How to Get Beyond Our Tribal Politics


January 15, 2017

The most-watched made-for-TV movie in American history is “The Day After,” a 1983 portrayal of life in Kansas and Missouri in the days just before and after an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. If you’ve had even fleeting thoughts that Tuesday’s election could bring about the end of the world or the destruction of the country, you might want to find “The Day After” on YouTube, scroll to minute 53 and watch the next six minutes. Now that’s an apocalypse.

It’s an absurd comparison, of course, but the absurdity is helpful. It reminds us that no matter how bad things seem, we have a lot to be grateful for. The Soviet Union is gone, and life in America has gotten much better since the 1980s by most objective measures. Crime is way down, prosperity and longevity are way up, and doors are open much more widely for talented people from just about any demographic group. Yes, we have new problems, and the benefits haven’t been spread evenly, but if you look at the big picture, we are making astonishing progress.

Watching “The Day After” also might help Americans to tone down the apocalyptic language that so many have used about the presidential race. On the right, some speak of this as the “Flight 93 election,” meaning that America has been hijacked by treasonous leftists who are trying to crash the plane, so electing Donald Trump to rush the cockpit is the only sane choice. On the left, some think that a Trump victory would lead to a constitutional crisis followed by a military coup, fascism and dictatorship.

Nearly half the country will therefore wake up deeply disappointed on the morning of Nov. 9, and many members of the losing side will think that America is doomed. Those on the winning side will feel relieved, but many will be shocked and disgusted that nearly half of their fellow citizens voted for the moral equivalent of the devil. The disgust expressed by both sides in this election is particularly worrisome because disgust dehumanizes its targets. That is why it is usually fostered by the perpetrators of genocide—disgust makes it easier for ordinary citizens to kill their neighbors.

In short, the day after this election is likely to be darker and more foreboding than the day after just about any U.S. election since 1860. Is it possible for Americans to forgive, accept and carry on working and living together?

We think that it is. After all, civility doesn’t require consensus or the suspension of criticism. It is simply the ability to disagree productively with others while respecting their sincerity and decency. That can be hard to do when emotions run so high. But if we understand better the psychological causes of our current animosity, we can all take some simple steps to turn it down, free ourselves from hatred and make the next four years better for ourselves and the country. Three time-honored quotations can serve as guides.

“Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” —Bedouin saying

Human nature is tribal. We form teams easily, most likely because we have evolved for violent intergroup conflict. Our minds take to it so readily that we invent myths, games and sports—including war games like paintball—that let us enjoy the pleasures of intergroup conflict without the horrors of actual war.

The tribal mind is adept at changing alliances to face shifting threats, as the Bedouin saying indicates. We see such shifts after party primaries, when those who backed a losing candidate swing around to support the nominee. And we saw it happen after the 9/11 attacks, when the country came together to support the president and the military in the invasion of Afghanistan.

But with the exception of the few months after 9/11, cross-partisan animosity has been rising steadily since the late 1990s. This year, for the first time since Pew Research began asking in 1994, majorities in both parties expressed not just “unfavorable” views of the other party but “very unfavorable” views. Those ratings were generally below 20% throughout the 1990s. And more than 40% in each party now see the policies of the other party as being “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Those numbers are up by about 10 percentage points in both parties just since 2014.

So what will happen the next time there is a major terrorist attack? Will we come together again? Or will the attack become a partisan football within hours, as happened after the various lone-wolf attacks of the past year? Something is broken in American tribalism. It is now “my brothers and me against my cousins” all the time, even when we are threatened by strangers and even when there is no threat at all.

Democracy requires trust and cooperation as well as competition.

Democracy requires trust and cooperation as well as competition. A healthy democracy features flexible and shifting coalitions. We must find a way to see citizens on the other side as cousins who are sometimes opponents but who share most of our values and interests and are never our mortal enemies.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?… You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5

Our tribal minds are equipped with a powerful tool: shameless and clueless hypocrisy. It is a general rule of psychology that “thinking is for doing”: We think with a particular purpose in mind, and often that purpose isn’t to find the truth but to defend ourselves or attack our opponents.

Psychologists call this process “motivated reasoning.” It is found whenever self-interest is in play. When the interests of a group are added to the mix, this sort of biased, god-awful reasoning becomes positively virtuous—it signals your loyalty to the team. This is why partisans find it so easy to dismiss scandalous revelations about their own candidate while focusing so intently on scandalous revelations about the other candidate.

Motivated reasoning has interacted with tribalism and new media technologies since the 1990s in unfortunate ways. Social media, hackers and Google searches now help us to find hundreds of specks in our opponents’ eyes, but no technology can force us to acknowledge the logs in our own.

“Nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but…this tie becomes stronger from proximity.” —Cicero, “On Friendship”

Humans are tribal, but tribalism can be transcended. It exists in tension with our extraordinary ability to develop bonds with other human beings. Romeo and Juliet fell in love. French, British and German soldiers came out of their trenches in World War I to exchange food, cigarettes and Christmas greetings.

The key, as Cicero observed, is proximity, and a great deal of modern research backs him up. Students are more likely to become friends with the student whose dorm room is one door away than with the student whose room is four doors away. People who have at least one friend from the other political party are less likely to hate the supporters of that party.

But tragically, Americans are losing their proximity to those on the other side and are spending more time in politically purified settings. Since the 1980s, Democrats have been packing into the cities while the rural areas and exurbs have been getting more Republican. Institutions that used to bring people together—such as churches—are now splitting apart over culture war issues such as gay marriage.

Ever more of our social life is spent online, in virtual communities or networks that are politically homogeneous. When we do rub up against the other side online, relative anonymity often leads to stunning levels of incivility, including racist and sexist slurs and threats of violence.

So are we doomed? Will the polarizing trends identified by Pew just keep going until the country splits in two? Maybe John Adams was right in 1814 when he wrote, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself.”

But we have lasted 240 years so far, and both sides agree that America is worth fighting for. We just have to see that the fight isn’t always against each other; it is also a struggle to adapt our democracy and our habits for polarizing times and technologies.

Illustration: Luci Gutiérrez

Some of these adaptations will require changes to laws and institutions. Some will come from improving technology as we fine-tune social media to reward productive disagreement while filtering out trolling and intimidation.

And many of the changes must come from each of us, as individuals who have friends, co-workers and cousins who voted for the other side. How will we treat them as customers, employees, students and neighbors? What will we say to them at Thanksgiving dinner?

If you would like to let go of anger on Nov. 9 without letting go of your moral and political principles, here is some advice, adapted from ancient wisdom and modern research.

First, separate your feelings about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton from your feelings about their supporters. Political scientists report that since the 1980s, Americans have increasingly voted against the other side’s candidate, rather than voting enthusiastically for their own, and that is especially true this time. So don’t assume that most people on the other side like or even agree with their candidate on any particular issue. They may be voting out of fears and frustrations that you don’t understand, but if you knew their stories, you might well empathize with them.

Second, step back and think about your goals. In the long run, would you rather change people or hate them? If you actually want to persuade or otherwise influence people, you should know that it is nearly impossible to change people’s minds by arguing with them. When there is mutual antipathy, there is mutual motivated reasoning, defensiveness and hypocrisy.

But anything that opens the heart opens the mind as well, so do what you can to cultivate personal relationships with those on the other side. Spend time together, and let the proximity recommended by Cicero strengthen ties. Familiarity does not breed contempt. Research shows that as things or people become familiar, we like them more.

Emotions often drive reasoning, so as our hearts harden, our thinking also calcifies, and we become dogmatic. We are less able to think flexibly and address the social problems that we claim to care about. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” So cultivating a few cross-partisan friendships will make you smarter as well as calmer, even if polarization grows worse.

And if you do find a way to have a real conversation with someone on the other side, approach it skillfully. One powerful opener is to point to a log in your own eye—to admit right up front that you or your side were wrong about something. Doing this at the start of a conversation signals that you aren’t in combat mode. If you are open, trusting and generous, your partner is likely to reciprocate.

Tom Lehane, left, a Trump supporter, has a disagreement with Clinton supporter Hila Minshen before a Trump rally on Sept. 9, 2016 in Pensacola, Fla.
Tom Lehane, left, a Trump supporter, has a disagreement with Clinton supporter Hila Minshen before a Trump rally on Sept. 9, 2016 in Pensacola, Fla. Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

Another powerful depolarizing move is praise, as we saw in the second Clinton-Trump debate. After more than 90 minutes of antagonism, a member of the town-hall audience brought the evening to a close with this question: “Would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”

Mrs. Clinton began with weak praise by saying that she respects Mr. Trump’s children. But then she made it strong and generous by noting how “incredibly able” those children are and how devoted they are to their father, adding, “I think that says a lot about Donald.” Mr. Trump responded in kind: “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. I respect that.”

That brief exchange was emotionally powerful—the only uplifting moment of the night for many viewers. Had it been the opening exchange, might the debate have been more elevated, more constructive?

This has been a frightening year for many Americans. Questions about the durability, legitimacy and wisdom of our democracy have been raised, both here and abroad. But the true test of our democracy—and our love of country—will come on the day after the election. Starting next Wednesday, each of us must decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of relationship we want to have with our politically estranged cousins.

Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, a fellow at the Martin Prosperity Institute and the author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Dr. Iyer is a social psychologist and data scientist at the website Ranker and the executive director of CivilPolitics.org.

Imagine a world without activists


December 28, 2016

Imagine a world without activists

by Stephen Ng@www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for Maria Chin and Ambiga

Free Riders Everywhere You Look

In the story, ‘Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, And Nobody’, the activists would not sit down believing that when “there was an important job to be done, Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.”

