the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world













Hate crimes law
Negotiations in Palestine
Democracy in Austria
US debt
Progressive policies
US budget surplus
The Third Way
Mumia Abu-Jamal
Privacy laws
International Criminal Tribunal
Space travel

2001 October 13

― “We must fight terrorism”, the US says. “Exactly!”, say the Russians. “That is just what we have been saying! And we must start with the Chechens!” The Chechens are not the most savory band of warriors, but they have a just cause, fighting Russian imperialism, and they are primarily guerrillas, not terrorists. And those Moscow apartment bombings blamed on the Chechens have long looked to independent observers in Russia like a frame-up. I wouldn’t say the government did it, but I doubt seriously the Chechens did either.

― “We must fight terrorism”, the US says. “Exactly!”, say the Chinese. “That is just what we have been saying! And we must start with the Uyghurs/Tibetans/Taiwanese!” The Uyghurs are certainly armed, and may engage in some terrorism, but they are primarily guerrilleros also, and their cause, too, is just. The Tibetans, forget ― they aren’t even armed. The Taiwanese are certainly very well armed, but they have never, to my knowledge, engaged in any terrorism. It is China that has come closest to meeting the definition of terrorism, conducting naval exercises and firing missiles, quite literally a shot across the bow of the entire island, designed to cow the Taiwanese into submission.

And the Indians have Kashmir, the Algerians have FIS and the Berbers, the Congolese have the eastern factions. I think this war against terrorism is going to provide just the necessary excuse for an extension of the state terrorism against those around the world who wish to be free of colonial/imperial rule.

Hate crimes law
2001 February 28

The state as representative of society has an obligation to halt and prevent violence. If the provincial governments in the US will not do this properly, then the federal government should. There is, thus, no problem with federal anti-violence laws. And discrimination is a bad thing; all of the usual categories, including sexuality and sexual orientation, should be itemized as typical causes of discrimination, and therefore as categories against which the state must specifically protect against discrimination ― in government actions, anyway. What I do with myself and my private resources (however defined) is my business. If I want to give a flower to a woman because she is a woman, I must be free to do so, even though it is discriminatory. But not so for the state. When the state hires, and fires, and awards contracts, and provides services, and especially when the state fashions laws and enforces them, discrimination cannot play any part. Therefore, if it is necessary to explicitly constrain the state to prosecute all murders equally, rather than (as some provinces are known historically to do) to ignore certain murders because the provinces do not care for the victims or do approve of the hate behind the murder, that should be done. Let us strengthen anti-discrimination laws and enforce them.

That is not what most hate-crimes legislation does, though. It provides, rather, for stronger penalties for hate-motivated crimes against certain target groups ― say, ten years for bashing a person, fifteen years for bashing a person because he was a Samoan. This, of course, breaks down to ten years for battery and five years for hating Samoans. Hate should be socially unacceptable; it should not, though, be legally unacceptable. In fact, the state should never, under any circumstances, have anything to say on beliefs or the peaceful expression of beliefs. That is entirely the purview of the individual. When the state becomes empowered to target specific beliefs, hope is gone. It is ultimately no more under the control of an individual to hate gays than it is to be one. We no more understand what creates hate than what creates love. And if we outside of the conservative core of society encourage the state to persecute unacceptable beliefs, the state will not go after our enemies. It will come for us.

Negotiations in Palestine
2001 February 11

It is difficult to imagine a people with political leadership as inept as that of the Palestinian Arabs has been for so long. The leaders, and especially Yasser Arafat, have bargained clumsily and unrealistically. They have placed their faith in stone-throwing juveniles and neighboring Arab states who have repeatedly failed to deliver. Those stone-throwers have garnered world attention but only a harsher crackdown by Israel. Those neighboring Arab states, acting in concert, have been defeated in war with Israel three times.

Arab unity is fronted conveniently by both the Arab states and the Palestinian Arabs when it serves their interests, and cloaked at other times. If the Palestinian Arabs are a distinct people, their claim to a separate national state and territory is much stronger. But their behavior under most circumstances reinforces their identity as a part of the Arab nation. This nation, indigenous only to its eponymous peninsula, now controls most of the Middle East and North Africa. The Jews were indigenous to Palestine, and were displaced. The absolutist demand of the Palestinian Arabs for the whole of Palestine must be interpreted, in light of their negotiating history, not as a bargaining posture but as a matter of insistence. As such, they are demanding that the large and powerful Arab nation have complete control over yet another territory in the Middle East, at the expense of a smaller people that was indigenous to the land. Of course, we see in this the folly of assigning rights to a thing as amorphous as a nation. Can the corporate injustice of an age past be rectified at the expense of individuals alive today who were not culpable in that injustice? And if so, whom does that principle favor more, the Palestinian Arabs or the Jews?

