Archives for May 2016

The contest between an open and a closed society

Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, writes: With the old political landscape fading, we see the rise of parties in more or less fundamental opposition to the ideas and principles that have governed the West until now. The politics of ideology has faded, and the politics of identity has been gaining ground.

The rise of the nationalist right has been faster in Austria than in most other countries. It is obvious that it has been boosted significantly by legitimate revulsion against the old-fashioned system of Proporz. Change has been in high demand.

With faith in the future also waning in view of economic difficulties and rapidly changing societies, it has been easy for these forces to trumpet nationalist myths and gain adherents for their calls for closed borders and old values. The Muslim hordes are at the gates, they say; Brussels is just bureaucracy, trade is treason, and the United States is aggressive and alien. These have been the messages resonating in the valleys and on the plains of rural Austria.

While the politics in the past was about different ideas about a better future, this is about bringing protection against change and a future that many fear will be even more different. Previously you won elections by saying that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. These forces are promising to bring back a yesterday that they portray as better than the tomorrow they see coming.

Immigration is clearly one part of the story that Austria has had difficulties handling. But that voters in more diverse Vienna strongly rejected the siren songs of closed borders is a good sign in the darkness.

It was Karl Popper, born in Imperial Vienna, who not only conceived the ideas of open society but also warned of the “strain of civilization” that can occur when change is seen as too rapid, and the lure of a return to the tribe makes itself felt. [Continue reading…]


Effort to expose Russia’s ‘troll army’ draws vicious retaliation

The New York Times reports: Seeking to shine some light into the dark world of Internet trolls, a journalist with Finland’s national broadcaster asked members of her audience to share their experience of encounters with Russia’s “troll army,” a raucous and often venomous force of online agitators.

The response was overwhelming, though not in the direction that the journalist, Jessikka Aro, had hoped.

As she expected, she received some feedback from people who had clashed with aggressively pro-Russian voices online. But she was taken aback, and shaken, by a vicious retaliatory campaign of harassment and insults against her and her work by those same pro-Russian voices.

“Everything in my life went to hell thanks to the trolls,” said Ms. Aro, a 35-year-old investigative reporter with the social media division of Finland’s state broadcaster, Yle Kioski.

Abusive online harassment is hardly limited to pro-Russian Internet trolls. Ukraine and other countries at odds with the Kremlin also have legions of aggressive avengers on social media.

But pro-Russian voices have become such a noisy and disruptive presence that both NATO and the European Union have set up special units to combat what they see as a growing threat not only to civil discourse but to the well-being of Europe’s democratic order and even to its security.

This “information war,” said Rastislav Kacer, a veteran diplomat who served as Slovakia’s ambassador to Washington and at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, “is just part of a bigger struggle.” While not involving bloodshed, he added, it “is equally as dangerous as more conventional hostile action.” [Continue reading…]


Germany considers easing of Russia sanctions

Der Spiegel reports: With the Wednesday evening sun shining in his face, German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel is standing at the entrance to the HanseMesse convention center in the northern German city of Rostock. He’s surrounded by cardboard sandwich boards displaying the center’s motto: “Where the world comes together.” Today, the sentence is half true at best: The world isn’t coming together in Rostock, rather German and Russian business leaders are converging here. It is the second “Russia Day” and Gabriel is the keynote speaker.

The focus of the gathering is on business, but when Russia is involved, politics are never far away. Even Gabriel’s appearance sends a political message, as is his demonstratively friendly treatment of Russia’s industry minister — not to mention the first sentence he speaks into the microphone: “Isolation is not at all helpful.”

Later in his speech, Gabriel expands on that sentiment, saying isolation is not a tenable policy and that only continued dialogue is helpful. He says that Russia has recently shown that it can be a reliable partner and mentions the nuclear deal with Iran as an example. He says that Russia and the world are dependent on each other — and that the time has come for a step-by-step easing of sanctions.

Gabriel voiced a similar message prior to the most recent extension of the sanctions against Russia. Nothing came of it then, but things could be different this time.

As expected, G-7 leaders reiterated their hardline approach to Moscow in the Japan summit’s closing statement. Chancellor Angela Merkel complained last Thursday that there still isn’t a stable cease-fire in Ukraine and the law pertaining to local elections in eastern Ukraine, as called for by the Minsk Protocol, still hasn’t been passed. That, she said, is why “it is not to be expected” that the West will change its approach to Russia.

