Our dance with the environment: a half-step forward, two steps back

Two months after December’s Paris climate negotiations, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC* gave a TED talk on the conference’s preliminary success. The last heavyweight conference of the parties having ended disastrously 6 years’ earlier in Copenhagen, Figueres explained that her strategy had been to approach her work with unwavering optimism.

That optimism was in plain sight at last Friday’s signing ceremony in New York, where 175 countries signed the agreement reached at the COP21 in December, breaking a new record. But, like most environmental stories, reading beyond the headline can make anyone’s sense of optimism falter. For one, the agreement will not be operational until countries representing at least 55% of the world’s pollutants ratify the accord back home. That means the deal is still dependent on being passed through a notoriously inept US Congress and approved by each of the 28 EU member states before the US and the EU bloc, together representing 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions, can legally participate. By some estimates, the earliest the 55% mark will be reached is 2018 – that’s another 2-3 years successively labelled “the hottest year on record” before any real action will be taken on an international scale.

Until then, national environmental protection laws do exist; and they appeared to want to prove their effectiveness just in time to mark this year’s Earth Day on April 22nd. Germany, once the preacher of unbending compliance to all things regulatory, saw its top car manufacturers recall over half a million diesel cars last week to fix the software technology managing vehicle emission levels after a “government-commissioned test found irregularities” in several models. To Germany’s certain relief, news of the recall was slightly marginalized by the scandal engulfing fellow Japanese car maker Mitsibushi, which revealed it had not been completely candid – over the past 25 or so years – in the fuel efficiency data of its cars.

Then there’s China. China, China, China…a country that seems to find itself perpetually a victim of bad press, despite its sincere efforts to the contrary. This time, the environmental/health disaster was focused on Jiangsou province, where local officials denied any relation between 500 sick school children and the toxins from several now defunct chemical plants. True, 500 is anything but an astonishing figure by Chinese standards, but in a school of just 2400 pupils that would imply 1 in 5 children have been affected by rashes, nausea, nosebleeds, and, in a few cases, leukaemia.

In an uncanny political rendition of “it wasn’ me”, the city in which the school is located stated that “tests conducted last month at the behest of the school and parents showed indoor air quality, soil and groundwater were all up to national standards.” According to state broadcaster CCTV, however, “school and local officials may have only tested the site for common pollutants but overlooked chemicals and heavy metals involved in pesticide manufacturing next to the school site.”

Greenwashing-Carbon-Offsetting-Cartoon

Greenwashing cartoon, courtesy of EMG CSR cartoons

So, we can deduce that environmental “national standards” and China aren’t exactly concepts that marry well. Even though some minimal standards exist, the ingenious decision was still taken by the school to build their premises on the site of a former pesticide production plant. It seems that, more than in any other country, the bottom line of creating profit and sustaining economic growth – no matter the human and environmental cost – is ingrained at every level of Chinese society. So when President Xi Jinping’s government claims fighting global warming is important and that it will ratify the Paris agreement by September, its words are met not so much with a sense of hope as with dreaded fear that we are likely experiencing the start of the biggest case of greenwashing the world has ever seen.

That said, it’s unfair to point the finger solely at China – especially considering its nascent industrial revolution is 150 odd years younger than Europe’s. Considering Britain and other European countries have had a significant head start in acclimatizing themselves to the benefits and hazards of industrialization, they also systematically put the demands of the chemical and agricultural industries above the health interests of their citizens – albeit in a more discreet fashion. Sunday’s edition of Le Monde reported how the European Commission is proposing to vote the 10-year relicensing of glyphosate – a herbicide which the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has labelled a probable carcinogen and endocrine disruptor. What’s more, in a show of complete naiveté or sheer brazenness, the article notes that the EC is turning to the industry and distributors of glyphosate products (such as Monsanto’s Roundup) to provide it with data proving or disproving the safety of the compound. In the same spirit, the Commission could propose a vote that would have 18 year olds grade their own driving test in a bid to decrease traffic-related incidents.

It was a telltale news week that well-demonstrated how our half-step forward, two-steps back dance with the environment is still going strong. But, enough with pessimism. To follow Christiana Figueres’ lead on the mystifying power of unshakeable optimism, we should at least be grateful the environment made it to the front pages of the news this time around.

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  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Recognizing a poisonous discourse

A year ago, the National Archives in Paris hosted an exposition titled La Collaboration Vichy Paris Berlin 1940-1945: a look back at the Vichy government’s cooperation with the Third Reich during the World War II German occupation of France. The walls were a smorgasbord of unnerving historical video footage, clippings and mementos, but none proved to be as jarring to the sensibility of a millennial as the propaganda poster goading French citizens of respectable faiths, and of all ages, to stone their local Jew*. The undeniable triteness of the message evidence of the poisonous atmosphere that fostered the events which so deeply scarred the 20th century.