No Israeli leader had gone as far as Ehud Barak was willing to go, particularly in offering joint sovereignty over Jerusalem. Barak made those concessions at the bargaining table and got only new demands in return. This was the greatest of the aphoristic missed opportunities. Barak risked his political future on the chance of a lasting peace. Only the achievement of lasting peace would have saved him.

Muhammad was said to have ascended to heaven on the very site of the Jewish temple. This was obviously a deliberately-syncretistic claim on the part of early Islam. Whether it was done in the pure belief in a single universal God, or in a cynical move to supplant Judaism, is debatable, though the latter would be more consistent historically. But the fact that cannot be disputed is that the site was holy to the Jews first, and it was no coincidence that it later became holy to the muslims. For the latter, it is one holy site of many, and not the first. For the former, it is the geographical center of national identity. That a nationalist like Ariel Sharon would make a public appearance there is hardly surprising. It was, for that reason, the most transparent of excuses for “spontaneous” outrage on the part of the Palestinian Arabs.

And in that outrage the Palestinian Arabs managed to set their cause back once again. They managed to undercut their concessionary partner in the peace process, Barak, in precisely the way that most hindered his ability to make concessions, and eventually drove him from office. He was replaced by a Likud government headed by none other than Ariel Sharon. If the Palestinian Arabs had wanted to choose their least-preferred partner in peace, they would surely have settled on Sharon. And they now have the gall to expect negotiations to resume at the point of greatest concession by Barak. This is nonsense, and they know it, and it makes them look foolish. But not, perhaps, any more foolish than they have looked for the last half century.

2000 February 1

Jörg Haider and his new partner Wolfgang Schüssel are right when they they suggest that president Thomas Klestil and the partners of Austria in the European Union cannot respect democracy and behave as they have been doing. Haider especially can complain of that, for as the leader of the Freedom Party of Austria, the second-largest in parliament, he should have been given the second chance to form a government. Klestil acted autocratically to deny this. And the EU’s other members, in threatening the isolation of Austria for heeding the will of its populace, are ignoring their own democratic rhetoric and ideology.

What Haider does not understand is that democracy was never the true referent of the rhetoric or the ideology. The guiding principle of the emerging international political consensus is liberalism, not democracy. Democracy, rule by the masses, is only a stage in liberalism’s evolution. Careless theorists and orators have adopted the term ‘democracy’ to stand for the ultimate political ideal, which they know in their hearts but have not grasped in their conscious minds. The world is groping towards standardism, where the governing force in society will not be the unspecified will of the majority, but a specific standard of justice. What Thomas Klestil and the EU are saying is that, democratic or not, a government that is xenophobic, isolationist, and supremacist is illiberal. That is their point. Haider wants to bask in his democratic success. The rest of the world should feel free to remind him that a democratic majority has often been wrong.

(Two related texts: The Standard of Justice and The tribunate)

A story problem
2000 January 28

Mary Government works for John Q. Public. Her work-related expenses are $10,000 a year. John pays her $9,000, and tells her to borrow the rest, promising to pay her later. After five years, Mary is $5,000 in debt. The next year, John unintentionally pays her $10,500. Two weeks later, he asks for his money back. Mary tells him she still owes $4,500, which John had promised to pay. John tells her to cut expenses, gives her additional work to do, and threatens to fire her if she doesn’t repay him. Assuming Mary wants to keep her job, what should she do?

2000 January 27

It may be too late to reverse the developing consensus within the global progressive movement on the issues of the New World Order. The stewardship is, of course, solidly within the progressive movement, and it causes me pain to be forced to break with my fellow progressives. But their positions, which are increasingly reflexive positions, are misguided; and, beyond that, their positions are inconsistent, perhaps even hypocritical.

