Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Selling of Palestine

The recent, though not unexpected, revelations that the Palestinian Authority has failed to advance the aims of the Palestinians has once again opened the Middle East peace process to intense scrutiny.  In fairness, this is hardly the first case of colossal failure of leadership on the part of the Palestinian powers that be at the expense of the hostage population that it serves.  Arafat may have earned the disdain of the late Edward Said - who famously called him the 'Petain of the Palestinians' in an Irish Times interview - this due to Arafat's naked corruption and willingness to effectively give-up Palestinian claims to legitimacy during the Oslo Talks of the early 90s.  However, the current Palestinian leadership appears determined to go even beyond this in it's willingness to bend to Israeli wishes.

The whole business had an air of predictability about it.  That the United States refused to acknowledge anyone but the ineffective and slack jawed Mahmoud Abbas for leadership (despite the slightly brisker tones now taken with Israeli leadership)- promising to cut funds in the event of Hamas ascendancy or that the previous regime offered up the crass proposed move of Palestinians to South America, likely resulting in their further ghettoization.  The selling out of the estimated 2 million Palestinian refugees living sub-human and stateless existences in refugee camps by Palestinian  leadership feels like something or a forgone conclusion.  And this taken with the effective selling East Jerusalem.  After all, these people were never going to be accepted by Israel due to their demographic considerations and, even if their return could be secured, would have proven a resettlement headache for Fatah and the PLO - which has problems of it's own: notably retaining it's ongoing Kleptocracy while fighting a civil war with the Islamists.

Further, the ability of Israel to pursue hard line positions and to still reject peace agreements, even when aided and abetted by their partners in negotiation.  Indeed, the niggardliness of spirit extended on the part of Israel to the Palestinians remains as galling as it ever has.  Meanwhile, the human costs of these transactions are, as always, borne almost exclusively by Palestinian civilians who have seen civil society collapse, who have seen the repeated de-development of their lands in the face of ongoing colonial expansion by Israel, who have been deprived of water, arable soil, markets and worse.

Israeli policy over the years has been nakedly transparent in it's aims: land-use has been leveraged as a weapon to advance Israeli colonial aims and to destroy Palestinian autonomy, and economic and social vitality.  The outcome of this policy has repeatedly been the conversion of Palestinian  lands into suburban strip development for Israeli settlers.  The rationale defending these actions has always been one of self-defense with the perennial underlying irony being that Israel has most frequently acted the aggressor.  This has further been re-affirmed by, as Gershom Gorenberg has noted in his excellent The Accidental Empire, an Israeli fetish for rural, bucolic ideals and rejection of the 'urban' - rooted in the Torah  - that further serve as a justification to colonize the countryside in the name of Zionist self-determination.  The Palestinian leadership meanwhile has been reduced to an ever splintering mass of fundamentalism, vulgar anti-Semitic violence and cronyism  since well before Arafat died, however, the impetus remains firmly upon Israel to 'make' peace as it is Israel alone who has the power to do so.

Not that they will.  The ongoing conflict has no end.  Much like the Russian conflict in Chechnya, the war is far too lucrative for the interested leadership structures to end.  Both the Israelis and the United States benefit economically through defense spending and various arms agreements.  It is also the rationale for the United States to provide to Israel upwards of $4 billion a year in direct aid, and for frequently fundamentalist Christian congregations in the United States - believing the reoccupation of the whole of the 'holy land' by the Jews to be a necessary doctrinal condition to bring about the rapture - pour an additional $4-6 billion into Israel's coffers.

Similarly, it is too lucrative for surrounding plutocratic Arab states who need Israel as a perpetual bogeyman and the Palestinians are repressed Arab brothers in the region who can be pointed towards when questions are asked of their own leadership.  This socio-economic-psychological situation is such that the involved parties will continue to conspire in one way or another to propagate the cycle of violence.  When Nicholas Kristof asked several years ago if the then still-alive Arafat was 'capable of peace', he more accurately should have asked if any of the involved parties are capable of peace?

