascension of US-backed Augusto Pinochet, he was arrested. In the hours and days that followed, Jara was repeatedly beaten and tortured; the bones in his hands were broken, as were his ribs. Fellow political prisoners have testified that his captors mockingly suggested that he play guitar for them as he lay on the ground with broken hands. Defiantly, he sang part of “Venceremos” (We Will Win), a song supporting the Popular Unity coalition.[6] After further beatings, he was machine-gunned on September 16, his body dumped on a road on the outskirts of Santiago and then taken to a city morgue where 44 bullets were found in his body.

The contrast between the themes of his songs — on love, peace and social justice — and the brutal way in which he was murdered transformed Jara into a symbol of struggle for human rights and justice worldwide.

On December 3, 2009, a massive funeral took place in the “Galpón Víctor Jara” across from “Plaza Brazil”. Jara’s remains were honoured by thousands. His remains were re-buried in the same place he was buried in 1973. On December 28, 2012 a judge in Chile ordered the arrest of eight former army officers for alleged involvement in the murder of Victor Jara.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Anti-Scientific Attitudes Threaten the World

Many of the most pressing problems our species faces – such as climate change, food and water scarcity, and energy shortages – require scientific solutions. Only through research, experimentation, and innovation can we are way around these looming catastrophes.

Yet science itself faces an even greater challenge than these global crises – a lack of public and political support. That was the prevailing assessment by scientists from across the world who gathered at an annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Participants noted that the global public as a whole “does not understand science,” and that science itself was “under siege” by religious and ideological forces. As one attendee starkly observed, “We have a planetary emergency, and very few people recognise that.”

The theme of the five-day meeting, attended by some 8,000 scientists from 50 countries, was “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society.”

“It’s about persuading people to believe in science, at a time when disturbing numbers don’t,” said meeting co-chair Andrew Petter, president of Simon Fraser University in this western Canadian city.

Experts wrangled with thorny issues such as censorship, opposition from religious groups in the United States to teaching evolution and climate change, and generally poor education standards.

“We have to plan for a future, considering the risk of climate change, with nine to 10 billion people,” said Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert famous for combating scientific ignorance with catchy YouTube videos.

Rosling, pointing to charts showing how human populations changed with technology and how without science the majority of a family’s children die, said it is naive to think that humanity can easily go backward in history.

“I get angry when I hear people say: ‘In the rainforest people live in ecological balance.’ They don’t. They die in ecological balance,” he said.

Indeed, global warming is an indicative example of this issue. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, the majority of Americans remain unconvinced about climate change, and skepticism has only grown more over the past few years. Even those who accept the phenomenon nonetheless erroneously believe that we’ll be able to adapt, which is yet another manifestation of scientific ignorance.

The United States is particularly susceptible to anti-intellectualism, and it runs rather deep in our history (ironic, given that our much deified founders were pretty cerebral themselves). Academics and scholars remain just as distrusted as their scientific peers, and many Americans – egged on by pundits and polemists – often see intelligent people as elitist, aloof, and even insidious (especially if they have Ivy League degrees).

Granted, bias, narrow-mindedness, and immorality bedevil even the most intelligent members of our society, as these are universal human flaws. Furthermore, even smart people can be wrong, and the scientific consensus has sometimes needed tweaking, if not outright abandonment. So some degree of measured analysis and critical thinking must be applied to any and all claims – that’s why self-correcting measures such as peer review and re-experimentation have been institutionalized.

But the general public has reached a point of extreme fallibism, in which nearly all the claims made by “experts” are reflexively doubted because of the very fact that they were made by experts. Personal experience, or even mere intuition, are seen as more legitimate, even though they’re each limited by our own cognitive constraints (e.g. our sense can fool us, our life experiences are limited, etc).

Kony 2012 and the Ethics of Activism

I’m sure that by now most readers know about this video and its main subject, LRA leader Joseph Kony. The nonprofit organization known as Invisible Children has undertaken a remarkably successful campaign to raise awareness about this brutal Ugandan warlord, for the purpose of eliciting donations and political action to stop him. It case you haven’t seen the now-famous video, click here; interestingly, it’s been less popular in Uganda itself.