Since the Prime Minister and his Cabinet Ministers apparently care little to look into a certain problem, despite being vested with the power to do so, the activists would not accept the fate that at the end of it all where Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

This is why the activists have to cause a stirring in a situation. Yes, although their frequent campaigns may make the people in the corridors of power feel uncomfortable, the activists play a very important role in parliamentary democracy.

When the activists are barking, the powerful individuals and the kleptocrats no longer enjoy the ‘peace and tranquility’ to rape the rich resources belonging to the Malaysian people. Suddenly, the people become aware of what is happening to the natural resources God has endowed on this country.

Testimony of a failed system

The system, along with the people in the corridors of power, be it the executive branch of the government or those who are tasked with a job to protect the welfare of the people and the nation, has somehow failed to deliver what it is designed to do.

The Malay proverbial saying, “Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi” (it is disappointing when the fence is supposed to protect the padi, it ends up destroying the crop) is an apt description of our politicians today, especially on issues that do not attract votes.

This is why activists like Shariffa Sabrina, Henry Goh (Malaysia Nature Society president) and others like Clare Rewcastle-Brown (Sarawak Report) have come to the forefront to highlight issues relating to the shrinking tropical rainforests.

We have always believed that our democratic system is upheld by the executive branch of the government, the Judiciary and the Parliament; however, activists like the media are also a pillar that upholds and protects the democratic rights of the people.

Shariffa Sabrina, for example, entered into the limelight when she was arbitrarily arrested for allegedly highlighting some tropical rain forest clearing which caused degradation to the environment; her efforts have helped us become more concerned about the way our government has been managing natural resources.

In short, the activists are the checks-and-balances within the democratic system. They will not hesitate to criticise or expose a lie, if they can.

In her capacity as Peka president, Shariffa Sabrina does her work as a volunteer. Like most other activists, she has great passion for her work. It is unlikely that she would give up the cause. Despite the arrest, Shariffa Sabrina and Norhayati are adamant to continue with their campaign to stop the indiscriminate clearing of tropical rainforests.

They would not put down their spade, but continue digging and exposing the people responsible for the deforestation until a few feathers are ruffled, and good sense finally prevails.


STEPHEN NG is an ordinary citizen with an avid interest in following political developments in the country since 2008.

How Republics End–Paul Krugman


December 23, 2016

Supposedly free-market politicians are already discovering that crony capitalism is fine as long as it involves the right cronies. It does have to do with class warfare — redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy is a consistent theme of all modern Republican policies. But what directly drives the attack on democracy, I’d argue, is simple careerism on the part of people who are apparatchiks within a system insulated from outside pressures by gerrymandered districts, unshakable partisan loyalty, and lots and lots of plutocratic financial support.–Paul Krugman

Many people are reacting to the rise of Trumpism and nativist movements in Europe by reading history — specifically, the history of the 1930s. And they are right to do so. It takes willful blindness not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.

But the ’30s isn’t the only era with lessons to teach us. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about the ancient world. Initially, I have to admit, I was doing it for entertainment and as a refuge from news that gets worse with each passing day. But I couldn’t help noticing the contemporary resonances of some Roman history — specifically, the tale of how the Roman Republic fell.

Here’s what I learned: Republican institutions don’t protect against tyranny when powerful people start defying political norms. And tyranny, when it comes, can flourish even while maintaining a republican facade.

On the first point: Roman politics involved fierce competition among ambitious men. But for centuries that competition was constrained by some seemingly unbreakable rules. Here’s what Adrian Goldsworthy’s “In the Name of Rome” says: “However important it was for an individual to win fame and add to his and his family’s reputation, this should always be subordinated to the good of the Republic … no disappointed Roman politician sought the aid of a foreign power.”

America used to be like that, with prominent senators declaring that we must stop “partisan politics at the water’s edge.” But now we have a President-Elect who openly asked Russia to help smear his opponent, and all indications are that the bulk of his party was and is just fine with that. (A new poll shows that Republican approval of Vladimir Putin has surged even though — or, more likely, precisely because — it has become clear that Russian intervention played an important role in the U.S. election.) Winning domestic political struggles is all that matters, the good of the republic be damned.

Anwar Ibrahim’s Quest for Freedom denied by Federal Court


December 14, 2016

Anwar Ibrahim’s Quest for Freedom denied by Federal Court

by Hafidz Yatim

http://www.malaysiakini.com

This outcome is not unexpected because our Judiciary is not independent.  Out of the window goes our system of checks and balances when the Executive Branch overpowers our Judiciary and Parliament (the Legislative branch), and the Rule of Law is absent.

