Blogging Break

I’m traveling for the next little while so there will be a break in blogging until the new year.

See you all in 2015!


The Colbert Report Signs Off

Stephen Colbert hosted his last-ever episode of “The Colbert Report” last night. It was weird, silly, funny, and a little sad. Everything I had hoped it would be. I’m excited to see Colbert take over for Letterman and while I’m sorry to see his character retired it will be fun to see him play it straight.

He capped off the night with a star-studded sing-along that was just the right amount of charm and surprise to avoid too much cheese factor.

The video is below and you should definitely watch it. My reaction as I watched last night was something along the lines of “Yes! Colbert is going to sing! Aw, Jon Stewart is joining him. Not unexpected but definitely welcome. Oh wow, that’s Randy Newman on piano… Willie Nelson?! Oh, and the actor from Breaking Bad whose name I’m blanking on. Mandy Patinkin! Neil Degrasse Tyson! BIG BIRD. Katie Couric! A blond guy who is definitely not Macauley Culkin no matter what James thinks. But then that argument was interrupted when Gloria Frickin Steinem walked across the stage. Umm go Ambassador Power who looks like the only one in that group who knows the lyrics, though Cookie Monster gets a pass because it’s tough to read his lips. Look alive, James Franco! Oh hey there, Arianna Huffington, George Lucas, and Alan Alda. Is that Patrick Stewart hanging out in the back there? And was that Barry Manilow? Oh there is Bill Clinton, naturally.”—friends—-we-ll-meet-again-

Well done, Stephen Colbert. My Tweet last night says it all:

Good Job Everybody: Cuba Edition

Yesterday, President Obama announced that the United States will begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. This is a significant foreign policy shift away from more than 50 years of isolation.

Here is a run-down of what will change, as published by The Globe and Mail:

– “the U.S. will soon reopen an embassy in the capital, Havana

– the U.S. will ease travel bans to Cuba, including for family visits, official U.S. government business and educational activities, but will not lift its ban on tourist travel

– licensed American travellers to Cuba will now be able to return to the U.S. with $400 in Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol products worth less than $100 combined

– the amount of money Americans can send to Cubans will increase from $500 to $2,000 every three months

– the U.S. will unfreeze the U.S. bank accounts of Cubans who no longer live in Cuba

– U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will launch a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror”

I am not an expert on American-Cuban relations but my pro-diplomacy bias has me thinking that normalized relations are a good thing. There has been a distinct Cold War vibe to Cuban-American relations that feels awfully outdated and I disagree with pundits (ahem, Charles Krauthhammer) who suggest that talking to adversary states is tantamount to capitulation in the face of tyranny. It’s not clear if the embargo will be lifted (the President cannot do so without Congress) and the positive or negative effects of this thawing of relations remain to be seen. However, I think an experiment with rapprochement is worthwhile and long overdue.

How did this all happen? As it turns out, the United States and Cuba have been engaging in secret talks for the past 18 months – in Canada! In June 2013, delegations from both countries traveled to Canada for discussions and met seven more times in Toronto and Ottawa, according to The Globe and Mail reporting. Canada played the role of host rather than mediator but the importance of relatively neutral ground during tough negotiations shouldn’t be underestimated so I think we can give ourselves a little pat on the back here. Apparently Pope Francis and The Vatican also helped spur the reconciliation. It’s not clear to me how much of a role The Vatican played in the actual mediation, but the Pope did personally appeal to both Obama and Castro so he gets a pat on the back as well.

We can only wait and see if the consequences of this policy shift are positive but it sure seems like a small victory for progress. So good job everybody – here’s to the next 50 years of Cuban-American relations which, if nothing else, should be interesting.

Talking About The Efficacy Of Torture

The media is still buzzing with news of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s interrogation program – or as it’s more commonly referred to, the Torture Report. Former CIA director Michael Hayden appeared on CNN to offer a heinous defense of rectal rehydration, among other things. Dick Cheney stated unequivocally on Meet The Press that he has no regrets regarding the program and that he would “do it again in a minute.” Cheney’s defense of the program rests mainly on his conviction that he has no problem with such “enhanced interrogation” methods “so long as we achieve our objective, and our objective is to get the guys who did 9/11 and it is to avoid another attack against the United States.” It is frustrating that Cheney does not see the contradiction inherent in this argument. The report contests the idea that the CIA detention and interrogation program produced actionable intelligence. That is to say, it did not achieve its objectives. Presumably, Cheney has objections to specific interpretations that the report makes, thus justifying his position. But still, the findings of the report are corroborated by psychological and social science research that suggests that in general torture does not produce accurate results. (I provided just a few examples in a previous blog post.)