Now all this sounds well and good, given what an undeniably monstrous person Kony is. He’s been responsible for a tremendous amount of suffering in the region, and as with most humanitarian crises, more people need to be made aware of it. But there’s a dark side to this video and its producers, and it reflects a larger ethical problem with our approach to humanitarian issues in general.

Grant Oyston, a sociology and political science student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, posted a highly critical response to Kony 2012 on Tumbler. His scathing assessment is becoming just as viral as the video. He begins by acknowledging the good intentions of those involved in this project, as well as the genuine evil of the man they’re trying to expose. But he nonetheless follows that with some disquieting caveats:

Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal for an issue which arguably needs action and aid, not awareness, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they lack an external audit committee. But it goes way deeper than that.

The group is in favour of direct military intervention, and their money supports the Ugandan government’s army and various other military forces. Here’s a photo of the founders of Invisible Children posing with weapons and personnel of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting, but Invisible Children defends them,arguing that the Ugandan army is “better equipped than that of any of the other affected countries”, although Kony is no longer active in Uganda and hasn’t been since 2006 by their own admission. These books each refer to the rape and sexual assault that are perennial issues with the UPDF, the military group Invisible Children is defending.

Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.

If barely a third of your funding goes to the very cause you’ve built your organization around, then that should raise a red flag to your donators. However, I doubt most people are aware of this fact, we don’t generally think to scrutinize just how an aid organization goes about aiding people. It’s much easier to give them money and moral support, and be done with it.

The group’s misrepresentation of both the Ugandan military and the extent of the LRA’s crimes is problematic for similar reasons: rarely does it occur to us – yes, I too am guilty of this at times – to question the truth of the matter when it comes to these social justice issues. They invoke strong emotions, both by their very nature and by the marketing efforts of their advocacy groups. It’s easy to get swept up by and impulsively show support, with considering the facts of the matter.

Simply put, I suspect that for most people, there’s something unsavory about questioning the veracity of any claims concerning human rights efforts. What compassion person wants to second-guess an effort to help people? You may also ask whether the ends justify the means: is a little bit of dishonesty acceptable if it incites greater action? Not if the costs become greater than benefit:

As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.

Still, Kony’s a bad guy, and he’s been around a while. Which is why the US has been involved in stopping him for years. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has sent multiple missions to capture or kill Kony over the years. And they’ve failed time and time again, each provoking a ferocious response and increased retaliative slaughter. The issue with taking out a man who uses a child army is that his bodyguards are children. Any effort to capture or kill him will almost certainly result in many children’s deaths, an impact that needs to be minimized as much as possible. Each attempt brings more retaliation. And yet Invisible Children supports military intervention. Kony has been involved in peace talks in the past, which have fallen through. But Invisible Children is now focusing on military intervention.

This raises yet another ethical dilemma: are we choosing the lesser of two evils in supporting this solution? Is it proper to even choose at all? Uganda has become increasingly more authoritarian over the years, and stopping the LRA has become the justification (using concerns about security to justify a suspension of liberty is nothing new, but that’s because it still tends to work).

Are we going to end up supporting one abusive and oppressive force with another? What happens once the group is defeated? Historical precedence isn’t very encouraging, especially with regard to developing countries that had a weak rule of law to begin with. Ultimately, it’s hard to say, and I don’t think there are any definite answers.

Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.

Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.

As difficult as it may be accept, in some circumstances it may in fact be better not to intervene, no matter how horrific the issue. Often times, getting involved may only make matters worse, and there’s always an uncertainly principle as far as the unintended and long-term consequences – it’s easy to miss the bigger picture, especially when these issues are presented in such simplistic terms.

Yet that same counterfactual problem could lead one to wonder if taking action would be the better of two bad choices. There may be just as much uncertainty about what happens if we allow things to carry on as normal, which could make inaction just as risky. Or we may know enough about the worsening of a particular crisis to consider the unknown option to be better (the current situation in Syria comes to my mind).

Basically, there are just too many dynamics and considerations to take into, and too many nuances and caveats for each option. The response, if any, should vary by each individual case, not that it would make it any easier. That’s why we should be wary of armchair activism, of committing to a cause before exploring and coming to grips with the difficult reality of it.

We can only do so much given the obstacles we face, but I that should elicit even more caution on our part, so that we can do the least damage with what precious little we can offer. There’s already one proposed motive for IC’s encourage of the military and political route, and some have even accused the of being more concerned with an Evangelical agenda than a humanitarian one.