The answer, of course, is an almost certain no.  That is not to say that many Israeli and Palestinian citizens (or perhaps 'residents' is the better term in the Palestinian case - as they, for all intensive proposes remain stateless and thus without concrete nationality) it is more that leadership in the Leventine, with the foreign governments (most notably the United States) providing the funding that are incapable.  What is most debilitating about this whole process may well be the pugnacious intractability of the situation for those that would genuinely seek peace.  This has resulted in the failure of humanism and indeed, of humanity within the region.  The outcome has had a brutalizing effect upon Jew and Arab alike.  As positions further harden and atrophy, the willingness to embrace common strains of humanism and pluralism continues to diminish and the all that will remain is, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, 'fear in a handful of dust'.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Further Thoughts on Gun Control

A recent Guardian editorial speaks to the impossibility of gun control in America.  As I recently noted the Giffords shooting in Arizona as an example for the need for stronger gun control legislation, many of the responses to my piece have noted the impossibility of gun control in the United States, a sentiment echoed in the Guardian.

The argument advanced is that the majority of the country would like stricter gun control, however it is a fringe group, in the form of the NRA that is able, through the control of gun-loving swing voters.  As a result, the argument goes, gun control is rendered impossible as those swing factions manage to leverage incredible political clout preventing Congress from acting.

This is similar to the argument leveraged against health care reform.  While a wide margin of Americans were initially said to have supported socialized medicine, lobbying on the part of pharmaceutical companies and right-wing minority groups largely prevented meaningful reforms for decades.  This also resulted in the watered-down set of health care reforms that were eventually passed last year that seem to leave nobody happy, although this will likely change as more of the benefits of the reforms kick in.  Misrepresentation of what makes-up the current health care legislation may also further undermine it's popularity.

The question becomes, what prevents gun control from following a similar set of problems?  Equally importantly, while more people support stricter gun control in the immediate aftermath of the Giffords shooting, as memories of the shooting fade, this is likely to again be less the case.  Reports that the Giffords shooting has resulted in a run on Glocks in Arizona is further terrifying that the odds appear long for gun controls. 

Despite this, just because gun controls are likely to be politically unpopular does not make them any less necessary.  It is true that the United States possesses a much stronger gun culture than that found in Europe, and once guns have been purchased, it appears incredibly difficult to see them removed from circulation, and this is a real shame.  The assault weapons ban should be reinstated because it reduced the overall number of assault weapons in circulation (even if it didn't eliminate them altogether) while the elimination of open-carrying laws would limit the number of hand-guns within public venues.  People should not be allowed to brandish weapons in public places, and the whole idea of allowing concealed weapons is, at best, an utterly insane idea because it places the general public at a whole of increased risk.  This is because the mere presence of guns makes them much more likely to be used.

Additionally, the other argument against gun control has been that it is hypocritical because alcohol, which is widely available has been implicated in far more crimes and accidents than guns have.  As a result, why focus on guns when we should be focusing on alcohol as well?  I think that this argument is fallacious and misleading.  While I agree that alcohol poses a net societal harm, the design behind alcohol, unlike an assault weapon, is not to kill.  It is true that alcohol impinges judgement and frequently results in people making foolish choices that can have deadly consequences, however alcohol is not, a weapon in the same way an assault weapon is.

Further, substance addiction and specifically alcohol abuse, is a very different problem than that of weapons availability and must be responded to Alcohol is more strictly controlled than weapons availability and must be responded to differently.  Their exist rehabilitation and clinical programs to mitigate negative personal and societal impacts of alcohol misuse, whereas, this is not a possibility for gun misuse.  Gun misuse is a zero-sum game that is likely to result in death or injury for the victims.  This is not a forgone conclusion with alcohol abuse, and moreover, the net affect of someone drinking one too many is unlikely to result in problems unless the person decides to drive or behave in a violent or inappropriate fashion after imbibing.