There are many who agree with Cheney and continue to defend the use of torture by the United States for reasons that I mentioned earlier. On the flip side, an equally vigorous debate has sprung up among those who are opposed to torture (both in general and in the specific case of the post/9/11 CIA program). This debate is concerned with what place efficacy has in a debate on torture. I have noticed several people on my Twitter feed are deeply concerned that we are even talking about whether such morally repugnant actions worked. They argue that this is beside the point because torture is morally wrong, against the values of the United States and thus it frankly does not matter if the program did or did not achiev its objectives. To focus on the efficacy of torture is a dangerous precedent that may validate an ethically questionable “ends justifies the means” attitude.

This perspective makes a lot of sense to me. Moreover, those expressing such a perspective are generally people whose thoughts and opinions I admire and respect. I still admire and respect these people, and read with interest most of what they post on Twitter (it’s why I’m following them) but on this point I have to disagree.

For the record, I agree with them wholeheartedly that torture is wrong and even if it had worked I would still be opposed to its use. But I have to concede that if we had solid evidence that torture worked, I think the subsequent “do the ends justifies the means?” debate is both unavoidable and, unfortunately, valid. When we talk about the Geneva Conventions, rights for prisoners of war, the distinction between combatants vs. noncombatants, and yes, torture, we are by definition engaging in a debate on where we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour during conflict. That conversation is uncomfortable and unpleasant but deeply necessary. In order to shape the norms that govern war, we have to talk about why something is unacceptable. While I wish that the use of torture would cease on the sole basis that it is morally abhorrent, that hasn’t happened. The United States is party to the UN Convention against Torture but as we have learned that hasn’t stopped the United States from torturing people. Thus, the point that torture does not work is a boon to those of us who argue against it. As Dan Drezner commented in a Washington Post piece last week, “The trouble with debating torture’s efficacy is that if it turns out that information extracted from torture can be tactically useful, then advocates will be able to make their case more effectively in public discourse. On the other hand, if the debate takes place strictly on the moral and ethical plane, anti-torture advocates will feel on firmer ground.”

Yesterday, in an article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie discussed another reason why torture is difficult for the United States government to disavow for purely moral reasons. The nature of American public opinion with respect to incarceration and torture is largely retributive and punitive. This attitude was evident in the online conversation that occurred after the torture report was published. Many individuals expressed a profound lack of remorse for the tortured on the basis that they deserved it. It seems unlikely then that arguing against torture for moral reasons will succeed in changing public opinion.

It’s a bit depressing to think that we have to substantiate an anti-torture stance with empirical evidence but such is the case with polarizing issues. Sometimes setting emotion aside and dealing with the pragmatic is the only way to break gridlock since both sides usually believe they are in the moral right. The process of getting to policy that is both effective and morally sound can involve a lot of uncomfortable debate like whether or not an end justifies a means. In the case of torture, if it can be demonstrated that an end was not achieved at all, then perhaps we will have greater success advocating for its abolition.

I’ll Ride With You

It’s been a rough few hours for Sydney, Australia. Monday morning an Iranian refugee and self-styled Sunni cleric (with a long rap sheet) took a cafe and its occupants hostage. While the situation was unfolding, a social media movement also began to take shape. The hashtag #IllRideWithYou began trending on Twitter as Aussies offered to ride public transportation with those wearing religious attire in a preemptive counter to bigotry and Islamophobia.

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It apparently began when a woman noticed a fellow train passenger removing her hijab. She responded by reaching out to the other woman and offering to walk with her. Someone else offered to do the same on their commute and the hashtag was born. According to Twitter Australia, there were 40,00 Tweets within two hours and it has been growing since. I hope the movement isn’t purely viral and that those wanting or needing support on the streets of Australia today are finding it.

From my perspective, as I sit far away watching the news, it’s comforting to see such displays of empathy, solidarity and clear-mindedness as tragedy unfolds. It reminds me of the incident in Cold Lake, Alberta after the Ottawa shooting in October where community members came together to wash away hateful words that vandals had sprayed on a local mosque.

Of course, it isn’t the answer to radicalization or bigotry or violence. But it’s a much needed reminder that compassion exists, even in the face of such ugliness.