Le juif et la France 5 septembre 1941 Palai Berlitz


A promotional poster for a 1941 exposition in Paris on how “the Jew has never been, cannot and will never be able to integrate himself with other people” titled, Le juif et la France. Source: La Collaboration: Vichy Paris Berlin 1940-1945.

Last week, several stories in the press evoked the latent danger of rendering the marginalization of a people into more and more frequent soundbites. This time not against Jews, but against the even larger population of people of Muslim faith. We started the week with a €6 billion tit-for-tat migration agreement between the European Union and Turkey going into effect, in which for every irregular migrant deported from Greece back to Turkey, the EU will resettle a Syrian refugee in Turkey on European soil. Leaving aside the controversies related to the deal itself, the very reason it transpired was due to the failure of the EU to figure out what the “Union” part of its name means. A consequence, no doubt, of individual state’s fears over migration – specifically, the migration of Muslims – into their pristine, largely Christian populations, and their subsequent decision to jump ship and protect themselves.

Rather than recognize the Syrian War as the Syrians’ time of need and using the billions pledged to Turkey towards a European-wide humane refugee resettlement programme, criticisms abound as to how Syrians will be a tax to already burdened national social systems; how their beliefs and values will prevent them from integrating into European culture; how the refugee crisis has cleared a path for Islamist radicals masquerading as asylum seekers to enter into the heart of Europe.

The last of these arguments flared again when Brussels was the victim of a two-pronged attack last Tuesday by a jihadist cell, reportedly acting on the direction of ISIL. While the migrant route does present a vulnerability, and one of the Paris attackers did enter the EU using a fake passport via the Greek island of Leros, some perspective is needed here. For one, most of the attackers so far, starting from Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, have been homegrown. So, even those who are returning from a stint in Syria could be allowed entry into Europe with barely a second glance given between photo ID and physical being. Secondly, even when the Belgian Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the two suicide bombers at Brussels’ airport, was flagged by Ankara as having radicalist ties and deported back to the EU, the Belgian authorities failed to observe the red warning light flashing before their eyes. The blocking of the migration route into Europe will have little, if any, effect on hindering future terrorist attacks. Terrorism will continue to afflict Europe because it has allowed the creation of a disenfranchised minority of born and bred European citizens who have little by way of opportunity; because ISIL appears to be extremely well-organized and financed at present; and because Europe lacks a well-trained, well-networked, federal anti-terrorism investigative unit.

None of these points seem to have found their way into the myopic thinking of US Republican presidential candidate rivals, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Upon news of the Belgian attacks, the first renewed his wholly-credible pledge for a ban on all Muslims entering the US. The second decided a more internal approach is necessary by calling for systematic surveillance of Muslim neighbourhoods. A fear of jihad has permitted the thinking and vocalization of a distrust of all Muslims to become acceptable, and the rhetoric we are hearing from both European and US politicians – applauded by some of their electorate – is well on its way to resembling a poster urging us to throw stones at our Muslim neighbours.

That brings us to our final press-pick of the week: the 40 year sentence handed by the International Criminal Court to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for war crimes committed during the  Bosnian War of 1992-1995, including his complicity in the genocide of Muslim Serbs in the massacre of Srebrenica. Nazi-sympathetic World War II memorabilia might seem too far-fetched and distant a parallel to the hate-filled anti-Muslim speech of today, but the ethnic cleansing of more than 8000 Muslim men and boys was merely 20 years ago. (To put that into perspective: Friends was embarking on its second season). If that’s still too obscure an event, here’s a video of a Neo-Nazi group disrupting the shrine to the victims of the Belgian attack yesterday.

So, before Generation Z and beyond are gasping in horror at sound reels from present-day media, and another 7 year long trial at the Hague is necessary, let’s call a spade a spade and recognize our anti-Muslim banter for the poisonous discourse it really is.

 

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  • An image of this particular poster could not, unfortunately, be found.

Why the Middle East can’t be a bit more like Middle Earth

Cartoon The Atlantic Map of Middle East

Map of the Middle East Conflict (Courtesy of The Atlantic and Karl Sharro)

It’s difficult to keep track of whose fighting whom in today’s Middle East without risking an aneurism. Let’s begin with Syria: on one side of the battlefield, we have the country’s leader/dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, who has been battling rebel groups, as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, for a 5th year running. On side nº 2, Syrian rebel groups have been trying to topple the Assad regime and put a stop to the growing problem of ISIL. And on side nº 3 there’s ISIL and its quest to vanquish all in its path to establishing a Caliphate. One border over, the Iraqi army is working to push back the jihadist group from its territories. The Kurds are doing the same closer to the Turkish front, but are also under attack by Turkey itself, which seems to value its longstanding enmity towards the Kurds above its interests to protect its own borders and stymie a refugee crisis.