It is true that many gun owners, like many drinkers, will behave responsibly and the argument goes, it is unfair for them to suffer as a result of what a few violent and disgruntled individuals do.  Again, this comes down to an argument about what the intent of legislation should be, the affect upon society and what the intent of the substance or thing posing a risk to society is.  A gun has one primary purpose, and that is to do violence.  The supposed function of a gun to deter violence, through threat, is a secondary function.  Our societal relationship with alcohol is probably unhealthy, but our relationship with guns is equally unhealthy, and it can be argued that the unhealthy exercise of guns, specifically assault weapons, has much more to do with the primary purpose of guns. 

Again, this is different from the ownership of a rifle say for hunting, where the primary purpose is slightly different.  The hunting industry has done much to self-regulate and serves several important conservationist purposes in culling herds, targeting invasive species and using revenues to restore natural habitats.  Hunters are not using assault weapons however, and it can be soundly argued that the rationale behind owning an automatic pistol and behind owning a hunting rifle shows discreet difference.

The sort of gun control I advocate for would be a system akin to that of the Swiss.  In Switzerland, if a person wants a gun they would be required to submit a proposal as to why they wanted the weapon, undergo extensive psychological screening, and participate in a gun safety course.  Assault weapons, extended magazines and the like should not be legally available to civilians and concealed weapons should not be legally allowed.  This should also apply to law-enforcement officers, as in Britain, in which very few uniformed policemen carry a gun, which has been shown to reduce the incidence of police violence and accidental killings of the innocent by the police, which have been abundant within the United States.

The purpose behind gun control should be to establish a more healthy relationship with guns with the aim (no pun intended) towards greater safety and health across society as a whole.  Gun rights should be treated with the gravitas that guns, with all of their life-ending power, should command.  To continue with the status quo is unethical in that it favors the rights of the few as the expense of wider safety and security for society as a whole.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Society, The Economy & The Environment

The paradigm of current economic thought seems to disconnect it from the notions of sustainability that we will be required to embrace to construct a salient future for ourselves. As we face the wider environmental problems of global warming, peak oil, and food inflation; the assumptions inherent to neo-liberal economic theory leave us at a disadvantage in tackling these already potentially insurmountable issues.  Further, many of these neo-liberal assumptions have resulted in a culture of economic gangsterism that has seen recession for the last two years.   Indeed, it is the very dogmatism of neo-liberalism and the pathological pursuit of economy growth and maximized returns that has created many of the problems that we are facing now.

I remain unconvinced that the field of economics as it stands, and the tendency on the part of economists to think a certain way, and to agree on certain assumptions, even when they fly in the face of reality, will provide us with a vehicle to construct a salient and stable future. At the same time, economics as a field remains an incredibly important tool for analysis and prediction. What is needed then is a fundamental shift in the way we think about economic theory and in what we 'assume' about human interactions. As Thomas Kuhn noted, the paradigm we ascribe to dictates the way we frame and conceptualize issues. While paradigms can be useful, they are to a certain sense determinist in how we interact with the world and what we assume to be true. This poses an inherent danger, and the assumptions being made as the driving force behind our economic interactions, and what is rational behavior are at the moment driving us on a course that may in the end be disadvantageous.

The assumptions made in neo-liberal economic theory and in game theory about human nature seem to be highly fallacious. To economists, humans will behave barbarously to promote their self-interest whenever given the opportunity at the expense of the collective and of society as a whole. Free market economists such as Milton Friedman and Frederic Von Hayek then add the twist that this behavior is to be promoted as only a perfect equilibrium of avarice will somehow promote an ideal equilibrium in which everyone strives to meet their needs. The dogma behind this is not only terrifying, and as Adam Curtis does well to argue in the BBC documentary series The Trap, is a perversion of Isaiah Berlin's concept of negative liberty, but seems to fundamentally untrue do to another inherent human instinct towards cooperation.