Grinch Geldof

Bob Geldof is really interfering with my Christmas spirit. Against my better judgment, I clicked on a Rolling Stone interview with Geldof in which he responded to critics of the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” lyrics saying, “Please, it’s a pop song. Relax…It’s not a doctoral thesis. They can fuck off.” He went on to say, “If it’s a pop song that can help ease the pain, the agony, if they can die with a little more dignity then, yeah, I’m there. It’s pretty simple.”

As I said on Twitter, Geldof is a walking contradiction that calls his integrity as an artist and an activist into question. He is a songwriter who thinks lyrics don’t matter and an activist that perceives ethics as optional. He contends that if his song helps ease pain and enhances dignity then that matter more than the lyrics. This, of course, completely misses the point that his lyrics cause pain and undermine dignity. His ethics as an activist are also awfully sketchy for someone with such a cavalier attitude (see my previous rant on his failure to work with local initiatives and the lack of clarity with Band Aid’s fundraising).

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Luckily, there are many online and offline who are skeptical of Geldof and the rhetoric surrounding Ebola and humanitarian efforts has extended far beyond Band Aid. For instance, TIME Magazine recently announced “Ebola fighters” as its Person of the Year. It’s a large and somewhat vague category of people but one that thankfully does not appear to include Geldof. TIME has instead focused its attention appropriately on doctors, nurses, scientists, caregivers, and humanitarian aid workers, many of which are local to West Africa.

Despite the fact that reading about Geldof makes me feel awfully Grinch-like, it’s easier to move past it when a more sophisticated alternative narrative exists. Still, I don’t think I’m going to take his advice and just “relax”. I think I’ll continue being critical of willful ignorance instead.

Talking About Torture On Twitter

This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 528-page executive summary of its report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Unsurprisingly, there has been much discussion in the media and online about the report and its findings. Twitter has been talking about it for days and #TortureReport is still trending. The beauty (and sometimes evil) of Twitter is that we are exposed to a diversity of viewpoints many of which do not reflect our own. As I have sifted through the torture report conversation, I found it curious that many of the report’s detractors dismiss its conclusions for largely the same reasons. While not necessarily representative of the opposition, two similar themes struck me as both pervasive and, quite frankly, wrong. As such, I couldn’t resist refuting them here.

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It is alarming that so many people on Twitter (and elsewhere, I’m sure) defend the use of torture on the basis that because terrorists torture people, the United States must as well. Two related arguments underpin this logic. First, a retributive argument that those tortured deserved it for their association with those that perpetrated 9/11. Second, an argument that since terrorists like Al Qaeda and ISIS do not hesitate to torture, the United States should not have to restrain itself from employing similar methods.

The second argument is particularly alarming because it essentially equates American morality with terrorist morality and I am astounded that those making this argument are comfortable with that. So much of the Global War on Terror rhetoric has centered on the idea that groups like Al Qaeda hate American freedoms and values. President Bush said in his address to Congress on September 20, 2001: “We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.” If we assume that American principles are vastly different from terrorist principles, it seems very odd to argue in favour of the adoption of terrorist-like principles. I don’t always agree with Senator McCain, but his speech to the Senate this week made me want to give him a standing ovation. He makes several important points, which are made all the more powerful given his previous POW experience, but perhaps his most precise rebuttal to the such logic was as follows: “Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.

It is easier to understand the emotion behind the first argument – that those who were tortured deserved it – but the position is equally flawed. 26 of the 199 detainees who were tortured were innocent, or at least not affiliated with Al Qaeda or any other terrorist group. The report also claims that the program included “two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.” The impulse for retribution even years after a horrific attack is natural but that doesn’t mean that it will achieve anything meaningful.

Which brings me to my final point. Most of the arguments in favour of torture rely on the faulty assumption that torture works. It doesn’t. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that torture is an ineffective intelligence gathering tool as extreme pain and stress impairs memory. The torture report itself casts significant doubt on whether any actionable intelligence was gleaned from the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees. Moreover, evidence (uncovered by a former professor and employer of mine) suggests that human rights violations like torture may actually increase violence.

There is no shortage of moral and pragmatic reasons to oppose torture. I always strive to be open-minded and rarely believe issues are black-and-white. But I have a hard time seeing the report’s findings as anything other than damning evidence of the inhumanity and inefficacy of torture. I should also note that while we condemn the use of torture by the United States, we have to remember that its allies are not without fault. Canada is one of 54 countries that participated in the CIA’s rendition program. Our hands are not clean and this report should remind all of us that fact.