In the skies, an American-led coalition is targeting ISIL strongholds; as is Russia, though the latter is using this claim as a pretense to send a few bombs the Syrian rebels’ way. Elsewhere in the immediate vicinity, a Saudi Arabian-led intervention has been bombing Yemen since last March, while the Taliban are still actively wreaking havoc in Afghanistan. That’s the bare-bones view, with a few countries and groups left out of the picture to help simplify matters. Amid the mayhem, there is a sense that the overriding enemy is ISIL. A terrorist organization that has no limits in its ambition to impose its twisted interpretation of Islam on all who have the misfortune to become its subjects, and terrorize those whose beliefs and lifestyles challenge its own.

But if ISIL can be crowned the Middle East’s Lord Sauron, then many of the remaining players are the runners-up. There’s no unwitting Frodo-like hero staving off evil in Bashar Al Assad – a dictator who clings to power by means of chemical warfare against his own people. No brave, moral souls fighting to protect others among the Saudi Arabians – who have not only used cluster bombs* in Yemen, but also boast an unsightly track-record of human rights abuses back home. And what of the US and Britain? The assumption that the two Western powers are the valiant knights of the whole affair can be remedied by one step back down memory lane: who was to blame for instigating the Iraq War, the mismanagement of its aftermath and the vacuum that gave rise to ISIL? In short, events in the Middle East have become so overwhelming due to the absence of a Fellowship of the Ring equivalent that could add the easily digestible concept of good vs. evil to the equation.

A story appearing in last Friday’s Le Monde** distances us further from such a childish wish for simplicity in battle. According to the French daily, Syria’s largest gas plant has been under the joint control of the Syrian government, Hesco – the local partner of  Russian company Stroytrangaz (to whom the construction of the plant was awarded back in 2007) – and none other than ISIL itself. While a collaboration between the Assad regime and Russia is to be expected considering Putins’ support of a fellow dictator, learning of the third-party tie to ISIL definitely qualifies as a WTF? moment in this ongoing saga.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 12.07.24

Map of the Middle East Conflict (Courtesy of the Atlantic and Karl Sharro)

That Putin has no scruples backing Al-Assad who has done nothing to offend Russians, despite being a canker to his own people, is one thing. It’s quite another to be in cahoots with the organization responsible for bombing a planeful of Russian citizens. Yet this is exactly the claim brought forward by Le Monde – and previously by the Financial Times  and Foreign Policy – which reports that in 2015, the government (and consequently, Hesco and Stroytrangaz) agreed to pay ISIL €72,000 per month in exchange for protection of the Tuweinan plant; later agreeing to a 70 MW to 50 MW split, in ISIL’s favour, of production from the Aleppo power station powered by the Tuweinan plant.

To revert to the Lord of the Rings analogy, it would be as if the people of Gondor were in league with both the Orcs and Lord Sauron over mining rights, all the while battling to kill each other off. Although this is the only account of a case involving a foreign party directly engaged in the conflict, dubious deal-making for the control of energy plants has been reported throughout Syria between the state, ISIL, and rebel groups. Arriving at a deal doesn’t, however, signify a mutually-respected agreement, nor non-violent working conditions for the plants’ workers. Workers can receive 75 lashes for any deviation from “strict Islamic practice”; and, if that isn’t considered severe enough HR management, on-site executions can also be arranged***. In some ways, that’s a relief. The knowledge that gas rights – rather than good judgment and morality – could turn an abject human being into a decent one would probably trigger that aneurism.

 

  • * Prohibited explosive weapons according to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
  • ** Print edition.
  • *** Tuweinan’s director of operations was executed during the course of last year in front of the plant’s workers for allegedly collaborating with the regime to divert gas to a regime-controlled plant.

Trumping stupidity

According to US presidential candidate Donald Trump, this is what Paris should have done to prevent the large number of fatalities inflicted on its citizens by ISIL last week:

Every Parisian going out on a Friday night and sitting on a bar stool or a restaurant chair should have had their Kalashnikov* on their lap at the ready. Handing it in to coat check wouldn’t have worked – neither would hanging it on the back of their seat or on those little hooks underneath the bar counter. They would have had to be locked and loaded to stand a chance. Come to think of it, considering Parisian restaurants are notoriously tight spaced – chairs stuck together side by side or back to back – restaurant goers would likely not have left their assault rifles on their lap and risked harassing their neighbours and waiters with the end of their gun barrel. Instead they would have had to politely rest them against their chests and tried not to lean forward too much when taking a bite.