Progressives tend to oppose free trade associations, such as the North American Free Trade Area, the Global Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the World Trade Organization. Recently they fell on Seattle in force for one of their usual shows of slogan chanting and gratuitous civil disobedience. (Slogan chanting is a religious, even fascistic, activity, but they do not notice that; civil disobedience was originally refusal to obey an unjust law rather than getting arrested as a form of protest, but they do not remember that.) They were protesting the WTO. They were protesting “globalization”. A minority, who might be discounted, thought it would be “radical” and “anarchist” to destroy and loot in the area around the WTO meeting. The majority might have been better intentioned. But they chose to speak in language that was xenophobic. They chose to advocate policies that were parochial. They are right to oppose capitalism, and the control of the world’s resources by corporations. But rhetorically and practically what they were opposing was world integration, and a sharing of resources. They spoke against globalization as if it were the enemy. They fought more to protect first-world jobs and living standards than third-world worker rights and natural resources. And even if they were sincerely working against plutocracy, they have to know that poor workers in poor countries benefit when their work is sold in the developed world. And interstate barriers to trade differ little from embargoes.

And these same progressives tend to oppose sanctions, particularly economic sanctions, against states of the world, even if those states are under the control of tyrannies. This, too, may have a humanitarian origin, but it is often expressed in an isolationist fashion. And in any case, it is a kind of compassion that oppressed peoples do not need. Opposing the Gulf War was reasonable, because it was being fought not to free a people from tyranny, but to replace a new tyranny with an old tyranny that was friendlier. Kuwait is not a democracy, or even particularly liberal. Saddam Hussein still rules ruthlessly and murderously over the people of Iraq. At most the war diminished the extent of Saddam’s power, not its existence. Such a result was not worth a war. But to free Iraq would be worth a war, and it would certainly save the people of Iraq years of suffering. If they are starving now, it is because Saddam is making them starve to weaken the resolve of the west. Iraq is already allowed to sell oil for humanitarian goods. Saddam does not care about his subjects. If we allow him unfettered economic trade, he will cream off the top, as he always has; he will use it to bolster his strength, his control over the people, his programs for weapons of mass destruction. Then he may truly be invincible. The people will suffer that much longer, as long as it takes for him and two or three successors to die. The people suffer worse by a prolonging of the regime than they suffer by a prolonging of the sanctions against that regime.

In their zeal to punish wealthy multinational corporations, progressives are effectively imposing economic sanctions on poor societies. Yet they will not countenance economic sanctions against a genuine dictator. At worst, Nike exploits poor people. Saddam lets them suffer to score diplomatic points. He kills them regularly. He keeps them in a constant state of terror. What, friends, are we thinking?

Surplus madness
1998 May 31

The US government is the world’s most powerful state. It manages the world’s largest economy. It controls the currency de facto of the world economy. It seemed unlikely, five or ten years ago, that it would ever cease functioning in deficit until forced to do so by withdrawal of international credit from an institution so many trillions of dollars in debt. Now, miraculously, it has begun to function in surplus ― an estimated $39 billion for this year.

But this does not represent a new culture of responsibility among the Yankee electorate, or their chosen tribunes in Washington. Otherwise, there would be no talk of using the surplus for anything other than paying down the debt. How can the government even dream of a tax break when it is many trillions of dollars in debt? Erasing the deficit was the easy part. It was surpisingly easy, which should suggest that the surplus can erase itself just as readily. Erasing the debt is the most important domestic project that no one will talk about. Even entitlement reform, the untouchable imperative, is nothing by comparison. Some day the bill will come due. I expect to be alive when that happens. I am beginning to hope that I will not be here.

The Third Way

With the elections of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schröder, it seems that the progressive impulse in modern democracy has been, at least temporarily, hijacked by the Third Way, which buys into the myth that communism and socialism have been proven wrong by the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The Democrats, Labourites, and Social Democrats do not as a whole believe this capitalist misinterpretation; but they have chosen leaders who promise power by courting centrist voters, and these leaders have delivered. This may seem expedient in the short term. It does bring power, after all, and it might theoretically make the center more appealing to the conservatives as well, moderating the ultracapitalist views of the right. But more likely it will strengthen the conviction of the right that they are exactly where they want to be, at the leading edge of a great global trend, the vindicated victors of the Cold War. And it will make it much more difficult for the progressives to retake their own organizations from the newly-powerful centrist minorities. The long-term trend in the world remains progressive; but in the short term, things will get worse before they resume getting better.