As my friend  Stanford University’s Dr. David Cohen said at a seminar at The University of Cambodia Human Rights Forum a few days ago that without the Rule of Law a citizen is denied Justice. “The Rule of Law is the foundation of Human Rights and good governance is an essential element of the Rule of Law.”–Din Merican

The Federal  Court today dismissed PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim’s review of the Sodomy II conviction and sentence. With this, Anwar, formerly Malaysia’s opposition leader, is expected to remain in jail until mid-2018.

Image result for Justice Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin

Chief Judge of Malaya Justice Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin

The Five-member bench led by Chief Judge of Malaya Justice Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin ruled there was no bias or procedural unfairnes in the decision of the previous Federal Court panel.

On the issue of the premature and swift response from the Prime Minister’s Office to the Sodomy II verdict on February 10 last year, Justice Zulkefli said while the statement, as argued by the appellant, had given the public the impression that Anwar did not receive a fair and independent hearing, the court took the view it was not within the control of the court to stop the issuance of the statement.

“As a separate branch of the government, the Judiciary and the courts operate independently in their decision-making process, with no interference from other branches of government.There has to exist a clear separation of powers between the judiciary and the other two arms of the government in order to uphold the rule of law,” he said.

Ruling further that there was no merit in the allegation that the statement was issued prematurely, he added this did not fall under the ambit of Rule 137 (that allowed a review).

“There is no evidence to show that there was any communication whatsoever between the PMO and the Federal Court, either prior or subsequent to the decision on the case,” Justice Zulkefli said in the unanimous decision.

The other judges were Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Justice Richard Malanjum, along with Federal court judges Hasan Lah, Abu Samah Nordin and Zaharah Ibrahim.

However Justice Malanjum was not on the bench today as he had to attend the funeral of a relative who had passed away.

Shafee’s conduct no bearing on outcome

The Federal Court also dismissed the questioning of the conduct of senior lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, who led the prosecution team in the Sodomy II appeals in the Court of Appeal and Federal Court, by Anwar’s lawyers.

Image result for Shafee Abdullah

Justice Zulkefli said while the appellant contended that Shafee’s speech at a roadshow had tainted the prosecutor’s office in conducting the trial fairly, the court was of the view that the alleged misconduct, if any, had no bearing on the outcome of the decision of the Federal Court.

“We noted there is no evidence furnished or averment of any sort made by the applicant to suggest that this alleged misconduct of the lead prosecutor had influenced the decision of the Federal Court on Feb 10, 2015,” he said. The judge further cited Shafee’s appointment as prosecutor by the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

On the earlier Federal Court’s judgment by Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria, which made mention of previous sodomy incidents that had been ruled as expunged by the High Court, Justice Zulkefli said this issue of misevaluation of evidence, improper direction and non-direction of the trial judge were not within the permitted circumstances that the court could exercise its inherent jurisdiction to review.

“We would like to state on this issue now raised before us that we found that it was not raised before the Federal Court. It is for this reason that we think the Federal Court did not address this point at all and hence no reason was given on the issue of the admission or rejection of the alleged inadmissible evidence,” he said.

On the issue of complainant Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan not bringing the lubricant KY Jelly, the Federal Court said according to the record of proceedings in the High Court, it was dealt with extensively by both the defence and the prosecution.

Justice Zulkefli said the earlier judgment by the Federal Court court held there was no conclusive proof that KY Jelly had spilled on the carpet and it was of the view that the carpet was not a critical piece of evidence to the prosecution’s case. “It is therefore our judgment that this issue of KY Jelly raised by the applicant is a non-issue and it had not caused injustice to the applicant,” he said.

While Anwar’s defence team maintained the integrity of the crime scene was compromised as Saiful had claimed the incident took place on the carpet in Unit 11-5-1, whereas the carpet was found in Unit 11-5-2, the court held that it could not accept the argument as the earlier panel ruled the issue of how the carpet was moved was not critical to the prosecution’s case.

“We do not think that we should look into what that other compelling evidence was as found by the Federal Court,” Justice Zulkefli said.

The court also ruled there was no merit to Anwar’s defence contention that there was a break in the chain of evidence, saying there was no serious injustice in the chain of custody of the exhibits.

“For the above reasons, we find there is no merit in the application and this is not a fit and proper case for the court to exercise its inherent jurisdiction to make any order for the case to be reviewed,” Justice Zulkefli said.

Maria Chin Abdullah et. al and the Fight for Regime Change


December 2, 2016

Maria Chin Abdullah et. al and the Fight for Regime Change

by Ambassador Dato’  Dennis Ignatius

Maria Chin Abdullah & the quest for change

No one should underestimate the power of the simple faith that was on display through all those days, at all those events, the belief that somehow justice will prevail in the end, that what we do as citizens, no matter how small, can make a difference.–Dennis Ignatius

maria

The crowds that turned out to support BERSIH 5.0 and the vigils and rallies to free Maria speak volumes about the hunger and thirst for change, for justice and good governance in Malaysia.