Perhaps in Trump’s successful version of Friday night, Parisians had a more practical handgun – a lightweight semiautomatic – tucked away in a holster or ankle strap. But, with him being more of an eye-for-an-eye (if not an eye-for-your-wife-and-horse) kind of man, he must have meant for them to have been armed with AK-47s to match the fire power of their assailants.

At the end of the day, the strength and speed of the firearm would probably not have been so important, as long as there were some projectiles being fired in the opposite direction. Then, rather than being killed helplessly, defenselessly, locals and tourists alike could have shown those terrorist motherfuckers a piece of their mind and saved themselves or some of their fellow men and women. Of course, some would have been hit by friendly fire; but at least there would have been some modicum of patriotism and self-defense to the ghastly affair. It really would have been a much better way of dealing with events on Friday night – all up until the moment the poor Kalashnikov-armed citizen soldier made the fatal realization that each terrorist was doubly equipped with a suicide vest.

It’s unfortunate that, with 42% of US Republican voters cheering Trump on, the world seems to be faced with ruination from two separate menacing ideologies: jihadist extremism from the East and unrestrained stupidity from the West.

*registered or unregistered

Agreeing* with Sarah Palin and other things that are wrong with this world

(*ever so slightly)

Summer time can bring a glorious and well-earned respite from routine, and with it a disconnect from the going-ons of the rest of the world. It’s just as well considering most of what happens is more of the same, or the same but worse. There’s the refugee/migrant crisis in Europe, which escalated with yet more reports of horrific deaths and humanitarian conditions over July and August. Things deteriorated in the Saudi Arabian-led assault on Yemen as well, when the latter decided to make use of its stockpile of cluster bombs prior to their expiration date. And, like clockwork, another shooting occured on US soil – this time on live television – yet again ripping open the sutures on an atrophied gun control debate. But, perhaps, the most disturbing decline of the summer hiatus was the one which found you aligned with the likes of Sarah Palin. Not completely. Not even mostly. But just enough to question whether your sanity has been compromised by too much sun exposure.

Sarah Palin CNN State of the Union interview

Sarah Palin CNN State of the Union interview

Last week, President Obama paid a visit to Alaska: a state which fully embodies polarity in its, at once, economic dependence on the oil industry and suffering from the repercussions of climate change in the Arctic. The US president has made it known that making his country a front runner in the battle against climate change is a priority for the last 18 months of his presidency. In August, he announced the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon emissions of existing US power plants and increase investment in cleaner energy production. His Alaskan trip, scheduled just 3 months ahead of key international climate policy talks in Paris, also falls squarely into this plan of action.

Palin, the one-time Alaskan governor and 2008 vice-presidential candidate, would have none of it – dismissing the president’s trip as “a tourism jaunt, really”. As the selfies, velfies and more traditional image categories were published of Obama pointing at melting glaciers, partaking in native dance, and holding up sockeyed salmon, it became clear that Palin had a point: Obama’s visit amounted to little more than a series of well-staged photo opps.

Obama taking a velfie. Courtesy: White House

Obama taking a velfie. Courtesy: White House

Thankfully the insights from the “Let’s speak American” hockey mom stopped there, as she articulated – first in a post on IJReview and then on CNN’s State of the Union – that “[d]evelopment creates jobs…it’s the only real “stimulus package” the Feds should have engaged in. Drill, baby…eh, you know the rest.” The irony that the real criticism Obama faced during his trip to Alaska was actually for permitting drilling off its coast, all the while reciting soundbites like, “Few things can have as negative an impact on our economy as climate change,” was lost on Palin. It wasn’t on anybody else. Neither was the irony in Obama’s statement that “any so-called leader who does not take this issue seriously, or treats it like a joke, is not fit to lead”.

Indeed. On Saturday, the president feebly defended his decision to allow Shell to drill in Arctic waters claiming, “[his administration] made it clear that Shell has to meet [its] high standards in how they conduct their operations.” And in saying so, Obama showed he’s missed the point entirely. Because it’s no longer about the calamity of a potential oil spill in the glacial, remote waters of the Chukchi Sea. We’re passed that. The fact of the matter is, when there is a strong scientific consensus that over 80% and 30%, respectively, of known coal and oil reserves must not be burned to keep global warming below the agreed 2ºC “manageable disaster” ceiling**, then permitting the exploration and extraction of more fossil fuels is nonsensical. And much like Palin, who sees herself as a good Secretary of Energy to a President Trump because “energy is [her] baby”, saying things that don’t make sense really undermines any valid point or plan you might have made beforehand.

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** Read former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s editorial on the paper’s “Keep it in the ground” campaign, if you’re interested in finding out more about climate change and fossil fuel divestment.