What Merkel didn’t say, though, is that behind the scenes, her government has long since developed concrete plans for a step-by-step easing of the sanctions against Russia and that the process could begin as early as this year. [Continue reading…]


Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Microsoft back EU hate speech rules


Reuters reports: Facebook, Twitter, Google’s YouTube and Microsoft on Tuesday agreed to an EU code of conduct to tackle online hate speech within 24 hours in Europe.

EU governments have been trying in recent months to get social platforms to crack down on rising online racism following the refugee crisis and terror attacks, with some even threatening action against the companies.

As part of the pledge agreed with the European Commission, the web giants will review the majority of valid requests for removal of illegal hate speech in less than 24 hours and remove or disable access to the content if necessary.

They will also strengthen their cooperation with civil society organisations who help flag hateful content when it goes online and promote “counter-narratives” to hate speech.

“The recent terror attacks have reminded us of the urgent need to address illegal online hate speech. Social media is unfortunately one of the tools that terrorist groups use to radicalise young people,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova said.

Germany got Google, Facebook and Twitter to agree to delete hate speech from their websites within 24 hours last year and even launched an investigation into the European head of Facebook over its alleged failure to remove racist hate speech. [Continue reading…]


U.S. struggles with goal of admitting 10,000 Syrians


The New York Times reports: President Obama invited a Syrian refugee to this year’s State of the Union address, and he has spoken passionately about embracing refugees as a core American value.

But nearly eight months into an effort to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, Mr. Obama’s administration has admitted just over 2,500. And as his administration prepares for a new round of deportations of Central Americans, including many women and children pleading for humanitarian protection, the president is facing intense criticism from allies in Congress and advocacy groups about his administration’s treatment of migrants.

They say Mr. Obama’s lofty message about the need to welcome those who come to the United States seeking protection has not been matched by action. And they warn that the president, who will host a summit meeting on refugees in September during the United Nations General Assembly session, risks undercutting his influence on the issue at a time when American leadership is needed to counteract a backlash against refugees. [Continue reading…]


America’s Middle East allies could win friends for ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: The tortuous war against Isis is taking a treacherous turn. Two years after the militant Sunni group declared its brutal caliphate, the US and its allies in Iraq and Syria have begun a two-front offensive to dislodge the militant group from its strongholds in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and Raqqa in Syria. But, while the campaign has made progress, the composition of the forces leading the battles in the two Arab Sunni cities is intensifying sectarian and ethnic tensions in the bitterly divided nations and beyond. The danger is that the US-led action will, ultimately, help Isis gain legitimacy as a defender of Sunnis — even if it cedes territory.

Heightened fears in Syria, Iraq and the wider region about the offensive in Falluja and Raqqa bode ill for the long-term fight against the group. With western help channelled to militias beholden to the Shia regime in Iran and close to Tehran’s allies in Damascus, the fight is widely seen in the region as nakedly sectarian.

The US-backed offensive is the first of its kind since the American-led anti-Isis campaign began soon after the group swept into Iraq. America has long sought to avoid providing air support for Shia and Kurdish militias to fight in two Sunni areas at once: when Baghdad launched the battle to retake the city of Tikrit from Isis in March last year, Washington refrained from providing air strikes in support of the estimated 30,000 Shia fighters until the battle stalled three weeks later. [Continue reading…]


Elite U.S. soldiers and Kurdish troops moving on ISIS near Mosul

Florian Neuhof reports: The operation is the largest by the Kurds in Iraq since they took Sinjar from the Islamic State last November. Intent on driving ISIS out of nine villages facing them at the Khazir front, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) threw 4,700 men into the offensive, according to Arif Tayfor, the sector commander at Khazir.

By Monday afternoon, seven of those nine villages had been taken.

The Kurds, without question, benefitted from some hands-on U.S. support. A few miles from Mufti, on the road leading directly to Mosul, I came across a U.S. special operations commando shoveling empty machine-gun cartridge cases out of the turret of an armored car.

These camera-shy elite soldiers usually refrain from engaging the enemy directly, instead gathering intelligence and directing air strikes. But at Khazir, U.S. ammunition clearly was expended.

It is not the first time American special operations forces have tangled with ISIS on the Kurdish front lines in Iraq. Early in May, U.S. Navy Seal Charlie Keating was killed when a group of Seals helped contain an ISIS attack on Telskuf, an abandoned Christian town near Mosul.

The Khazir operation’s immediate aim is to relieve the pressure on the nearby frontline town of Gwer and push ISIS further away from Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region that is barely an hour’s car ride away.