An outrageous act 

The arrest of Maria, in particular, seems to have generated an upsurge of public anger at the outrageous behaviour of those in power. That the government would treat a widow, a crusader for justice, a woman who has spent most of her adult life fighting for the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the downtrodden in such a cruel, callous and capricious manner was simply beyond the pale.

Instead of intimidating the people, however, Maria’s arrest appears to have strengthened their conviction that their struggle for justice, for good governance, for accountability is a righteous one and must be pursued with vigour for the sake of our nation.

And they turned out in force to send a message to those in power that such actions are simply unacceptable, that no citizen should be deprived of his or her liberty and rights and incarcerated in such an arbitrary manner, that laws such as SOSMA have absolutely no place in a democratic society.

Can we still call Malaysia a democracy?

The authorities can, of course, spin their fanciful accounts of foreign interference, sinister plots to overthrow the government or undermine the state but they fool no one but themselves.

In fact, the more frantically they spew out such drivel, the more they lose credibility. The more they insist they are acting within the law when they act in such a high-handed manner, the more the law itself becomes suspect.

In any case, the state does not have the right to claim legitimacy with laws like SOSMA that are brokered on false promises and applied in bad faith.

The Prime Minister’s recent statement that he has no reason to apologize for SOSMA because it is needed to fight terrorism is appalling given that it has just been used against Maria. Is the Prime Minister now suggesting that all his critics and political opponents are terrorists?

After these events, can we even refer to Malaysia as a democracy any more?

Intimidation stiffens resolve

Somehow illiberal governments never seem to learn that harsh measures against those who fight for freedom and democracy stiffen resolve rather than weaken it. Far from discrediting human rights activists, they make martyrs of them. Instead of diminishing the stature of advocates for justice, they empower them.Have they learned nothing from history?

They tried to suppress the late Irene Fernendez, judicially harassing her for more than a decade; far from crushing her spirit, it made her stronger, more determined. In the process she became an international symbol of justice for migrant workers and refugees.

They tried to railroad another crusader for justice and change – Anwar Ibrahim – and today he has become a symbol of hope for Malaysian who long for a better nation. The longer they incarcerate him, the more his stature grows.

And now they are about to discover the full measure of Maria.Already, she is something of an icon in the struggle for freedom, good governance and justice in Malaysia. It was plain to see that the jubilant crowd that gathered in the city center last Monday night to celebrate her release, love her, admire her and look to her. Rarely do public figures evoke such enthusiasm.

A generational struggle for justice 

It is also heartening to see the generational mix in this struggle for a better Malaysia which people like Maria now lead.

The older folks, the Merdeka generation, some in their twilight years now, are coming out of retirement to join the fight. They were there when the dream of Malaysia was born and still hold on to it despite everything that has happened, still believing that we can be that nation we thought we would be.

So many youthful activists are rising up as well to fight for change and reform. It reminds me of the anti-war (Vietnam war for those of you who were not born then) movement in the US and the student activism of an earlier era in our history.

At the Free Maria – Mansuh SOSMA rally last Friday, for example, they sang protest songs and spoke with great fervor. Young student activists like Muhammad Luqman, Anis Syafiqah and Adam Adli are already paying a high price for their political convictions but they are undeterred.

They stand testimony to the fact that even the mighty power of the state – with its vast system of indoctrination, manipulation and patronage – cannot suppress the desire for change.

Clearly, the torch is being passed to a new generation with a passion for justice and democracy.

Malaysia’s wonder-women

Image result for Ambiga and Friends

These smart women put Malaysian men to shame–They have guts to take on UMNO and its corrupt leader, the Rosmah controlled Najib Razak

It is said that crisis often brings out true leaders.In Malaysia, many of the remarkable leaders and voices for change that crisis has brought forth are women.

Despite deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes, they rise like giants in the land, inspiring us all with their courage, quiet determination, fortitude and integrity; cajoling us to action.

Image result for Mariam Mokhtar and Mahathir

Mariam Mokhtar and Cartoonist ZUNAR

Women like Irene Fernandez, Wan Azizah, Maria Chin Abdullah, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Zainah Anwar, Cynthia Gabriel, Marina Mahathir, Noor Faridah Ariffin, Ivy Josiah, Anis Syafiqah, Siti Kassim, Zuraidah Kamaruddin, Theresa Kok, Hannah Yeoh, Mariam Mokhtar and others are now household names across the land.

Image result for irene fernandez

The Late Dr.Irene Fernandez –Champion of the Underdog and Down trodden and Human Rights

And when the authorities raid a women’s rights group aimed at encouraging women’s participation in the political process and threaten to charge them with activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, you know that these women are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Thank goodness for these remarkable women who inspire and encourage us to press on. Our nation is stronger, and better, because of them. They deserve our respect, admiration and gratitude.