Kuwait, DNA and that thing called privacy

The protracted sagas of the Iran nuclear negotiations, Greece’s third bailout, and the confederate flag dominated the press again this past week, which probably explains why a story representing a historical turning point in DNA data collection and national surveillance barely received any coverage. Either that, or most journalists were already on a beach somewhere willing themselves not to check their Twitter accounts.

While Western powers have been heavily competing with well-known totalitarian regimes for the title of ‘Best in citizen surveillance & privacy infringement,’ it was Kuwait who came up from behind to take the prize by announcing it had passed a law for the mandatory collection of DNA samples for all Kuwaiti nationals and foreign residents. The new law is so comprehensive, there’s even a chance it will be extended to Kuwait’s second-class Bidoons*.

Like most drastic measures taken by governments in recent years, Kuwait’s actions were a reaction to terrorism. Specifically, the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque by ISIL on June 26th that killed 27 people and injured 227. Featuring on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, Kuwaiti Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs, Mohammed Al Abdullah Al Sabah, said that the suicide nature of the bomb left law enforcers unable to identify the perpetrator without preexisting DNA in the national database. The sweeping collection of DNA samples from all citizens, residents, and (potentially) visitors to Kuwait would remedy that.

As the first country to impose mandatory DNA collection, Kuwait is navigating unchartered territories. Since 1995 when the first DNA database was created in the UK, DNA phenotyping has proved useful in solving crimes and securing convictions around the world. So furthering that process by expanding the scope of a national database is not an unreasonable next step. After all, we unwittingly shed our DNA everywhere we go. If you know you haven’t committed a crime, what’s the problem?

These are the pro arguments; and, parallel to them, the minister was keen to defend his government’s decision by presenting it as a not so drastic leap from Kuwaiti norms, considering: (a) it already has mandatory fingerprint testing (presumably rendered futile for identification purposes this time around by aforementioned detonation method), and (b) mandatory DNA testing for couples getting married in order to guard the integrity of the Kuwaiti gene pool.

He might have a point. Despite facing a hefty fine and jail time for not obliging to a cheek swab, Kuwaitis appear unruffled by the news (being the first in the world at something does have its allure). There is a reason, however, that in 2008 the European court of human rights ruled against the UK’s “blanket and indiscriminate” collection and retention of DNA: it breaches a person’s right to privacy.

Portrait from artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg's exhibition, Stranger Visions.Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 18.54.12In her exhibition, Stranger Visions, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg created portraits from genetic material from cigarette butts, chewing gum and hair collected off the street to call attention to “the potential for a culture of biological surveillance.”

Here, the pro-team spokesperson would probably interject the debate to stress that this would be a “private database”, enjoying the same confidentiality as medical records. But this ignores 3 things: (1) the value of a database which connects a person’s genetic code to their contact information; (2) the prevalence of hacking – and occasionally then publicising – private information; (3) the prevalence of human error in DNA testing.

Starting backwards from three: while the science behind a DNA match is itself deemed foolproof, human error can always lead to a wrongful conviction. In theory, having an all-citizens DNA database could increase the probability of wrongful convictions, but whether this is also true in practice remains to be seen. As for two: if you weren’t already familiar with AshleyMadison, you are now. Putting the hacked records of cheating spouses aside, let’s take the data theft of 22.1 million people from the US Office of Personnel Management earlier this month as a more serious example of how the “private & confidential” part of a private database is fiction.

That brings us to one: it’s still hard to glean just how many ways our DNA could be used against us, but one possibility is genetic discrimination. For instance, an insurance firm could increase a client’s premium because he or she has a predisposition to an illness. Or a life insurer or an employer could refuse a client or candidate because their DNA shows that they will likely die within 10 years, which wouldn’t exactly be worth their while. Even George W. Bush recognised the potential repercussions in 2008 when he signed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act into law, protecting Americans against such discrimination by health insurers and employers.** That’s not to say though that the Kuwaiti government is ignorant – no one can be sure exactly what Bush Jr. was aware of during his time in office.

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* Despite making up a significant portion of the population, Bidoons are neither viewed as citizens nor residents of Kuwait, but live in the citizenship equivalent of Dante’s limbo. The 2011-2012 protests in Kuwait were sparked when the Emir of Kuwait extended grants to all citizens, while bypassing the Bidoons, to commemorate the state’s 20th anniversary of liberation from Iraq and the 50th anniversary of its independence.

Ex-victim Blinders Syndrome: “A pretty fuckin’ low” way to handle the Greek crisis

Society places much importance on learning and learning from history. It provides its youth with compulsory history lessons, funds archaeological excavations and historical museums, protects its cultural heritage, and offers struggling English graduates a second chance through teaching and text-book writing. The importance stemming from a broadly held view that history repeats itself, and so some knowledge of it may assist current players to better manoeuvre the political chessboard. Or, put another way, help avoid World War III.

