A Most Graceful Chairman

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the new Chairman of the African Union and the latest Internet meme Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe falling down:

His klutzy moment as he walked toward a podium to deliver a speech has spawned much ridicule. Now normally I would be opposed to making fun of a 90-year-old man falling but… it’s Mugabe. The “democratically elected for life President” (as one of my African Studies professors liked to call such leaders) Mugabe has overseen the collapse is his country’s currency (I once held 50 billion Zimbabwean dollars in my hand – it was basically worthless), spent international aid money intended for AIDS programs on who-knows-what-but-not-AIDSengaged in rampant corruption, and demonstrated little regard for human rights. And he has recently been elected Chairman of the African Union, much to the disappointment of those of us who would love to see the AU evolve into a legitimate example of “African solutions to African problems.”

If that isn’t enough to convince you that I’m not completely heartless for laughing at an old man’s stumble, the Zimbabwean government’s response to the incident might convince you of its ridiculousness. As reported by The Zimbabwe Herald:

Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Prof Jonathan Moyo stated: “The misrepresentations and morbid celebrations of the incident by malcontents is the real news here and not the alleged fall as there was none. What happened is that the President tripped over a hump on the carpet on one of the steps of the dais as he was stepping down from the platform but he remarkably managed to break the fall on his own. I repeat that the President managed to break the fall. Nobody has shown any evidence of the President having fallen down because that did not happen. The hump on which the President tripped was formed by two pieces of the carpet which apparently had not been laid out properly where they joined. And to be honest with you, even Jesus, let alone you, would have also tripped in that kind of situation.”

Even Jesus! So there you have it. Mugabe may not have fallen down but that hasn’t stopped the Internet from capitalizing on the moment. Some of my favourite “morbid celebrations” appear below:

Sometimes the Internet is a really awful place. But then there are days like today when I’m so glad it exists.

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Selma and Civil Resistance

I went to see Selma over the weekend and my first thought as I walked out of the theatre was that Selma lives up to the hype. So often when I expect a movie to be great I can’t help but feel disappointed if the movie ends up being merely good. Not the case with Selma. It was a fantastic experience that exceeded my high expectations. Some may claim this is confirmation bias in action but I don’t think so as I tend to experience the reverse when I have high expectations for a film.

I also walked out there pretty indignant that David Oyelowo didn’t receive a Best Actor nomination. To be fair, I haven’t seen the other performances nominated but they each have to be pretty damn spectacular to warrant Oyelowo’s exclusion (and based on some reviews I’ve read, I’m skeptical that this is the case). His Martin Luther King, Jr. is a precise mix of humanity and gravitas. His King is both the familiar, inspirational leader that we celebrate today and a fallible man balancing the leadership of one of the most important civil rights movements of the 20th century with family life and his own occasional doubts. It must have been a hugely challenging role and Oyelowo didn’t miss a single beat.

It is equally bizarre that Ava DuVernay didn’t receive a Best Director nomination. Selma is full of powerful moments that in the hands of a less skilled director could have been overwrought or corny. From the way the Bloody Sunday scenes were shot to the intimate moment between MLK and Coretta Scott King (where according to IMDB DuVernay achieved such realistic tension by having Oyelowo pause for an uncomfortably long time before saying his line) lots of small but important decisions were made that really helped elevate this film. It’s a shame that DuVernay didn’t receive a nomination in a year so lacking in racial and gender diversity. More importantly it’s a shame because she deserves the recognition.

After watching Selma I also left with a slightly more uncommon opinion. I think President Lyndon Johnson comes off well in this film. The divide in this debate seems to be the “it’s historically inaccurate – LBJ was very supportive of the Civil Rights Movement” camp versus the “that’s missing the point because the film is about the movement and its perspective” camp. Though they disagree with whether or not the portrayal of LBJ is an acceptable or unacceptable twisting of history, both camps basically acknowledge that the President is portrayed as more antagonist to the movement than he was in real life. Coming from a place of relative ignorance (I’m catching up on my American history being a new resident to the country) I was actually left with a positive impression of LBJ in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. I sympathized with the President when he said to King “you’ve got one big issue, I’ve got a hundred and one.” I understood the difficult position he was in by wanting to support the movement but needing, but virtue of his status as a politician, to take politics into consideration. And I was glad in the end when the President rebuked the racist Governor Wallace and did the right thing by signing the Voting Rights Act. Historically precise or not, I didn’t think LBJ was an unsympathetic character in this account of a key moment in the fight for racial equality.

Also, the interactions between MLK and LBJ throughout Selma served an important purpose. It underscored why there was a need for a Civil Rights Movement in the first place and why it adopted the strategy and tactics that it did. Because the American political system (like so many others) is structured such that even someone as sympathetic to the cause as LBJ needed to have his hand forced from the outside. It reminded us that activism is inextricable from politics.

Which brings me to the thing I loved most about Selma: its attention to civil resistance as a strategic choice. MLK and the Civil Rights Movement is famous for its strict adherence to the principle of non-violent resistance. Selma does a fantastic job demonstrating the underappreciated fact that practicing non-violence was not just a moral decision but also a strategic calculation. There is a great scene where King meets with student leaders and explains that the personality of the local sheriff will be key to determining the movement’s next steps. When King learns that Sheriff Jim Clark is a racist prone to overreaction, King knows he can use that to his movement’s advantage. He knows how the optics will play out if his movement remains peaceful in the face of police brutality. He knows this behaviour will make headlines and place much needed pressure on the administration.

I learned about civil resistance from the very best: Dr. Erica Chenoweth.* I was in the first class at the University of Denver that she taught on the subject and I’ve been fascinated  by the subject ever since. I loved that Selma highlighted many of the things we learned about in class, like Civil Rights Movement participants role-playing non-violent resistance in preparation for an event. As civil resistance movements continue to be an important part of political and social change in our world, it was gratifying to see Selma offer such an on-point portrayal.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend 10 weeks learning about civil resistance and its remarkable efficacy in the Civil Rights Movement and elsewhere. If you don’t have quite that much time to commit, allow me to offer the next best thing: Dr. Chenoweth’s Tedx Talk in Boulder a couple of years ago. There’s a lot of details, case studies, and fascinating data where this came from but the video is a great overview of the basics.

My weekend was well spent watching Selma and looking back to my civil resistance class. I can’t think of a better way to mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

*Full disclosure: In addition to being a former student of Dr. Chenoweth, I am one of her many RAs (though I do not work on her civil resistance projects). Any time I promote her stuff it is a personal choice I’ve made because I think her work is important.

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.