The faith that brings change

Some may say that events like last Friday’s Free Maria-Mansuh SOSMA rally, and the vigils that preceded it, make little difference but Maria is now free!

Perhaps the authorities heard the roar of the people after all.Now the struggle continues for democracy, for justice, for the abolishment of repressive laws like SOSMA and an end to harassment and arbitrary arrests.

No one should underestimate the power of the simple faith that was on display through all those days, at all those events, the belief that somehow justice will prevail in the end, that what we do as citizens, no matter how small, can make a difference.

The words of that towering figure in the fight for justice – Martin Luther King – come to mind:

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

 

 

Farewell to Freedom Fighter Fidel Castro


November 26, 2016

Farewell to Freedom Fighter Fidel Castro

http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21710922-cubas-communist-leader-who-outlasted-ten-american-presidents-has-died-age-90

TO MEET Fidel Castro was to notice, first of all, his sheer physical presence. He was tall, erect and had a high, domed forehead that made him look naturally imperious. He was strong: as a youth he was awarded a prize as the best all-round sportsman in Cuba. He was brave to the point of recklessness; as a boy, he once rode a bicycle straight into a wall to prove his mettle. And he was determined, absolutely convinced of his own rightness, intolerant of contradiction and immune to compromise. These characteristics he had inherited from his father, a Spanish migrant who brought with him to Cuba the innate stubbornness of the gallego and who became a prosperous landowner.

Image result for Castro with Che

The son, who was born illegitimate in Birán, in rural eastern Cuba, in 1926, added a prodigious ambition for power. Even the Jesuits who taught him saw danger coming in the big, headstrong boy, whose country slang from the cane fields of Oriente marked him out among his urban classmates. The Cuban revolution as it turned out—though not as many of its supporters had originally hoped—was above all an expression of Mr Castro’s will and the unbridled exercise of his massive ego. In his cold-war heyday, he turned his small island into a pocket superpower, fomenting revolution across Latin America, dispatching armies to Africa and brazenly sheltering fugitives, political and criminal, from the United States.

Fidel—he was one of the few world leaders widely referred to by his Christian name—was lucky, too. He might have been killed many times: as an aspiring leader in the gangsterish ambience of Havana student politics; in his quixotic assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953, where some of his followers died; or in the desperate early weeks after the botched landing of the Granma, the overloaded pleasure boat that transported his tiny force of 82 rebels from Mexico three years later. Then there were the hundreds of attempts by the CIA to assassinate him, ranging from the farcical—an exploding cigar—to the near-misses: a dose of botulism that burst before it could be added to a milkshake by a barman at the Habana Libre (ex-Hilton) hotel.

Had it not been for a fortuitous amnesty for political prisoners decreed by Fulgencio Batista, the dictator he went on to overthrow, he might have rotted for decades in prison. Then there was Cuba’s island condition, protected from continental armies of liberation (except, as it turned out, Mr Castro’s own). This had allowed Spain to hang on to its “iever-faithful isle” for seven decades after it lost its mainland American empire. It would allow Mr Castro’s regime to survive the fall of the Berlin Wall despite the bankruptcy of his revolution. As it was, the most serious attempt to unseat him, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs expedition organised by the CIA in 1961, became his crowning triumph: submachine-gun in hand, he directed the operation that saw his revolutionary armed forces kill or imprison the invaders, deprived of air support by the hesitation of President John F. Kennedy, before they could leave the beach.

A Marxist of convenience

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That was not the Americans’ only mistake. In 1952 Batista, a former army sergeant, staged a coup which ended Cuba’s sole experiment with democracy after just a dozen years. The Eisenhower administration, obsessed with an all but non-existent communist threat in the Caribbean, backed what would be a deeply corrupt and brutal regime. Batista’s coup thwarted Mr Castro’s certain election to Congress and a promising career in democratic politics. Instead, by skilled propaganda and force of will, he turned himself into the undisputed leader not just of a ragtag band of armed guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra but of a broad and politically variegated movement for the restoration of democracy and the 1940 constitution.

The guerrillas in the mountains, together with sabotage and strikes across the island, broke the spirit of Batista’s army and government. Batista himself fled, on New Year’s Eve 1958, taking most of the Central Bank’s reserves of dollars and gold. On arriving in Havana with his band of bearded revolutionaries in January 1959, Mr Castro installed a provisional government headed by a liberal judge. Its initial programme was populist: big wage increases, rent reductions and a radical land reform. But this was merely to buy time, while he built up the armed forces and security services—including the powerful political police, the G2—and cemented an alliance, begun in secret in the sierra, with the Communist Party. Before the revolution was even a year old, the “bourgeois elements” in the government were ousted, or resigned; over the next few months, critical media outlets were silenced one by one. Within six years, all private property, down to corner shops, was expropriated. By then, most of the middle class had been definitively alienated and many of its members had fled to Miami.