At any rate, Invisible Children has responded to this and other concerns, first in a Washington Post blog (since then, I’m sure several other sources have covered the controversy). It’s always vital to learn both sides of any story, and give the accused a chance to make their case.

Jedediah Jenkins, director of idea development for Invisible Children, called the criticism “myopic” and said the film represented a “tipping point” in that it got young people to care about an issue on the other side of the planet that doesn’t affect them

#StopKony has been trending worldwide on Twitter since Tuesday, and, as of this writing, the video “Kony2012” has a combined 15 million views on YouTube and Vimeo.

Kony is undeniably brutal, and the World Bank estimates that under his leadership the LRA has abducted and forced around 66,000 children to fight with them during the past two decades. In October, President Obama committed 100 U.S. troops to help the Ugandan army remove Kony.

…Jenkins maintained Wednesday that the numbers the charity uses are not exaggerated, as they are the same numbers used by Human Rights Watch and the U.N.

Charity Navigator, a U.S.-based charity evaluator, gives Invisible Children three out of four stars overall, four stars financially, and two stars for accountability and transparency.

Invisible Children has two stars, Jenkins said, because the charity has only four independent board members instead of five. He said it is currently interviewing for a fifth position.

bill Invisible Children helped pass into law in 2009 has also been criticized. The bill is designed to support stabilization and peace in Uganda and areas affected by the LRA. Critics say it has strengthened the hand of the Ugandan president, whose security forces have a human rights abuse record of their own. The Enough Project, an NGO that fights genocide and human rights abuses, has said the bill’s bipartisan support showed people “come together for peace.”

“There is a huge problem with political corruption in Africa,” said Jenkins. “If we had the purity to say we will not partner with anyone corrupt, we couldn’t partner with anyone.”

Human rights activists agree, however, that the abuses of the LRA are far worse than those of Uganda’s security forces. Over the past two decades, the LRA made it common practice to enter towns and kill the adults, take the male children as soldiers, and sexually abuse the female children.

Lt. Col. Mamadou Gaye, a military spokesman for a United Nations stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said recently that the LRA “has been weakened” by military efforts. The group is believed to now have only about 250 armed members.  Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said recently that Kony was no longer in Uganda.

On April 20, Invisible Children is calling on its supporters to stop Kony and the LRA’s campaign once and for all — by using the social media and viral tactics that have made “Kony2012” so widespread.

What do you all think? Is IC on to something after all? Is some publicity – however limited its effectiveness – better than none at all? Is the military approach really the lesser evil, given its apparent success? Is working with a corrupt government acceptable given that there is no other political alternative? It seems Jenkins and his colleagues were only trying to do the right thing given the constraints they were working with. Assuming that is the case, are they right to take this avenue?

“The film has reached a place in the global consciousness where people know who Kony is, they know his crimes,” Jenkins said. “Kids know and they respond. And then they won’t allow it to happen anymore.”

This is all part of an ongoing and heated debate with the humanitarian community: do these kind of viral publicity campaigns do more harm then good? Do people who express concern about an issue, but provide only cursory and symbolic support, really make a difference? Are they making the most with the resources they have, or are they making a farce out of activism by setting the bar low as far as doing more and having a deeper understanding of the issue in question?

For the record, IC has recently released a list of details responses to all the major issues of contention that have been presented. Read it for yourselves and make your own conclusion.

Frankly, I’m undecided in this matter. I don’t think engaging in meaningful change is mutually exclusive from going about it in a more passive way. People adjust their response based on the circumstances, the issue itself, and their own personal restrictions (money, time, distance, etc). Basically, we all do what we can…but can that actually be a bad thing? Isn’t some bit of good better than none? When we participate in these sorts of campaigns, are we cheapening what it is to fight for something, or are we simply being pragmatic?

Any thoughts and perspectives on this matter are welcomed.

Remembering Howard Zinn

When enough people do enough things, however small they are, then change takes place.

This pass January 27th was the second anniversary of the death of historian and social activist Howard Zinn. A remarkable and energetic figure within a wide number of social justice issues – civil rights, workers’ rights, pacifism – he sadly doesn’t receive as much widespread recognition among average Americans as he does among academics and humanitarians (although his written works seem to be getting more popular). Whatever the case, given his selfless and life-long devotion to the plight of others, I doubt this would matter all that much to him.