The long-term goal is to carve out a greater Kurdistan from the crumbling caliphate and a disintegrating Iraq. The villages at Khazir are part of the disputed territories, areas claimed by both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad. [Continue reading…]


Erdogan warns Muslims against using birth control

Middle East Eye reports: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that Muslim families should refrain from birth control and have more children.

Erdogan said it was the responsibility of mothers to ensure the continued growth of Turkey’s population, which has expanded at a rate of around 1.3 percent in the last few years.

“I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants,” he said in a speech in Istanbul.

“People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that!

“As God and as the great prophet said, we will go this way. And in this respect the first duty belongs to mothers.”

Erdogan and his wife Emine have two sons and two daughters. Earlier this month, the president attended the high-profile marriage of his younger daughter Sumeyye to defence industrialist Selcuk Bayraktar.

His elder daughter Esra, who is married to the up-and-coming Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, has three children.

The Platform to Stop Violence Against Women, which campaigns to stop the killings of hundreds of woman every year, condemned Erdogan’s comments as violating the rights of women.

“You [Erdogan] cannot usurp our right to contraception, nor our other rights with your declarations that come out of the Middle Ages,” the group said in a statement on Twitter. [Continue reading…]


Should Israel negotiate with Hamas?


Syrian opposition negotiator quits peace talks

The Wall Street Journal reports: The chief Syrian opposition negotiator in Geneva resigned, citing both the international community’s failure to make concrete progress toward ending the country’s conflict and continuing hostilities by the regime.

Mohammad Alloush’s departure could be a particularly troubling development for the fractured opposition, which has faced difficulties nominating consensus leaders wielding both political clout with the international community and influence among rebels on the ground.

The High Negotiations Committee, the opposition’s representative body in Geneva, will meet in Riyadh in 10 days to form a delegation for coming peace talks and select his successor, a spokeswoman said.

The resignation is the latest hitch in the continuing peace negotiations, as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the opposition and their respective allies appear no closer to finding a mediated solution to the five-year conflict.

The latest cease-fire attempt, brokered by the U.S. and Russia, broke down weeks after it began in February.

“The last three rounds of negotiations in Geneva under U.N. auspices have been unsuccessful because of the unwillingness of the regime to compromise and its continuation in the bombing and aggression against the Syrian people,” Mr. Alloush said Sunday night in the letter to the HNC. “Also, the international community [has been unable] to implement its decisions especially with regard to the humanitarian angle from breaking the siege, allowing aid into besieged areas, the release of detainees and a commitment to cessation of hostilities.” [Continue reading…]


Russia’s draft constitution: End of Syria’s Baath era?


Al Jazeera reports: Last Tuesday, Lebanese daily newspaper, Al-Akhbar, reported that Russia had finished drafting a constitution for Syria that would remove many of the Syrian president’s powers and set up a more decentralised government, both possible concessions to rebel groups fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

According to the Al-Akhbar report, the new constitution, done with the blessing of the United States, would be put to referendum before the end of the year. This would put the countries on pace to meet their self-imposed deadline to draft a Syrian constitution by August 2016.

The Syrian presidency quickly dismissed the report, describing it as “untrue”.

“No draft constitution has been shown to the Syrian Arab Republic. Everything which has been said in the media about this subject is totally untrue,” a statement on the Syrian Presidency’s official Facebook page said.

Barely six weeks after their military intervention began, Russian officials put forth an eight-point plan called: “Approach to the Settlement of the Syrian Crisis” that provided the basic contours of Russia’s vision for ending the conflict.

This vision was rather narrow, however, as the first five points dealt specifically with the fight against the Islamic State group (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and the remaining three carried vague commitments to a political process carried out under international auspices.

For most observers, the plan represented little more than the fulfilment of the regime’s wish-list and carried with it no substantive political concessions. [Continue reading…]


Eric Holder says Edward Snowden performed a ‘public service’

CNN reports: Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says Edward Snowden performed a “public service” by triggering a debate over surveillance techniques, but still must pay a penalty for illegally leaking a trove of classified intelligence documents.

“We can certainly argue about the way in which Snowden did what he did, but I think that he actually performed a public service by raising the debate that we engaged in and by the changes that we made,” Holder told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,” a podcast produced by CNN and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.

“Now I would say that doing what he did — and the way he did it — was inappropriate and illegal,” Holder added. [Continue reading…]


A skeptic bashing Skeptics

John Horgan, in a slightly edited version of a talk he gave recently at Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, writes: I hate preaching to the converted. If you were Buddhists, I’d bash Buddhism. But you’re skeptics, so I have to bash skepticism.