Yet, despite these widespread efforts to extract wisdom from bygone days, a phenomenon that we shall take the liberty to call ‘Ex-victim Blinders Syndrome’ exists, in which – much like capture-bonding on a national scale – one nation or people will go on to enact on another the very tragedies they or their ancestors fell victim to. All the while blind to the existence of any similarities between the past and present.

The most blatant example of this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It goes without saying that people of Jewish faith have been one of the most persecuted minorities in history. They experienced the defencelessness of being both landless and stateless; fell victim to an ideology that perceived them as lesser beings; had their freedom and dignity stripped from them in prison camps; and were indiscriminately killed at the hands of a stronger world power. The context, era and landscape may be  different, but the policies and violence inflicted by successive Israeli administrations on the Palestinians since 1947 bear some resemblance to the discrimination and repression suffered by their forefathers. The Palestinians have been dispossessed from the majority of their land; some have been herded into a strip enclosed by concrete walls on one side and sea on the other; their freedom and dignity have been largely undermined; and, when violence ensues, their lives are at the mercy of a much stronger military power.*

Ironically, another example of this inability to empathise with fellow victims can be found in the country that was largely responsible for the afflictions of millions of Jews. As the most influential negotiator on the table of Greece’s creditors, Angela Merkel and her administrations’ wilful disregard of the combined debt relief and aid that Germany received in 1953 from the US Marshall Plan and a group of 20 creditors (including Greece) is nothing short of brazen. Again, we are speaking of a different context, era and political landscape, but the rules of economics and logic remain the same. Its undeniable that Germany’s debt relief and aid went a long way to helping the troubled nation rebuild its infrastructure, shed its pariah status, and become Europe’s leading economy. In contrast, when Western powers chose to shun Germany after the first world war and discipline its people, economic strife and unemployment set the stage for World War II.

Some advocate that post-war Germany deserved debt relief, whereas Greece doesn’t. BloombergView’s Leonid Bershidsky argues that despite Germany having accumulated its debt through the financing of a vast programme of human oppression, war and genocide, it had shown humility and a strong will to reform itself afterwards – and, hey, the Nazis were no longer the ruling party so it was all water under the bridge. Ultimately, “the creditors felt they needed to help that effort.”

Greece, on the other hand, accumulated its debt through rampant government overspending and then lied about its deficits to join the Euro. Despite meeting the conditions of a 5 year long austerity-led bailout programme, Bershidsky’s message is loud and clear: the Greeks do not deserve debt relief because, unlike Germany in 1953, there’s no distinction between the current government and the previous ones responsible for creating Greece’s deficit. When Chancellor Konrad Adenauer demonstrated “harsh self-imposed discipline and penitence,” Greece’s fast succession of recent prime ministers have only demonstrated “profligacy.”

“There is a not-so-subtle difference between voluntarily taking on debts made by previous, rogue governments at a currency rate favorable to the creditors — and heedlessly accumulating debts of one’s own while concealing the true size of budget deficits. In the first case, the implication is harsh self-imposed discipline and penitence. In the second case, profligacy.”

Leonid Bershidsky, BloombergView, January 21 2015

Are we really basing a decision on whether a country will be tossed into poverty on who deserves to be disciplined and who doesn’t? On who has shown more genuine penitence and who has not? All the while turning a blind eye to what many economists, and (now) the International Monetary Fund, have said time and time again: that Greece will not be able to recover from a debt 175% of its GDP without debt cancellation; that further austerity without debt relief will spiral the country towards ruin; that a Greek exit from the Euro and the EU will be even more costly to the Europeans than accepting Greece will not be able to pay all or part of its debt?

Should Eurozone finance ministers vote to negotiate a new bailout package for Greece today, they should finally feel the need to help Greece’s efforts to reform by accepting to put a debt relief option on the table. And if Germany, as arbiter of Greece’s fate, should wish to act on passion rather than intellect, then let it do so based less on retribution and more on empathy. Because, wearing blinders to help you impose an ineffective plan of misery that you yourself have at once lived and been saved from is, to borrow the words from Quentin Tarantino’s Django, “pretty fuckin’ low.”

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* The anti-semite slurs can now begin; but please be considerate and use the hashtag #ExVictimBlindersSyndrome in any tweets. Thank you.

Where does the end of the Silk Road leave us?