Noam Chomsky, a fellow activist and personal friend of Zinn, wrote a touching and informative remembrance piece on Al-Jeezera, noting that:

His primary concern, he [Zinn] explained, was “the countless small actions of unknown people” that lie at the roots of “those great moments” that enter the historical record – a record that will be profoundly misleading, and seriously disempowering, if it is torn from these roots as it passes through the filters of doctrine and dogma. His life was always closely intertwined with his writings and innumerable talks and interviews. It was devoted, selflessly, to empowerment of the unknown people who brought about great moments. That was true when he was an industrial worker and labour activist, and from the days, 50 years ago, when he was teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, a black college that was open mostly to the small black elite.

As a history buff, I certainly appreciate the value of giving a voice to the millions of average but forgotten people that made crucial contributions to human progress. This dedication to the common man (and woman) is what made Zinn a great and exemplary figure, whatever one thinks of his politics.

In that regard, I highly recommend his best-known work, A People’s History of the United States, which represents the many perspectives of our nation’s narrative that never get much, if any, sincere attention. It pretty much encapsulates Zinn’s overall message of valuing the contributions of society as a whole, rather than of only triumphal or famous figures. It may be a bit too leftist for some, but it presents an important alternative to consider. Given my own adherence to the ideals of dialogue and discussion, it very much resonates with me.

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.

I would need to devote multiple posts to MLK to do him any justice. Sadly, I was quite busy today, and so I can’t give him the sort of attention he deserves. But I think it works out in the end, since I spent much of the day (and weekend) doing something he’d very much approve of: community service with some fellow volunteers. Indeed, Martin Luther King has largely inspired such acts, and few Americans grow up without learning of his greatness or citing him as an influence – I’m certainly no exception.

Instead, I’ll share and reflect upon a few of the great things he said that defined both his oratory brilliance and the moral clarity he exuded. Chief among them, which I have had listed in my wisdom page for some time, is the following:

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.  Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction.  This is no time for apathy or complacency.  This is a time for vigorous and positive action.

This statement is as timeless as it is beautiful. Human history is a constant effort in bettering the human condition. Sheer perseverance and willpower, guided by integrity and compassion, are what have allowed us to come so far as a species, and what will continue to drive us forward even while we still have a long way to go.

They applauded us in the sit-in movement when we nonviolently decided to sit in at lunch counters. They applauded us on the freedom rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in…Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and praise when I would say ‘Be nonviolent toward Bull Connor…Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark.’ There is something strangely inconsistent a nation and a press that would praise you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent toward Jim Clark,’ but will curse you and damn you when you say, ‘Be nonviolent towards little brown Vietnamese children.

This has to do with MLK’s little known stance against the Vietnam War, which met with criticism and even outright condemnation at the time (subsequently, the whole episode seems to be almost unmentioned in contemporary lessons about him). You can hear the first of his infamous speeches on the subject, Beyond Vietnam, here; another, Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam, can be heard here (or read by transcript).

It’s not too surprising that King would be so opposed to the conflict: he was consistent in his moral and ethical considerations, and his well-known adherence to nonviolence was a personal philosophy rather than a mere tactic. He knew his position would be contentious – just like his entire civil rights movement to begin with – but he was too principled to care. He fought against injustice in whatever form in took, wherever it was.

We must honestly face the fact that the Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there 40 million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And to ask questions about the whole society.

We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’ These are questions that must be asked…

Statements like these, also little-known today, brought upon accusations that King was a communist agitator, which in turn was the pretext for the FBI to put him under surveillance and even attempt to discredit him. People that challenged the status quo, or raised difficult questions about conventional wisdom, were labeled as extremists, traitors, or anti-Americans – a tactic that continues to this day. MLK knew that injustice pervaded beyond institutionalized racism. It took many forms and emerged for many reasons, chief among them being the social, political, and economic systems. His inquiry wouldn’t be out of place in most parts of the world today, especially now.

In fact, much of what King stood for remains as crucial and relevant now as it was then. His insight, compassion, and struggle were timeless, and represent the concerns of any well-meaning humanitarian throughout the ages. It is perhaps for this reason, more than anything, that he remains so beloved and revered to this day – as he likely will be for generations to come. What he stood for transcends all cultures, societies, and eras. He represents the idea of attaining progress through love, courage, compassion, and sheer will. His lesson will serve us well for as long as there is work to be done.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.