I’m a science journalist. I don’t celebrate science, I criticize it, because science needs critics more than cheerleaders. I point out gaps between scientific hype and reality. That keeps me busy, because, as you know, most peer-reviewed scientific claims are wrong.

So I’m a skeptic, but with a small S, not capital S. I don’t belong to skeptical societies. I don’t hang out with people who self-identify as capital-S Skeptics. Or Atheists. Or Rationalists.

When people like this get together, they become tribal. They pat each other on the back and tell each other how smart they are compared to those outside the tribe. But belonging to a tribe often makes you dumber.

Here’s an example involving two idols of Capital-S Skepticism: biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss recently wrote a book, A Universe from Nothing. He claims that physics is answering the old question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

Krauss’s book doesn’t come close to fulfilling the promise of its title, but Dawkins loved it. He writes in the book’s afterword: “If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to supernaturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology.”

Just to be clear: Dawkins is comparing Lawrence Krauss to Charles Darwin. Why would Dawkins say something so foolish? Because he hates religion so much that it impairs his scientific judgment. He succumbs to what you might call “The Science Delusion.” [Continue reading…]


Whatever you think, you don’t necessarily know your own mind

Keith Frankish writes: Do you think racial stereotypes are false? Are you sure? I’m not asking if you’re sure whether or not the stereotypes are false, but if you’re sure whether or not you think that they are. That might seem like a strange question. We all know what we think, don’t we?

Most philosophers of mind would agree, holding that we have privileged access to our own thoughts, which is largely immune from error. Some argue that we have a faculty of ‘inner sense’, which monitors the mind just as the outer senses monitor the world. There have been exceptions, however. The mid-20th-century behaviourist philosopher Gilbert Ryle held that we learn about our own minds, not by inner sense, but by observing our own behaviour, and that friends might know our minds better than we do. (Hence the joke: two behaviourists have just had sex and one turns to the other and says: ‘That was great for you, darling. How was it for me?’) And the contemporary philosopher Peter Carruthers proposes a similar view (though for different reasons), arguing that our beliefs about our own thoughts and decisions are the product of self-interpretation and are often mistaken.

Evidence for this comes from experimental work in social psychology. It is well established that people sometimes think they have beliefs that they don’t really have. For example, if offered a choice between several identical items, people tend to choose the one on the right. But when asked why they chose it, they confabulate a reason, saying they thought the item was a nicer colour or better quality. Similarly, if a person performs an action in response to an earlier (and now forgotten) hypnotic suggestion, they will confabulate a reason for performing it. What seems to be happening is that the subjects engage in unconscious self-interpretation. They don’t know the real explanation of their action (a bias towards the right, hypnotic suggestion), so they infer some plausible reason and ascribe it to themselves. They are not aware that they are interpreting, however, and make their reports as if they were directly aware of their reasons. [Continue reading…]


Music: Knut Bjørnar Asphol ft. Arve Henriksen — ‘Spaces’


Drowned baby picture captures week of tragedy in Mediterranean

Reuters reports: A photograph of a drowned migrant baby in the arms of a German rescuer was distributed on Monday by a humanitarian organization aiming to persuade European authorities to ensure safe passage to migrants, after hundreds are feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean last week.

The baby, who appears to be no more than a year old, was pulled from the sea on Friday after the capsizing of a wooden boat. Forty-five bodies arrived in the southern Italian port of Reggio Calabria on Sunday aboard an Italian navy ship, which picked up 135 survivors from the same incident.

German humanitarian organization Sea-Watch, operating a rescue boat in the sea between Libya and Italy, distributed the picture taken by a media production company on board and which showed a rescuer cradling the child like a sleeping baby.

In an email, the rescuer, who gave his name as Martin but did not want his family name published, said he had spotted the baby in the water “like a doll, arms outstretched”.

“I took hold of the forearm of the baby and pulled the light body protectively into my arms at once, as if it were still alive … It held out its arms with tiny fingers into the air, the sun shone into its bright, friendly but motionless eyes.”

The rescuer, a father of three and by profession a music therapist, added: “I began to sing to comfort myself and to give some kind of expression to this incomprehensible, heart-rending moment. Just six hours ago this child was alive.” [Continue reading…]


The camaraderie of outrage


“The killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo in order to save a child who fell in its enclosure has sparked nationwide outrage,” reports CBS News.

I share the outrage.

I happen to be among those who believe that the incarceration of wild animals for the entertainment of sightseers, cannot be justified. It does little to elevate the consciousness of the people and even less the well-being of the captives. The protection of endangered species requires first and foremost the protection of endangered habitats.