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Mr Castro did not always hate the United States. He had gone on honeymoon there, buying a white Lincoln Continental and feasting on T-bone steaks. A few weeks after coming to power he visited America again, this time in combat fatigues, but eating hot-dogs like a native and offering to be friends. Eisenhower preferred to play golf, leaving his vice-president, Richard Nixon, to meet Mr Castro and to identify in him “those indefinable qualities that make him a leader of men”.

By then, however, neither side had illusions about the other. In 1958 in the sierra, having watched Batista’s air force drop American-supplied rockets and bombs, he wrote to Celia Sánchez, his closest companion, “I swore that the Americans are going to pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over, I’ll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I’m going to fight against them.” For its part, the Eisenhower government was quick to set in train measures aimed at overthrowing him. Nixon thought Mr Castro “either incredibly naive” or “under communist discipline”.

Fidel was a Marxist of convenience, a Cuban nationalist by conviction and a Latin American caudillo by vocation. His hero was José Martí, the Cuban patriot who fought against Spain but was correctly wary of American covetousness towards Cuba. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States hijacked the independence rebellion Martí had started and turned Cuba into a neo-colony. Under the notorious Platt Amendment, it reserved the right to intervene in the island at any time. That was revoked in the 1930s, but American domination of the economy and the vital sugar industry continued until the revolution. It brought development—a large middle class lived well—but also deep inequality.

Fidel embraced Martí’s nationalism and anti-imperialism, but not his belief in social democracy. He turned to communism because it was useful as a tool of absolute power of a kind enjoyed by no run-of-the-mill strongman, coming, as it did, with the shield of Soviet protection (plus Soviet weapons and Soviet oil) for the duration of the cold war. The American trade embargo was even more useful: it allowed him to blame the imperialist enemy for the woeful economic failures of his own central planning.

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It was his brother, Raúl (younger by five years), who was the orthodox communist, as well as the quiet organiser who turned the tiny rebel army into a disciplined armed force of 300,000 in the two years after the revolution. It was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Mr Castro’s Argentine companion in arms, who was the Marxist theoretician.

In the early days, at least 550 (and perhaps 2,000 or more) opponents of the revolution were executed. Many of them were Batista henchmen whose demise was popular. Once the revolution was secure, Mr Castro’s rule was repressive though not especially bloody. Nothing and nobody was allowed to diminish his power. “There are no neutrals,” he declared. “There are only partisans of the revolution or enemies of it.” And the revolution, of course, was Fidel.

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Many believe that he allowed Guevara to perish in Bolivia, or could have done more to try to save him, turning an awkward and unbiddable subordinate into a useful myth. Mr Castro was a troublesome ally for the Soviets. He took their money but not always their advice. He first embraced crash industrialisation, then dropped it in favour of the drive for a 10m-tonne sugar harvest. Both involved serious economic reverses. Though sometimes persuaded to decentralise economic decision-making (which usually boosted output) he always ended up concentrating all power in his own hands again.

He gave Cubans first-world education and health services, and did not care about the cost of these to the economy. But he offered neither opportunity nor prosperity, least of all freedom. Dissenters faced a grim choice: the risky crossing to Florida, or the grim jails of Cuba’s gulag. Most chose silence. Eventually Mr Castro would open a safety valve, letting those who might stir up trouble go abroad.

Fidel was the inspirational leader, the man of action, the master strategist, the obsessive control-freak who micromanaged everything from hurricane preparedness to the potato crop. He was, above all, tireless. In marathon sessions, often beginning after midnight and lasting until after dawn, he would interrogate visitors about every facet of the political situation in their country. He loved details—the statistics of food production in every Cuban province or the properties of Chinese electric rice-cookers. He kept them in his head, and would recite them in those interminable speeches.

He was careful to discourage an overt personality cult. He kept his private life, most of his nine children and Dalia del Soto Valle, whom he married in 1980, largely hidden from public view. He promoted younger men only to discard them if they aspired openly to succeed him. His was the overwhelming presence, brooding like a weather system over Cuba’s dilapidated streets; and his was the voice, droning on in televised speeches for hour after hour, alternately rising to a peak of righteous indignation and falling to a whisper of injured innocence. He never listened, said his sister, Juanita, who left for Miami.

The revolution abroad

Mr Castro operated on the world stage as no other Latin American leader ever had since the days of Francisco Miranda and Simón Bolívar, the South American independence heroes of two centuries ago. He turned himself into an important player in the global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship. In seeking the protection of Soviet missiles he came closer than anyone else to turning that ideological confrontation into nuclear war.