Vaclav Havel, Famous Dissident, Has Died

Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.

-Vaclav Havel

I first learned of this great man, Vaclav Havel, about three years ago, in preparation for my six-week Study Abroad Program in the Czech Republic. He was an essayist, playwright, poet, and social commentator, a man who mixed intellectual and artistic faculties with activism and humanitarianism. He was not an arm chair humanist – he acted on the values he espoused, standing up against the oppressive communist regime of what was then Czechoslovakia, and going to prison multiple times.

But their intimidation and humiliation – through house arrest, interrogation, and ceaseless surveillance – did little to stop them. He continued to utilize wit and literature to subvert the authorities, and pledged open support through his contribution to Charter 77, a manifesto demanding the state to abide by human rights and civil liberties (a political crime that led to another stint in prison). He never relented in using theater, satire, poetry, and other creative expressions to make his voice, and that of the millions he acted for, heard. As he said:

I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.

He validated this claim soon enough, for it was partly due to these courageous and persistent efforts that the communists saw their legitimacy slowly but surely eroded, and soon enough they melted away from power quickly and peacefully – as Havel would’ve preferred, given his strict adherence to non-violent resistance. So strong was his reputation for honesty, liberty, and human dignity, that Havel was overwhelmingly chosen to be president of the country – three times (the first time being 22 years ago this month in fact). Though not a powerful position, Havel exercised so much political and moral authority that he was heeded to nonetheless.

More of a modest dissident than a politician, he grew weary of politics and resigned. He never gave up the cause for human rights, partaking in other humanitarian efforts such as urging the release of imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao. In 1996, he was treated for cancer and given only a few years to live – he pulled through for a decade and a half more before finally succumbing at the age of 75. His death has been met with proclamations that “opened the door to democracy for the communist east” and was a “symbol of a renewed nation.” The government is already in discussion about creating a national day of mourning.

Ever modest, mild-mannered, and scholarly, Havel would probably shy from such praise and recognition. As he  himself characteristically declared:

I would be glad if it was felt that I have done something generally useful…I don’t care much about personal fame or popularity. I would be satisfied with the feeling that I had a chance to help with something in general, something good. That history gave me that chance.

This is definitely someone I hope to live up to.

Russians Rally in Defiance of Government

On December 4th, Russia held elections for the lower house of its legislature, the State Duma (akin to the US’s House of Representatives or the UK’s House of Commons). As typical of the nation’s grimy politics, there was a  widespread perception – by domestic and foreign observers alike – that the process was rigged in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party, which has become almost inseparable from the state.

Despite this fraud, United Russia still received far fewer votes than in previous elections, which suggested that Russians were starting to tire of the corruption and autocracy that has defined Putin’s regime. Although not President, he is widely considered to be the true ruler of Russia, assisted by a network of thugs and lackeys that have previously kept a lid on any criticism or dissent. A few weeks prior to the elections, Putin had even announced his intention to run for President again, leading to some grumbles but little surprise.

So few people in or out of Russia expected the Russians to take to the streets in any meaningful way, much less in such great numbers. As the New York Times reports:

Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow on Saturday shouting “Putin is a thief” and “Russia without Putin,” forcing the Kremlin to confront a level of public discontent that has not been seen here since Vladimir V. Putin first became president 12 years ago.

The crowd overflowed from a central city square, forcing stragglers to climb trees or watch from the opposite riverbank. “We exist!” they chanted. “We exist!”

The demonstration marked what opposition leaders hope will be a watershed moment, ending years of quiet acceptance of the political consolidation Mr. Putin introduced. The leaders understood that for a moment they, not the Kremlin, were dictating the political agenda, and seemed intent on leveraging it, promising to gather an even larger crowd again on Dec. 24.

Saturday’s rally served to build their confidence as it united liberals, nationalists and Communists. The event was too large to be edited out of the evening news, which does not ordinarily report on criticism of Mr. Putin And it was accompanied by dozens of smaller rallies across Russia’s nine time zones, with a crowd of 3,000 reported in Tomsk, and 7,000 in St. Petersburg, the police said.