The mere existence of society, and the fact that we have managed to make it this far without having raped, murdered and robbed each other at every turn does much to discredit these assumptions about human selfishness. It occurs to me that we have a fundamental biological imperative to cooperate, just as other "pack animals" have used this genetic advantage to prosper. It can even be argued that this ability of group cooperation is a form of natural selection, though this is highly debatable. The point stands however that the behavior that neo-liberal economic theory would lead us to believe is rational is in many ways pathological, and a strict adherence to these notions of rationality is very dangerous. It is also dehumanizing as it strives to ascribe to human beings inherent economic value.

Previously, Keynesian economics was an attempt to rationalize this cooperative sense, and to speak of human capital, many of the economic meltdowns that resulted from the implementation and over extension of Keynes theories saw serious economic problems across Western Europe, while the tyranny of Isaiah Berlin's positive liberty saw a particularly ruthless strand of social Darwinism take root in the form of the Soviet system. However, the sort of winner takes all free market system, with its assumption that growth at any cost is good, regardless of long-term environmental degradation and resource scarcity concerns has in and of itself resulted in a similar sort of social Darwinist mentality that would rob us of as a future as a species. In the end, a new way of thinking about economics is necessary for the sake of conservation or preservation. Social accounting and environmental accounting, while growing increasingly in importance in economics curricula rarely goes far enough into calling into questions these ideologies.  Meanwhile, the field of Environmental Economics, while producing some important regulatory market mechanisms remains heavily indebted to game theory, which is in turn based on the models of John Nash and the potentially dangerous assumptions that underlie them.

The now largely ignored and recently deceased John Kenneth Galbraith rejected the technical analysis and mathematical models of neoclassical economics as being divorced from reality. Just as the economist Veblen did before him, Galbraith asserted that economic activity cannot be distilled into inviolable laws – it is rather was a complex product of the cultural and political. He believed that economists tended to ignore those crucial factors that are not amenable to axiomatic descriptions. Galbraith was a lifelong Keynsian and as Keynes ideas were gradually relegated in favor of neoclassical sensibilities, Galbraith was increasingly relegated to the fringes: only hauled out as an example of the deceptiveness of the "old ideas" whenever certain neoclassical models needed to be justified to the public. What is shocking about this, is that, with his refusal to implement mathematical models, which really prove nothing, Galbraith was one of the few in the economics field that was willing to call into question not just the limitations of the economic paradigm, but also to practice genuine Popperian falsification of his ideological bent.

Only a handful of pre-eminent economic thinkers: Paul Volcker, Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman (to a point) and Amatrya Sen among them, are disciples of this school of economics - and Stiglitz came to these conclusions only after defecting away from the neoclassical approach after growing increasingly frustrated at his position in the World Bank. This is, however, the tradition that I argue needs to be reclaimed and built upon if the field of economics is to serve us well in the future.

While economic growth remains important, sustainable growth is far more important. Economists talk endlessly of "discounting" – the idea that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, however, if the rending of a dollar today means that there is no tomorrow, then the whole of the debate becomes null. Conservationism is incredibly important – however even the terminology conservationism reduces our natural environment to little more than resources to be consumed at some future date. More important I feel is the notion of 'preservationism'  – or the concept that certain natural resources should be preserved and remain untouched as they have inherent value. Notably, forestry and other plant life hold an important roll in carbon sequestration – pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere – and staving off global warming.

I put it to you that we must define our values as a society, and for economists to reconsider and redefine the limits to what is rational behavior. Perhaps it is not so irrational for people to work together or to accept less than optimum return on their investments if doing so means that our planet, our way of life and our general well being are not negatively and harmfully impacted. The world of economics is one of perpetual cognitive dissonance in which one set of notions of what is rational action are put forward while we continually see people sacrifice their economic best interest in order to act humanely and intelligently towards a sustainable future. The environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben calls this the "durable future" in his book Deep Economy and I think that this terminology is useful. Where we need to go with the field of economics is not necessarily a return to the Keynesian so much as it is a simple question of assumption and of what constitutes economic rationality for the individual and whether this flies in the face of the interest of the public interest.