One Man

Mumia Abu-Jamal may be wrongly imprisoned, and a good argument against the death penalty. He is certainly an articulate political activist. But that does not make him a political prisoner. He is in jail, right or wrong, for murder. He is not imprisoned to silence him; indeed, his voice is still heard from prison, perhaps more than ever. He may be an enemy of the state, but that does not make him a prisoner of conscience. He is not Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel. He is not even Nicola Sacco or Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

Single-issue activism is the antithesis of this project. And the pursuit of freedom for Mumia is the most parochial of single issues. If he is unjustly convicted, he should be freed. But the amount of energy devoted to his freedom is absurd. He is an individual. His freedom would be a benefit to himself and his friends. There are more significant problems to attend to, and the reality of massive awareness campaigns, countless dedicated organizations, frequent festivals and benefit concerts and rallies, all devoted to the freedom of a single individual, is preposterous. One person is not worth it. He is not Aung San Suu Kyi or Anwar Ibrahim, upon whose freedom may depend the lives of entire peoples. Let those who feel passionate about Mumia give their support to Amnesty International. Let Amnesty be the point on this issue, and give the proper weight to his case, and Leonard Peltier’s, and that of all of the other prisoners in the world. If only half of the effort on behalf of Mumia went to freeing genuine political prisoners, or eliminating the death penalty, the lives of many millions would be touched.

Privacy and publicity

The principles of the public domain, and freedom of experience and expression, are widely accepted as principles, though perhaps all of their consequences are not known. But as principles they cannot be accepted in part. We must deal with the consequences of the principles in full, and in full the principles of public domain and freedom of experience and expression mean this: Light and sound which reaches a public area enters the public domain. It can be seen or heard by any person. What can be seen or heard by a person in a public place can be recorded. What can be recorded in a public place must be open to publishing.

There are many, particularly celebrities, who have decided that the invasion of privacy by the inquisitive, the prurient, and the mercenary has gone too far, and that the proper solution to this problem is legislation. Celebrities have always shown ambivalence about their fame, happy to use it for personal gain, quick to condemn it when that fame brings unwanted attention. Nonetheless, fame has been affecting celebrities forever, and the social decision has been in favor of freedom over privacy; privacy can be cultivated, if at the expense of fame, and to protect the privacy of public persons with law is to invite abuse by the same individuals, whose prominence gives them power over society. But now the famous and powerful find themselves exposed and in receipt of unwelcome publicity, and claim that those who pry for a living have crossed a line.

The objection must be one of technology, but there is nothing in the current privacy-limiting technology which has not existed for a century. Photography and phonography are those most recent innovations. But virtually no one alive has lived in a world where such recording methods did not exist, and therefore no one can claim surprise that light and sound which is available to the public finds its way onto magnetic tape. It happens that the methods for amplifying light and sound from great distances are relatively simple technologies which have been around for many centuries more. The principles of telescopic lenses and parabolic receivers are now elementary physics. If any amount of distance would suggest an expectation of privacy, six hundred million kilometers would seem to be sufficient, and yet Tycho Brahe, interplanetary paparazzo extraordinaire, was ambushing the unsuspecting outer planets at such distances more than four hundred years ago.

This is a social matter, not a political matter. It must be solved by shame, not by violence (which is what arrest and imprisonment are). Those who wish privacy are asking for decency, not justice, and they should work accordingly. If they know that they live in an indecent society (and they cannot be excused from knowing that), they must take responsibility for their own privacy. Ordinary individuals do not have an expectation of privacy even in their own homes. I cannot stop my neighbor from looking into my yard, or even into my window. If I wish this neighbor to be ignorant of what I do, I must keep myself out of view. Curtains are a small price for an open society.


Exactly two years after the emergence of Dolly the sheep, two calves were cloned from an adult in Japan. The method was the same, so this did not represent a scientific breakthrough, though it did provide evidence that the method was sound, and that we could expect further replications of the experiment. Socially, this replication was perhaps more of a breakthrough than the original. It showed that science will go on, despite all the religious and quasi-ethical grousing about the first success. Many moves were made to ban the procedure, and any similar research, lest we tread on God’s territory. Where have these self-credentialed ethical experts been for the last several millennia? How is this process any different from the rather grotesque breeding projects that humanity has engaged in with its various animal cousins? It is only necessary to examine our domestic animals ― cats and dogs ― to see clearly that the human race has been treading this territory for a long, long time. Animals have been produced and unceasingly reproduced which can barely function for all of their bizarre genetic mutations. And these mutations were elicited through breeding programs on purpose. Such actions are not impious; they are inhumane.

Concerns over the specter of eugenics are misguided. They are almost entirely illegitimate as well. The only individuals who can raise the concern are those who both believe strongly in a single human race, with complete and free intraracial mating, and believe that no physical handicap is so debilitating that it should not be reproduced equally. I count myself among the former category, but I think my fellows are rare. Anyone who believes the latter is foolish, and probably cruel.