Indeed, some sources have claimed the protests to be the largest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian police estimate the demonstration’s numbers in Moscow alone are around 25,ooo, with some activists claiming anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 participants. In Russia’s second city, Saint Petersburg, there are another 10,000 demonstrators, and rallies of various size are taking place in at least 88 more towns and cities throughout the country.
These all began as a coordinated and but largely spontaneous response to the electoral fraud and Putin’s consolidation of power, and there seemed to be no clear point other than expressing angst and indignation (as most such grassroots movements begin).
But the rallies have quickly escalated in their demands and grievances, including, as the Guardian reports:

1. Freedom for political prisoners

2. Annulment of the election results

3. The resignation of Vladimir Churov, head of the election commission, and an official investigation of vote fraud

4. Registration of the opposition parties and new democratic legislation on parties and elections

5. New democratic and open elections

This looks like the beginning of a full-fledged political movement, with comparisons to the recent Arab Spring abounding. Police have already arrested over a 1,000 demonstrators in Moscow alone, and Putin has responded by inciting his own pro-government factions to counter-protest in his favor (including the Nashi, a thuggish youth group compared to the Hitler Youth). Interestingly, a smaller number of people are have been detained in connection to these rallies than in previous ones – does that suggest sympathy on part of the police?

The domestic media, being largely state controlled, has of course avoided any meaningful mention of this event, not that it’s made much difference: as the Times noted, the savvy use of social media, in conjunction with the sheer scale of the protests, have made such sanctioned ignorance ineffective.

Dozens of Russian public figures – from celebrities to activists to politicians – have addressed the crowds and showed support. The Russian diaspora is starting to join in as well. Protesters have already taken on a symbol for their cause, the white ribbon, which is adorning cars, clothes, and other objects, and is the adopted motif of online protest sites (I’ve always said that a symbol is a significant sign of any movement’s maturity, especially since such things are much harder to kill off or suppress).

The movement has already made clear that if it’s demands are not met, follow-up protests will be scheduled for December 24th (alluding to their expectation that they’ll probably be broken up before then). Needless to say, I’ll be watching pretty close to see where this is going to go. It’s only been a couple of days, and already things seem to be escalating. Putin, though still pretty popular, has never faced anything on this scale or organization before , so who knows how he’ll react. The government is unlikely to acquiesce, however, and apparently doesn’t take the movement too seriously – so a confrontation of some kind is pretty much inevitable.

As a Russophile with a good amount of knowledge on the country (so I’d like to think), I’m in some ways surprised, in others way not. Russia has a history of popular revolts, revolutions, and popular movements, dating back to the first Tsars. At the same time, however, modern Russia has long been seen as a bleak and cynical place, where people became grudgingly complacent with what they felt was politics as usual. In fact, I had just read a recent report on Russia by The Economist, which found high levels of apathy, social exclusion, and pessimism all around, especially about the country’s future (to the extent that a large number of Russians expressed an interest in leaving; this may explain the high rate of brain drain and the low birthrate).

So the Russians have surprised everyone in breaking out of their bleak indifference and showing that they do indeed have a stake in their country’s future. While it’s too soon to call this a revolution or a “Russian Spring,” it may hopefully turn out to have some meaningful political impact, however dim the prospects are given the track-record. The negative precedent for positive change hasn’t yet dampened even the famously irreverent Russians.

Aleksei Navalny, a popular blogger who has helped mobilize young Russians over the past year, sent an address from the prison where he is serving a 15-day sentence for resisting the police. Mr. Navalny was arrested Monday night after the first of three demonstrations.

“Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need — dignity, the feeling of self-respect,” said the address, which was read by a journalist, Oleg Kashin. “It’s impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time, we were simply convinced that the life of toads and rats, the life of mute cattle, was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth.”

“We are not cattle or slaves,” he said. “We have voices and votes and we have the power to uphold them.”

The Military Anti-War Movement During Vietnam

The Vietnam War has largely been defined by the considerable public backlash it garnered, led by grassroots anti-war activists. Traditionally, this peace movement is almost exclusively associated with Hippie subculture, radical leftists, and young college students. But a potent extension of it would emerge and thrive in – of all places – the very military that was conducting the war.