I originally wrote this piece several years ago but  I think it has only gained in relevance from when I first wrote it as, if anything, the current economy has further underlined the points that I sought to make.  Additionally, I think while the Obama seemed to initially convince many people that it would be in some way different, the repeated decision to marginalize  Paul Volcker while empowering the likes of Timothy Geithner has meant that the Obama administration has retained the neo-liberal economic policies and mindsets that have have supported by both parties since the Clinton Administration.  Indeed, I was fiercely critical of the way fear and intimidation were used in the fall of 2008 to rush through TARP with minimal oversight and in such a way that was highly beneficial to corporations while failing to serve the public interest. 

I feel that events have only further justified that criticism.  Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur have have had the most succinct critique of TARP, arguing in favor of policies directed in avoiding foreclosures in cases in which borrowers could still afford to make payments rather in in direct support to the lenders themselves.  While a subsequent bill was used for this purpose, it was insufficient and the Obama administration failed to regulate the process of foreclosure, costing many people - including a sizable number who had not defaulted on their mortgages, their homes.  Meanwhile, the United States is no closer to signing a climate deal or implementing any form of market mechanisms to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  Thus, our firm belief in free-market orthodoxies are causing us to fail to address both the social and the environmental outcomes of economic activities. 

The upshot thus far has been the advancement of alternative economic systems in Europe.  The French have begun developing a new economic measure other than simply GNP and GDP encompassing not simply typical economic metrics but also costs of environmental mitigation, life cycle consideration, social costs and general societal happiness.  Similarly, the British government has begun collecting data on happiness and general well being across the United Kingdom.  This move was likely inspired by researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book The Spirit Level, which makes the case through a series of studies that more equitable societies tend to fair better across almost every health, social and environmental indicator. 

The book has caused a stir in many circles because speaks with numbers and repeatedly demonstrates strong correlations between equity and societal well being.  Equally importantly, it articulates an alternative view to simply economic vitality as to what a society should look like and speaks to the long-standing success of the series of compromise agreements that constitute Social Democracies.  Finally, The Spirit Level articulates a set of outcomes that speak to the roll of civil society and the wider social compact that appear to be at odds with neo-liberal economic orthodoxy.  It is through an economic focus that includes environmental and social considerations that we might constitute a more healthy and more diversely and richly prosperous society altogether.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The State of Science in America

One of the more striking features of the modern American experience is the skepticism and ignorance of science and the scientific method throughout much of American society. This is especially startling when one considers the number of both scientific and technological innovators that are American in origin, American-based or both.

While it is a fallacy to equate technological advancement directly with science, the two are intrinsically linked, and we find ourselves in a position in which we are collectively worshipful of technology yet fundamentally non-scientific in much of our thinking. That most American adults lack even a cursory understanding of basic sciences and instead rely on a series of delusory tautologies is chilling. Further it belies the problems that we face in garnering support data-driven public policy.

When one in five Americans hold that the Sun revolves around the Earth, a belief abandoned by science in the 17th century, or that over half of the American population continues to believe in the almost fascicle misinformation that is ‘intelligent design’, what hope is there to enable people to grasp a science as multifaceted as anthropogenic climate change? The epistemological and metaphysical contortions necessary for those living in the science dependent modern world to hold these beliefs must be staggering, as are the misinformation campaigns spread by proponents of one non-scientific position or another for people to be able to persist in a science-driven society without understanding or caring to understand the implications.