It is clear that humanity cannot be trusted with this technology, but only because it cannot be trusted with any technology. But how many would ban electricity and the internal combustion engine? How many who would prevent the monstrosities of the future will help rectify the atrocities of the past? If cloning is achieved without causing suffering to sentient beings and used for good, then it is good. When it causes suffering, then it must be blocked, but not because it is impious or hazardous but because it is causing suffering.

International Criminal Tribunal

The creation of a permanent tribunal for international crimes is on the whole a good thing, but not nearly so important to human rights as many other potential actions would have been. The end to the “culture of impunity” is a worthy goal, but is not being achieved by this creation. The impunity which the world suffers from is not a lack of retribution after the crime, but a lack of response during the crime. Justice is not punishment. Justice is a situation where the need for punishment is not present. By the time punishment becomes an issue, it is too late to mitigate suffering, too late to prevent injustice.

If the tribunal is a forum for the truth, an exposure of atrocities, and a reminder to humanity of what it is capable of, and what therefore it must be vigilant against, then it will serve a great purpose. It is less likely that the possibility of a trial will deter atrocities, or lead to the removal from power of their perpetrators. It is conceivable that the tribunal will lead to smug self-righteousness and even complacency, though this is undoubtedly contrary to the desires of its founders.

It is certain that the founders were right to reject the idea of a sovereign veto, as desired by the United States and many abusers of human rights. Such a power, in the hands of a state, to immunize perpetrators, possibly even those who were working for or in collusion with the state itself, would have entirely defeated the purpose. If the United States had a history of just action throughout the world, it would have less now to fear. Perhaps in the future, when it has built a new history of just action, and proven to the world and itself that it can be trusted, it will see fit to join the convention.

Space travel

There is something unquestionably romantic about space, and the idea of being in space, of leaving Earth, drifting in the void, landing on other planets. I grew up under the heavy influence of science fiction, and imagine that we might someday live in such a world. And I am by nature curious, indeed I long to know and understand, and can see the appeal of the final frontier. But my understanding of the home planet has led me to question the commitment of resources to the exploration of space. This holds even when major scientific value is attached, which is only occasionally the case (the space shuttle, for instance, has been doing faux science for years, offering the justification that we are in space to see what it is like to be in space).

I believe in knowledge, and the scientific method and mentality (though not necessarily the materialist religion). I am disturbed by those who would paint any resistance to space programs as backwards and provincial and isolationist. This is unfair. Knowledge should be advanced, but there is no cause for spending billions of dollars launching rockets when individuals are living in poverty. I too look towards the future. I cannot imagine, though, that the best part of the future, the true progressive dream, is planetary colonization and interstellar travel. We have no business leaving Earth when we have so many problems here. If we cannot end war and tyranny and poverty, then we are a backwards species, and are not worthy of space travel. We are not ready for the rest of the galaxy.

(See also: A space folly)


Both of the two major military forces contesting the southern half of Sudan have now agreed to a ceasefire in theory, which will hopefully, but not probably, allow relief aid to mitigate the impending famine. But obviously the only treatment for this famine is a permanent settlement of the war and a return to sustainable agriculture. Peace and peaceful cultivation are conditions which are so far in the past of Sudan that only nostalgia can conjure them to memory. Suffering, starvation and warfare, is the state which is known to the southerners. And yet if they abandoned their rebellion, there would be no guarantee of a return to sustainable agriculture, and a certainty of imposition of Sharia. Not even all muslims want to live under a theocracy of Islam. To expect the non-muslims in the south to submit to such law is entirely unreasonable.

The religious and national situation here illustrates why democracy, should it ever come to Sudan, will not be the same as self-determination. Even leaving out the dissidents on both sides, even setting aside the question of justice, is it right to demand (as the international community will surely do) that one of the two communities surrender its way of life to the other? The ideal solution, obviously, is a just situation worldwide, to which every individual, including adherents of the various parties in this conflict, would be entitled, and to which every individual would contribute, by behaving in a just manner. But short of that (and we will almost certainly always be short of that), it would be a great step towards peace and even justice if the two predominant communities within this supposed state were allowed, with not merely the blessing but the assistance of the rest of the world, to establish their own separate states, and thus substantially decrease the proportion of individuals living under a system to which they did not consent.


Original version


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