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Don’t Aid and Abet

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Some countries are ratcheting up their regulation of foreign Internet companies. These efforts, a New York Times article explains, “increasingly” oblige firms like Google, Facebook and Twitter to mull “which laws and orders to comply with,” which to resist.

The juggling act is nothing new. Cyber-companies have always wrung their hands about which tyrannical demands to obey.

On the one hand, we have such praiseworthy examples as Google’s eventual decision, in 2010, to stop censoring its search results in China. In consequence, the Chinese government kicked Google off its Internet.

More recently, Turkey sought to prevent leaked documents from being distributed via Twitter, demanding that Twitter block posts providing access to those documents. When Twitter refused, the Turkish government blocked its service. But it then lost a court battle over the issue even as users found ways to skirt the ban.

Also heartening is the fact that, so far, American tech firms seem determined to reject a new Russian imperative that they store user information on Russian servers.

But the firms do sometimes obey demands — saying they must abide by laws that, however lamentable, are verifiably on the books — and such obedience does amount to abetting repressive efforts.

Here’s what I suggest, instead: always say No.

Never agree to help violate the rights of users, even if your services are formally banned as a result. Instead, use your ingenuity and resources to help people end-run the obstacles to free expression that governments keep imposing.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Protesting “Capitalism”?

Friday, June 21st, 2013

While Americans appear mildly unsettled or perhaps “ticked off” about recent government revelations, elsewhere in the world citizens move from “unease” to “unrest” and outright “protest.”

The protests that erupted first in Turkey and now in Brazil and elsewhere are filled with the ranks of the young, not a few of whom have noticed something: They are getting a raw deal.

Many of their issues are meat-and-potatoes: lack of jobs, burdensome student debts and, in Brazil, a bus fare rate increase made ugly in the context of cost overruns in taxpayer support for the World Cup and Olympics.

The young Turks protested, at first modestly, over planning for a park, but a harsh police crackdown led to more widespread marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations — which now often bring up questions of the current administration’s repressive anti-modernist, anti-freedom agenda.

This more heroic theme resonates elsewhere, too.

In Bulgaria the issue most protested appears to be police brutality and the general spirit of repression. In Latin America, opposition to corruption has moved from old stand-by to vital question of the day.

The saddest statement I heard was this appraisal, hailing from the BBC, of the general climate: “today capitalism is becoming identified with the rule of unaccountable elites, lack of effective democratic accountability, and repressive policing.”

Well, that’s not laissez faire capitalism that’s failed, but crony capitalism. Laissez faire’s truly free markets require a rule of law, the suppression of government corruption, and effective public accountability.

But that’s not what’s dominant. America itself serves, today, not as a beacon of liberty but of institutional control, of crony capitalism.

We need to protest that here, again, in the U.S.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Big Turkey

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

On Wednesday, President Obama issued a pardon. To a turkey.

Every president since Harry Truman has been given a live bird for Thanksgiving by the National Turkey Federation. No, it apparently doesn’t violate any sort of gift ban, nor should it — sure seems harmless enough to me on that score.

Over the years, several presidents declined to feast on the birds they were given. Then, in more recent times, presidents have made a big media production out of officially pardoning the turkeys (who then reportedly live out their days on George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon).

So, what’s the problem?

For a photo-op, Mr. Obama — just like Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton before him — saves the gift bird’s life, only to have another unpublicized turkey killed and then devoured behind closed doors.

Neither a vegan or a vegetarian, I certainly don’t begrudge him for eating the meat. I did likewise. What offends is the spectacle of someone seeking to pardon his turkey and eat it, too.

You can’t dismiss this as “mere symbolism,” for the fake pardon symbolizes more than Washington insiders can comprehend. In our nation’s capital, politicians

  • argue for fiscal responsibility one minute and then plunge us further into debt the next,
  • demand sacrifices from the people while living high on the hog, and
  • decry the influence of special interests at press conferences and then deposit their checks at the bank.

One famous turkey lives, thanks to the powerful public kindness of our potentate; another, unknown (no doubt “middle-class”) bird dies for the benefit of that same boss.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Ninety-Nine Percent Pure

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Politics is dominated by pious, politic lies and half-truths. Every nation has them, and Turkey’s are most impressive.

Turkey has been a vanguard, in the Muslim world, of “Westernizing” and “modernizing” tendencies. But it still has one foot in the deep past. One of its great pious half-truths is that Turkey is “99 percent Muslim” yet possesses a “secular state” where “all religions are equal.”

With some religions more equal than others.

An Alevi spokesman, Izzettin Dogan, charges that the country “is actually a Sunni Islamic state.” There are 30 million Alevis in Turkey, according to the New York Times, and they are not alone in getting the short end of the stick in “secular Turkey”:

“The state collects taxes from all of us and spends billions on Sunni Islam alone, while millions of Alevis as well as Christians, Jews and other faiths don’t receive a penny,” Mr. Dogan said, referring to the $1.5 billion budget of the Religious Affairs Department. “What kind of secularism is that?”

Good question.

And it gets to the heart of one of the reasons I’m so happy to live in America. Our government may be a mess, but we still have some basic freedoms. We’ve long gotten over the ancient fixation on the union of religion and state.

In ancient empires, kings styled themselves as gods.

We know better.

And we know better than to subsidize religion — or use it as a branch of the government.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.