Sir! No Sir! is a 2005 independent documentary directed by David Zeiger and filmed in conjunction with the BBC. It tells the little known story of the anti-war sentiment that took hold of troops during the entire course of the war, manifesting in all manners of dissent, from desertions to outright mutinous activity. As a review by the New York Times noted:

During the 1960’s and 70’s American newspapers routinely reported a significantly different story than the one later cooked up by Hollywood and other revisionists. This film shows that as antiwar sentiment gathered strength in American streets, a parallel movement seized the armed forces. By September 1971 dissent among the ranks had become a front-page subject in this newspaper, with a headline that read “Army Is Shaken by Crisis in Morale and Discipline.” Soldiers were fed up and up in arms, and not always against the Vietcong. Desertions were on the rise, as were fraggings, named for the fragmentation grenades lobbed at superiors by their own men. By 1974 the Defense Department would record more than half a million incidents of desertion since the mid-60’s.

The film is clearly coming from a broad anti-war position, but it makes no effort to hide this, so it’s being genuine. Furthermore, it gives some pretty accurate accounts – by veterans, journalists, and even internal military reports – that confirm the level discontent that soldiers, particularly among the lower ranks, had with respect to the war. It also delves into the military’s attempts to reign in on this opposition, including stiff prison sentences for insubordination.

This is a chapter of the conflict that I feel gets little attention or acknowledgement, so it’s refreshing to see something done about it h(though it’s a shame it’s taken me this long to find it, as it seems relatively obscure, like most such films). Given that we’re still dealing with two wars popularly viewed as more-or-less analogous to Vietnam, it’s certainly still topical. It also leaves me wondering to what extent this sort of conscientious objection is still prevalent in today’s military. Perhaps we’ll get a documentary for that too, in the years to come.

If anyone is interested, I’ve posted the first half of it here. I haven’t seen all of it yet, but so far it seems to be a pretty interesting film, and not particularly long (around 85 minutes in total).


Labor Day Reflections

I find holidays to be fascinating. Most of them are “celebrated” across the country, yet a majority of the population knows little or nothing about their history or purpose. After a little while, they merely become convenient days off of work and school, and observing them amounts to nothing more barbecues, festivals, parties, or just lounging around. Obviously, I have no qualms about any of this – I like a break from drudgery and a chance to sleep-in as much as the next person. But a part of me laments how most of us – myself included – forget the interesting and important events, figures, and lessons that are ostensibly marked by these observations.

Granted, I’m well aware of the politics, misconceptions, and even outright controversy the precipitate the founding and celebrating of most holidays. Their origins could be as cynical, misguided, or (at the very least) exaggerated as any other national or religious myth. But the pragmatist in me nonetheless sees some value in treating holidays as a starting point for acknowledging and discussing the issues they presumably revolve around. Whatever the case, Labor Day is perhaps the best example of a holiday that should be bettered remembered and reflected upon.

This now-federal holiday has it’s origins – unsurprisingly – in segments of the American organized labor movement. It was first observed on September 5th, 1882 in New York City, by the Central Labor Union of New York, though the very idea was first proposed in May of that year by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor. Around five years later, states began adopting the holiday, Oregon being the first. Thirty states had already established official Labor Day celebrations by the time the US government, under President Grover Cleveland, made it a national holiday in 1894.

The circumstances leading up to this decision were actually rather tragic, precipitated by a conflict between organized labor and was then one of the country’s most prominent companies. The Pullman Strike, which began in Pullman, Illinois on May 11th of that year, was the largest of it’s kind in American history, putting railroad workers (many of them already unionized) against the Pullman Palace Car  Company. The strike was in response to the company’s reduction of wages, extension of working hours (often 16 a day), and unwillingness to reduce rent prices for workers, all of which were done following the 1893 economic “panic.” It spread across the country, and at it’s peak involved a quarter of a million workers throughout 27 states.

Long story short, the strike ended when President Cleveland ordered US Marshals and Army troops to put a stop to the strike, on the premise that it was interfering with mail delivery, violating labor laws, and threatening public safety. Things turned violent, excessive force was used, and the result came down to 13 workers being killed, 57 more wounded, and millions of dollars of property damage being done. Immediately after the debacle, Cleveland  pushed for the adoption of a national holiday honoring the contributions of workers, and Congress almost unanimously obliged him, making it a holiday just six days later. Needless to say, reconciling with the labor movement – or some would say trying to appease it – was a top priority.