Upon seeing the news of the gorilla’s death, like many others, I also thought that if a four-year boy could even get into a situation like this, there had to be negligence on the part of parents, bystanders, and/or the zoo operators. Likewise, the decision to shoot and kill the 17-year-old gorilla, Harambe (a Swahili name which means, “all pull together”) seemed very questionable.

Among the outraged voices showing up on Facebook, the most venomous attacks have been directed at Michelle Gregg, the boy’s mother.

Jan Dadaista Subert:

The crappy mother should have gotten shot instead, not the poor innocent gorilla!

Andrew Weprin:

Michelle Gregg says, “God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him.” No, Harambe protected your child after you & God failed to stop him from climbing into the enclosure! And innocent Harambe ended up dead for his efforts, shot with a bullet that would have been better spent on you, for failing to look after your own child and being the cause of all this!

The creator of a Facebook page, Justice For Harambe (which has already received over 60,000 likes), propagated the claim that Gregg was planning to sue to zoo, and yet when asked to support this claim with some evidence simply said: “Educated guess.” The page’s stated objective is: “We wish to see charges brought against those responsible!!”

The outrage directed at Gregg has prompted a smaller wave of outrage coming from those who underline the fact that even when under the supervision of the most attentive of parents, small children do have a talent for slipping out of sight.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency announced on Sunday that at least 700 people are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean this week as tens of thousands of refugees continue to seek safety in Europe.

The latest chapter in the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II has prompted very little outrage on this side of the Atlantic.

For observers of social media in the U.S., it’s hard to avoid concluding that the life of a gorilla is commonly regarded here as being more precious than the lives of countless human beings.

Although to some extent it’s heartening that this much concern is being shown about the premature death of a gorilla, it’s disturbing that over the last year and longer there has been such widespread indifference shown towards millions of people in desperate need.

Is there really such a compassion deficit in America, or does this reveal more about the psychology of rage?

My guess is that among those now seeking justice for Harambe, prior to this weekend many had not paid a great deal of interest in the welfare of western lowland gorillas.

The guiding emotions here were outrage at what seemed like the unnecessary loss of an innocent life, and a certain sympathy with fellow primates which all children feel and most adults have learned to sublimate.

The great apes fascinate us because on some level we recognize them as kin. We don’t just look at them; we see them with reflective awareness looking at us.

Yet why would a sense of kinship be able to extend outside our own species while falling short among other members of the human race?

What is at play here seems to have less to do with who or what we identify with than it does with the pathways that facilitate our connections.

It turns out that in the age of social media, outrage has become such a potent force because it allows strangers to bond.

Teddy Wayne writes:

A 2013 study, from Beihang University in Beijing, of Weibo, a Twitter-like site, found that anger is the emotion that spreads the most easily over social media. Joy came in a distant second. The main difference, said Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who studies anger, is that although we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of strangers. As the study suggests, outrage is lavishly rewarded on social media, whether through supportive comments, retweets or Facebook likes. People prone to Internet outrage are looking for validation, Professor Martin said. “They want to hear that others share it,” he said, “because they feel they’re vindicated and a little less lonely and isolated in their belief.”

Harambe’s death pulled strangers together in their shared anger. The sad and stern face of a silverback resonated across a population which, struggling to find common ground through things we can affirm, finds it much more easily in our discontent.


Three days, 700 deaths on Mediterranean as refugee crisis flares

The New York Times reports: The migrant ships kept sinking. First came a battered, blue-decked vessel that flipped over on Wednesday as terrified migrants plunged into the Mediterranean Sea. The next day, a flimsy craft capsized with hundreds of people aboard. And on Friday, still another boat sank into the deceptively placid waters of the Mediterranean.

Three days and three sunken ships are again confronting Europe with the horrors of its refugee crisis, as desperate people trying to reach the Continent keep dying at sea. At least 700 people from the three boats are believed to have drowned, the United Nations refugee agency announced on Sunday, in one of the deadliest weeks in the Mediterranean in recent memory.

The latest drownings — which would push the death toll for the year to more than 2,000 people — are a reminder of the cruel paradox of the Mediterranean calendar: As summer approaches with blue skies, warm weather and tranquil waters prized by tourists, human trafficking along the North African coastline traditionally kicks into a higher gear.

Taking advantage of calm conditions, smugglers in Libya send out more and more migrants toward Italy, often on unseaworthy vessels. Drowning deaths are inevitable, even as Italian Coast Guard and Navy ships race to answer distress calls. Last year, more than 3,700 migrants died in the Mediterranean, a figure that could be surpassed this year. [Continue reading…]