Additionally, this tendency to believe in non-scientific is not limited merely to the political right and the fundamentalist religious. Those typically on the left and claiming a basic understanding of the scientific frequently reject basic sciences in order to advocate for non-empirically justifiable outcomes that belie a fundamental lack of understanding of basic sciences. A clear example of this is the popularity of ‘colon cleansing’ through juice fasting and other measures which proponents argue is about removing surplus ‘toxins’ that accumulate in the body. While this is a relatively benign misapprehension, it still represents something deeply problematic.

A basic understanding of biology and human anatomy makes clear just how fallacious this belief is. Internal organs have evolved to flush themselves naturally of anything noxious that may accumulate in them at, basically the same rate no matter what your diet, assuming you are not afflicted with some ailment preventing them from functioning. The belief that organs need to be cleansed is grounded in marketing hype, a uniquely American obsession with purity of essence and other assorted new-age mumbo-jumbo rather than in anything that resembles science. However, the belief is held and advanced even by people who are involved in scientifically relevant things for a living.

These sorts of erroneous beliefs call into question the abilities of those engaged in science or technology driven fields, including agricultural sciences and others. A further example that I was recently made aware of is bio-dynamic agriculture, which has been described as “an occult form of alternative agriculture” by researchers and involves the combination of sensible organic agricultural features with astrology. Again, while this tendency seems harmless and biodynamic is, at base, simply organic farming and yields nearly identical results, the belief in the demonstrably bogus advanced by, in the case of biodynamic farming, the largely discredited creationist Rudolf Steiner, does damage to the credibility of those advancing said positions. These types of distortions seek to undermine the primacy of the scientific method in both how we see the natural world, and in discourse about public policy. It effectively is the same impetus that feeds climate deniers or those that do not believe in evolution.

This is not to say that the Western conception and ideal of medicine or science has a moratorium on the truth. While many seem to lack a basic understanding of biology, the tendency is to dodge the issue by citing the wisdom of Eastern medicines detached from Western practice or understanding. Indeed, many so-called Naturopathic and Eastern cures have been studied and shown to be efficacious and present solutions that may indeed not be intuitive to Western medicine. However, this does make all of them useful, and the onus must be upon the individual to understand the basics of biology and anatomy to determine that these solutions genuinely do make scientific sense rather than appealing to some more primal or ephemeral belief system. Or worse, if these belief systems inadvertently point towards a puritanical ethic focused on the natural that rejects the modern, while still hypocritically reveling in the modern, the result is to perpetually re-enforce worship of naked technology while dismissing the science that underpins that technology. To wit, there is ignorance that is innocent because it can be addressed and remedied, and then there is ignorance that is pernicious because it is willful.

Perhaps the rejection of the scientific stems from an over saturation in science by previous generations. The tendency, in many parts of society in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century was to develop pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and to develop scientific sounding rationales to support them. This process gave way to what James Burke has argued is the most destructive ideology that humanity has thus far developed in the form of Social Darwinism. While Darwin had long held that evolution worked on such as a slow-scale it could never be applied to societal and human tendencies, the misapplication of Darwin’s ideas led to popular eugenics and other fallacious beliefs that provided justifications for incredible human death and suffering – indeed for the intellectual dismantling of the very shared humanity that evolutionary science demonstrates.

Despite this, increased scientific rigor, a shared scientific process, peer review and Popperian Falsification have all gone far to strengthen scientific methodologies and control the claims that can be made. This has only strengthened scientific efforts and further strengthened the claims of the scientific method to be our preeminent vehicle for understanding natural phenomena. While sciences have advanced in such a way that, as Thomas Kuhn noted in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in order to fully grasp or even carry meaningful dialogue on the minutiae of certain sciences, extensive training is required, basic scientific education remains highly accessible. The wonders of the natural world, as we continue to discover them, as so much more beautiful, compelling and moving than any alternative justification developed prior to our developing the means to measure these things. Yet, in many fields, we continue to just scrape the surface and as we continue to learn more the wonders of the natural world can only gain further focus.