Thirty-one is a young age to be handed two life sentences without parole. That’s the first thought that might have crossed someone’s mind when the news of Ross Ulbricht’s sentence came out last month. The next would be that it’s an awfully long time for someone who didn’t commit mass murder or high treason. Ulbricht, a.k.a. the Dread Pirate Roberts, is the creator of the once active and highly lucrative clandestine marketplace, Silk Road. With a layout similar to e-bay’s and the guaranteed* user anonymity of a TOR network**, Silk Road was the embodiment of a digital wet dream for narcotraffickers and their clients, enabling a more risk-free trade environment with the unwitting help of the post.

Screenshot of Silk Road webpage

A screenshot from the Silk Road website

The story of how a 27 year-old Ulbricht built Silk Road in 2011 and grew it into a $1.2 billion empire by 2013, only to become the target of a 2 year FBI investigation that spelled his downfall, is a fascinating one. Equivalent in its ability to inspire awe and disbelief as the success of other twenty-something web 2.0 prodigies, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – if Zuckerburg had been crossed with the interest and methods of Al Capone. What sets this particular story apart is the ambiguity of its location on a moral map, with both Ulbricht and Silk Road on the one side, and law enforcement and the justice system on the other, positioning themselves within the areas of “fair”, “not exactly okay, but harmless”, “wrong”, and “morally reprehensible”.

The many IDs found in Ross Ulbricht's possession, as entered into evidence by the U.S. Southern District Court of New York

The many IDs found in Ross Ulbricht’s possession, as entered into evidence by the U.S. Southern District Court of New York

A self-taught programmer, Ulbricht launched Silk Road as a platform for his libertarian belief that true freedom comes with economic autonomy. A platform in which any vendor (with the know-how to access the deep web) would be able to sell his wares of drugs and other prescription medicine to any willing buyer (with the know-how to access the deep web) in an unregulated environment and in relative safety from the long arm of the law. In the “Untold Story of Silk Road”, Wired writes that for Ulbricht’s alter ego, the Dread Pirate Roberts (or DPR for short): “the site was a political polemic in practice. ‘Stop funding the state with your tax dollars,’ DPR wrote, ‘and direct your productive energies into the black market.’

It’s unclear how the more traditional drug trade could be seen as funding the state through taxes – if anything the industry as a whole has been a drain on government resources that are directed to finance law enforcement and lengthy prison sentences – but that goes to show the influence that DPR had over Silk Road’s fanbase: because direct their energies they did. Through 1,229,465 transactions to be exact, totalling 9,519,664 bitcoin*** or $1.2 billion**** from February 2011 to July 2013.

Before the power high overcame him and he started soliciting murder-for-hire services to silence those he perceived as liabilities, Ulbricht’s ideology was intended to be harmless – albeit opportunistic and naive. In a world where the illicitness of drugs and the validity of a worldwide war on drugs are largely contested by economics, health and policy experts, Silk Road offered an easier, more direct, and presumably less violent, means to obtain narcotics. And, though he preached an anti-state political rhetoric, Ulbricht’s ideology wasn’t on the extreme end of the stick. The site still imposed rules – among them, “no child porn, stolen goods or fake degrees,” – and a fundamental code of conduct, “‘to treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t do anything to hurt or scam someone else.’” If his thinking hadn’t devolved, maybe Ulbricht would just have been tagged by history as a bootlegger of the 21st century drug prohibition: definitely someone opportunistic and on the wrong side of the law; but like the 1920’s speakeasy owner, providing a means to a substance his clients would get their hands on, one way or another, whether the government deemed it permissible or not.

But, if Ulbricht ever had the intention of opening a fruitful debate against the effectiveness of current drug policy, his experiment failed miserably. Instead, his dissociation from his previous ideals “to treat others as you would wish to be treated”, and a growing arrogance over his elusiveness, ensured that DPR and Silk Road were as far from being drug reform advocates as possible. Their downfall resulted in a glowing victory for law enforcement who – thirsting for some taste of success within a failing drug war – latched onto the case with talon-like grips and ensured this, at least, would be viewed as an example of the triumph of their perseverance and, therefore, as a deterrent to those contemplating filling the vacuum left by DPR’s arrest.

The evidence mounted against Ulbricht was colossal. The digital diary he kept with boasts of “running a goddamn multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise” doing nothing to help his plea of innocence and claims to being framed by the real Dread Pirate Roberts. When the guilty verdict came, a mere 3.5 hours after the jury convened, prosecutors “demanded that the judge set ‘a lengthy sentence, one substantially above the mandatory minimum’ for Ulbricht.” This is where the justice system failed and overstepped its authority. Because, while Ulbricht’s non-guilty plea was ill-judged given the mountain of evidence against him; while his defence’s choice to make “academic arguments to say leniency was appropriate since Silk Road had reduced the overall harm associated with drugs” was just short of being cocky; and while the defence’s inference that Ulbricht was entitled to some leniency in his sentence because he was a white, well-educated boy from a respectable family was certainly erroneous, Ulbricht’s punishment far surpassed his crimes.