Under his leadership, Cuba, an island of just 10m people, became a “Latin American Sparta” (in the words of Jorge Castañeda, a Mexican critic of the revolution). In the 1960s he aided a generation of idealistic young Latin Americans who perished in doomed guerrilla ventures whose main achievement was to help trigger takeovers by bloodstained anti-communist military dictatorships. A decade later Mr Castro dispatched his armies to Africa, to combat apartheid but also to prop up corrupt or repressive (but anti-American) regimes in places like Ethiopia and Angola. In the 1980s he armed and aided leftist revolutionaries in Central America. With the end of the cold war, in the past two decades, it has been Cuban doctors rather than soldiers that have been sent abroad, first as missionaries for Fidel’s revolution and then as earners of scarce foreign currency.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought great privation to Cuba. The economy contracted by a third. Many forecast the imminent demise of Mr Castro and his revolution. He responded by declaring a “Special Period in Peacetime”, cover for some limited and pragmatic reforms. He reluctantly allowed Cubans to set up small businesses, such as restaurants, home repairs and farmers’ markets. He also legalised the use of the dollar and sought foreign investment, especially in developing a mass tourism industry. Once again, as it had under Batista, Havana’s hotels became a venue for sex tourism, as young black women sold their bodies to escape the revolution’s privations. Remittances from Cuban-Americans, tourism and nickel mines, run by a Canadian firm, replaced sugar as the mainstay of the economy. The health-care and education systems were tapped for hard-currency earnings, too, with the development of biotechnology and of medical tourism. State companies were given more autonomy to manage their budgets and to trade. All these measures helped Cubans to get by, but they introduced new inequalities and resentments, and loosened the regime’s control over daily life.

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Then, unexpectedly, new benefactors appeared, in the form of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and, to a lesser extent, a booming China. Venezuelan subsidies grew to match the old Soviet largesse. With the economy growing again, Mr Castro reversed or reined in many of the economic reforms and became far more selective about foreign investment. As he had several times since 1959, he veered back towards Jacobinism, recruiting lumpen youth as “social workers” to wage war against corruption. In 2003, with the world distracted by the American invasion of Iraq, he launched a new political crackdown, arresting and imposing long jail sentences on 78 democracy activists, and executing three would-be migrants who hijacked a ferry in a desperate attempt to get to Florida. Two years later he declared the Special Period over.

Half-life in Havana

One evening in July 2006 Cuban state television broadcast a terse statement from Mr Castro saying that he had to undergo emergency abdominal surgery and was temporarily handing over his powers to a collective leadership headed by Raúl, his deputy. In 2008 Raúl formally replaced Fidel as Cuba’s president, and three years later as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. He pushed out Fidel’s protégés and would-be successors, including Carlos Lage, the de facto prime minister. And he proceeded, quietly but methodically, to prepare Cuba for the time when a Castro would no longer be in charge.

Raúl is temperamentally Fidel’s opposite, a tidy, practical man, lacking his brother’s messianic streak. He is Sancho Panza to Fidel’s Don Quixote. They even looked the parts (Raúl is said to keep statues of Cervantes’s heroes at his house). There were no more late-night meetings. Raúl announced economic reforms (officially called “updating”) that abolished many of the petty restrictions suffered by Cubans, who could once again buy and sell houses and cars, stay in tourist hotels and have access to mobile phones and the internet. He cautiously began to dismantle Fidel’s centrally planned economy: more than 500,000 Cubans are now self-employed, working in small businesses or as private farmers. The island began to move inexorably towards a mixed economy. Some of Raúl’s advisers talked enthusiastically of the Chinese and Vietnamese models.

Fidel didn’t think much of that. China was a decadent consumerist society that had lost its values and its commitment to preserving equality, he thought. But he admitted to a foreign visitor, in an unguarded moment, “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more”. Fidel kept his criticisms largely private. He wrote a newspaper column in Granma, the official organ, for a while, but its main subject matter was his increasingly incoherent ramblings about what he saw as the apocalyptic problems facing the world. He became a spectral presence in his compound in Siboney, a leafy enclave in the west of Havana of mansions built by the sugar barons he had expropriated. He was occasionally photographed with visiting leaders looking increasing frail and doddery. But he had outlasted ten American presidents and all his enemies.

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True, he lived long enough to watch his revolution start to be dismantled. He even saw Cuba restore diplomatic relations with the United States in 2015 and an American president, Barack Obama, visit Havana and broadcast a call for the Cuban people “to choose their government in free elections”. Of course he did not approve. “Cuba’s president has taken steps in accordance with his prerogatives and powers,” he wrote stiffly in a letter published in 2015. But, he added, “I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged any words with them,” he growled.

No other man in the 20th century had ruled as long or, through a mixture of charisma and tyranny, dominated his country so completely. On one hot summer night during the days of penury that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, a crowd of disgruntled youngsters on Havana’s malecón, the seafront drive, threatened to overwhelm the police and start a riot. Fidel appeared out of the night, and talked them out of it. Even many of those Cubans who abhorred him were in awe of him. That will not apply to any of his successors, not even Raúl.