As a society, we must strive to develop basic understandings of sciences across the board. The importance of this lies not only in developing better, more data-driven public policy, but also in aiding us in understanding natural phenomena, most pressingly global climate change which are likely to yield violent social upheavals or even make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves. Indeed, it is our exploitation of technology without fully grasping the science and thus outcomes of its use that is driving climate change. That the United States, as a result of the American lifestyle re-enforced by the anti-science slant of many Americans is responsible for such a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions is telling. Addressing the state of scientific understanding in America may well prove to be the most important of features for humanity. The willingness to actively reject the vulgar, counter-scientific drivel advanced at every strata of American society remains pressing, for it is the first step towards furthering crucial scientific educations.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Guns Over Arizona

The near fatal assault on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona (which killed six and placed another twelve people in hospital) yesterday points towards a wider trend towards violence and militancy within the US. This perspective, while not necessarily endorsed by the raging and imagery of the political right, is certainly advanced by the rhetoric used frequently by the far right. This rhetoric seemingly endorses violence, and in the face of rising anti-government militarism within the United States, this rhetoric clearly helps to re-enforce much of what we see in the United States. That right-wing political commentators such as Sarah Palin and Glen Beck seem to endorse these militant groups as patriots but then change their rhetorical tunes in the face of violent incidents like this one is deeply vulgar. Further, this rhetoric, placed in the hands of those already mentally unstable and compounded by the problem of far to easily accessible hand-guns in the United States seems to have further contributed to Congresswoman Giffords’ shooting. To whit, Sarah Palin's Political Action Committee website until today included a map of the US with "crosshairs" centered on various House Democrats throughout the country, including Giffords, introduced by the ‘tweeted’ tagline: "Don't retreat, instead - RELOAD!"  This violent imagery was re-enforced by Giffords’ Tea-Party backed opponent, Jessey Kelly, who ran an ad which said: "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jessey Kelly."

Michael Tomasky in the Guardian draws the very obvious linkage between this type of rhetoric and what happened in Arizona.  Giffords had previously received death threats for her decision to vote the Health Care Bill earlier this year, and further had previously had her campaign office shot at.  All in all, the celebration of heavily armed radicals as Patriots by the right further re-enforces the long tradition of violence directed towards elected leaders and may serve as a means of re-affirming, if not emboldening, those who are mentally unstable and willing to inflict violence on others to make political points.  Again, the tendency remains chilling.

What fails to be adequately dealt with however is the ease of handgun availability as a further contributing factor.  In most other developed countries, even given the destitute ideology of the shooters, strict gun control laws would have made it far more difficult, if not impossible for the shooter to bring his plans to fruition.

There are mounds of data indicating that guns pose a net societal harm, that gun ownership rates correlate with crime rates - particularly with homicide rates where a gun is involved, that countries with stricter gun laws tend to see less overall violence, that the presence of a gun in the home is likely to increase the occurrence of homicide, as well as numerous cases that document easy gun access and insurrection seemingly going hand-in-hand.  In Arizona, where gun ownership is high and Tea Party members were said to frequently carry and brandish handguns at rallies, this vicious incident has retrospectively taken on something of an air of inevitability. 

What should come out of this is, not only a greater willingness to address to address the underlying issues that allow fringe radicals to commit violence, but also much stricter psychological screenings that would seek to prevent those with violent tendencies or paranoid fantasies about the government from purchasing ordinance. 

While the 2nd amendment holds that gun ownership is a clear civil right, it prefaces this with a clause justifying said right by noting the need for a ‘well regulated Militia’ being ‘necessary for the security of a free state’.  The constitution had previously defined said Militia as being what we would today recognize as the National Guard.  This makes sense in the face of the constitutional requirement that the army be disbanded following each major conflict – thus, gun-ownership seems to have been included by the constitutional framers on the grounds that re-invasion by the British, without a standing Army, was a very real consideration.  However, this argument has been rendered null by omnipresence of the military today.