Interestingly, the September date was chosen not only because it was the original choice for the first Labor Day commemorations, but also out of an attempt to remain distinct from the more widespread and well-known International Workers Day, which is celebrated on May 1st and is largely associated with anarchists, communists, and socialists – all of which Cleveland and subsequent public figures would rather not associate with, given the controversy and uneasiness such movements have in the US. Subsequent efforts to consolidated Labor Day with that holiday have, unsurprisingly, failed.

There’s a lot more that could be said about the interesting event that led up to this holiday, such as the involvement of prominent socialist and labor activist Eugene V. Debs, or the betrayal, as some saw it, by Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, when he sided with the government to end the strike, and also endorsed what many still view as a politically expedient and patronizing holiday. But I don’t have the time to get  into the finer details, since that’s not the main point of this post.

The fact is, most people don’t know much about the Pullman Strike in the first place, if anything. Most Americans aren’t aware of the dozens of other major acts of social and labor activism, let alone the rich and crucial history of the organized labor movement in this country. The many rights we take for granted as employees – overtime pay, minimum wage, safety standards, and so on – have their origins in the brave (and sometimes even fatal) efforts of workers to obtain better treatment and working conditions. The values of social justice, human rights, individual freedom, which we view as intrinsically American, owe a lot of their development to social activists, laborers, and average workers. And sadly, their contribution, history, and story are largely forgotten.

This country was built by laborers, and wouldn’t have existed without them. It may seem like an obvious thing to say, but how often do we look at our highways, bridges, dams, and buildings, and truly realize that they all came from scratch, put together by the sweat and toil of average people like us? Most of what we have and own to this day was put together, sewn, welded, built, or extracted with the hard work of other human beings.

We can readily recall the businessmen, entrepreneurs, tycoons, industrialists, and other private sector figures that color our nations history – indeed, we have modern day equivalents we admire and talk about to this day. But how many of us remember the millions of nameless workers that helped mine the coal, extract the oil, build the car, and put up the skyscrapers? How many of us connect the goods we need and use everyday to the human components without which they’d never exist? We give a lot of credit to technology, or to the innovations of businessmen, but how much credit do we ever give the common laborer?

Some of you may find all this to be uncomfortably leftist for you, or even outright socialist. But why so? What makes acknowledging the efforts and contributions of workers so political contentious? Why is it a “left-right” issue? Surely conservatives and libertarians, with their value for individual responsibility and a strong work ethic, could share my same admiration of the average laborer? Surely they could appreciate the plight of today’s wage laborers, who are facing the toughest challenges in generations. Life is getting more difficult for most Americans, especially those on the lower end of the spectrum, the working-class and even middle-class folks who are getting less and less for their increasingly hard work.

Indeed, it seems workers are as under-appreciated now as they have been historically. The public dialogue, if we could even call it that, has been disproportionately focused on the size of government and the paring down of debt and the deficit. While these are very crucial issues to address, and are crucial to the strength and success of this country, they are hardly the only factors affecting the well-being and prosperity of most Americans. Indeed, I’d argue that in some ways they’re the least important. As long as infrastructure continues to crumble, education remains dysfunctional, and inequality continues to widen, this country will never fully recover. Reducing our debt and restoring fiscal responsibility in government could be a big help – though that’s not certain – but they’d just be part of it.

What about the stagnant wages? What about the lack of job growth and the rise in structural unemployment, i.e. those millions of Americans who will never get a job because their skills simply don’t match up with what is needed? What about the long-term damage of having millions of Americans come of age at a time of low-expectations, few opportunities, and pervasive cynicism? All of this depresses consumption, home purchasing, and investment, which are major drivers of our economy. It keeps us trapped in a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle of low consumer confidence, low economic growth, and still lower confidence (as I discussed in my proceeding post).

Basically, if the American middle and working class aren’t given better opportunities to thrive and grow, then this country won’t either – and as a sobering article in Mother Jones highlighted, there’s a lot going against us in that regard. Perhaps it’s time more Americans became politically and socially conscious of this dire situation, and came together to better make their voices heard, and these problems known. Unfortunately, given the dispirited attitude of most of the electorate, and the venality of the political class, that is certainly easier said than done.