The argument that handguns are a necessary component for self-defense likewise does not hold water, as the majority of guns purchased for self-defense are not used that way.  Supply and demand appear to be what affect guns and violent crime and rational gun control, with limitations on the number of guns allowed in circulation, could go far to preventing further incidents like this and making societal as a whole safer.  Our current policies towards guns and our inability to effectively enforce what regulation does exist is something akin to arming the mad house.  No individual right to arms and ‘perceived’ safety should compromise the greater right of society to genuine safety.  This cowboy mentality within the United States, both towards guns, and to the political rhetoric used needs to be addressed before our streets are again stained crimson.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Land-Use Conflict in Africa

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor about conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa has pointed to seemingly petty land-use conflicts - the type that are unfortunately the bread and butter of planning - as the culprit for many larger-scale frequently violent conflicts. (CSM has also provide a guide to existing land-use based wholesale conflicts currently in Africa while including potential future flash points.) Land-use conflicts however rarely take on the same mundane tone as land-use fights we see in the US, frequently waged over minutiae such as leaves from neighboring trees falling into gutters or fence colour choices affecting 'neigbborhood aesthetics' but are frequently matters of life or death.

Of course, many of these land-use issues are tied to resources, development control and questions of tenure; however it may be overly simplistic to reduce a conflict as long-standing and multifaceted as that in the DR Congo to merely one over herding rights, as the article seems to. Despite this, the land-use argument certainly carries a great deal of credibility.

From an urban development perspective (and by 2035 the United Nations predicts much of Africa will have become urban), land-use and tenure issues seem to be the most common causes of triggers of ethnic or religious conflict within Africa's burgeoning urban slums. Again, the nuance here is that while many of these conflicts take the form inter-ethnic, tribal or religious violence, the underlying root cause is usually one access to resources, most frequently potable water or development rights within a squatter community - with the underlying irony being that as these are squatter communities, no one has de facto legal rights to develop.

Despite this, possession is frequently 9/10ths of the law, and slum land-lords have been happy to illegally erect tin-sheds and then rent them out at usurious rates in places like Lagos, and to play one ethnic or religious group off against the other in cases where squatters begin to agitate for increased tenure security. Further complications stem from inconsistencies within competing legal systems - from colonial era (though still standing) laws and conflict with new laws passed post de-colonization to conflict with existing indigenous, though informal, tribal laws and norms holding precedence within many areas.

Security of land tenure is of greatest import for many African squatters. While many development projects, including housing and infrastructure improvements have been targeted towards slum denizens within Sub-Saharan Africa, often issues of tenure security have affected the ability of governments and development agencies to improve these communities. In planning better communities for slum denizens it is crucial that legal issues of land tenure be improved such that infrastructure and housing improvements can be made. However, the laws detailing land tenure security remain obsequious in many cases.

Thus many countries, for example one I have experience working in: Ghana, are seeking to mitigate conflict through the reform of land tenure laws and the normalization of traditional tenure conventions with the legal code. What this means is that increasingly traditional tribal chiefs who are making land-use decisions in practice will be further empowered to do so by the state, thus making their decisions formal land-use policy. This strengthens the legal legitimacy of 'traditional' semi-legal conventions while also allowing tribal chiefs to serve as conflict resolutions bodies.

While this on paper may appear to open the system-up to further graft, chiefs tend to have smaller areas of authority that many of the post-independence bureaucratic positions and have well-known customs for conducting business or concluding disputes, thus making their system in many ways more transparent - or at least, the rules and inherent biases built into such a system would be at least known to the involved parties. Tribal chiefs also have greater legitimacy in the eyes of many recent rural to urban migrants than formal written (easily and frequently forged) legal documents.

While the empowerment of traditional tribal chiefs to serve as 'customary land managers' may be in imperfect solution, it is one that has great deal of salience with many living in African cities and villages and the further empowerment of chiefs as land-managers could, in many ways mitigate land-use conflicts and thus prevent bloodshed.