Ross Ulbricht is no angel; but his real crimes can be broken down to:

  1. distributing, aiding and abetting the sale of narcotics,
  2. engaging in a criminal enterprise (and, presumably, the money laundering, use of fraudulent IDs, tax fraud etc. that is part of the day-to-day business), and
  3. procuring murder-for-hire 6 times.

On this last count – evidently the most serious charge – to Ulbricht’s ignorance, one murder was faked by the DEA (the Drug Enforcement Administration) and no actual murders relating to the other 5 requests were ever uncovered. What’s more the 7 counts on which Ulbricht was found to be guilty and handed a life sentence in May do not include procuring murder-for-hire, for which he will be charged in a separate pending trial in Maryland. The life sentence he is now appealing was squarely based on his involvement as a deep web drug entrepreneur, rendering his involvement in murder-for-hire plots almost irrelevant.

Silk Road and its inevitable successors – Agora and Evolution among them – surely do more to hinder than help drug policy reform. They do make it clear, however, that it’s high time we moved in that direction, and handing out life sentences is not the right way to go about it.

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* Guaranteed to a degree. The FBI was able to identify Ulbricht after his IP addressed leaked.

** TOR (The Onion Router): an open-access software permitting anonymous communication.

*** Bitcoin: A decentralized digital currency created in 2009.

**** At the then exchange rate.

A vote worthy of the times: Ireland says “YES!” to same-sex marriage

A piece of good news in the media is like sunshine in the UK: you need to stop whatever it is you’re doing and bask in its warmth. Otherwise, you’re just stuck looking at an endless world of grey. So bask we shall in the news that the Irish voted a resounding Yes for same-sex marriage last Friday, in the first ever referendum of its kind.

Irish vote Yes for same-sex marriage

Irish vote Yes for same-sex marriage. Photo by: William Murphy/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

If you watched the movie The Imitation Game earlier this year – based on the life and work of the mathematician Alan Turing – you’ll have received a stark reminder on what it meant to be gay in 1950s Britain when male* homosexuality was a crime. [Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched the movie, or are otherwise unaware of the intimate history of World War II code breakers, skip to the next paragraph]. Convicted of “gross indecency” with another man in 1952, Turing opted for the prison alternative of chemical castration. Two years later, he committed suicide for reasons (we can presume) that stumped his contemporaries.

It wasn’t until 1967 that homosexuality was “lightly” decriminalised (i.e. if you were discreet about it and respected the higher age of consent of 21, bygones were bygones) and then 1982 for full decriminalisation to take effect in the UK. That feels like both a life time ago and no time at all. Ireland only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993.

A very long segue way to point out just how significant a vote favouring same-sex marriage is for Ireland. What’s more, for a country with a majority Catholic population (at 84% of the population, Ireland comes in 11th on the list of the world’s most Catholic countries – and that includes Vatican City at 100%), the Yes vote passed very comfortably with 62%. On an individual level it would be a transition equivalent to Bono turning around now and saying, “Fuck feeding the world, fuck HIV and fuck Africa.” Actually, given LiveAid was in ’84, the timeline is a bit off: it would be equivalent to Bono having turned around 9 years ago and saying that. (Think about it. That would mean no (PRODUCT) RED™ motivational quotes to “Shop, Act, Learn”).

Some within the Irish Catholic church have expressed a willingness to move towards the brighter light of 21st century thinking and reform. And, considering Pope Francis’s “whom am I to judge?” comment a couple of years ago, we could be forgiven to think that we’re on the brink of an age when a person’s sexuality is a non-issue. But, alas, the Vatican’s Secretary of State delivered a statement on Tuesday reminding us not to get ahead of ourselves. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, apparently number two in the Holy See’s hierarchy, said of Ireland’s popular vote:  “The church must take account of this reality, but in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelisation. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity.”

Yes, clearly, among the long list of recent human achievements**, this is what constitutes a defeat for humanity. Unfortunately, the Cardinal is not alone in his sentiments. One prominent No campaigner with an equal flair for the dramatic and an unwillingness to lose gracefully was quoted as saying, “I cry for Ireland.” The main argument for No campaigns everywhere is that same-sex marriage threatens the notion of the nuclear family. They reiterate that a child needs both the love of a mother and a father with the help of little blue and pink paper-cut visual aids and that the remodeling of the family would amount to “inequality for children” (see video below, courtesy of the Iona Institute for Religion and Society).

If that was the only reality for children from heterosexual parents, then great, at least they’d have the beginning of a sound argument. But, let’s not pull ourselves back into a debate that has already been brought to its conclusion – at least in one more country.

Despite the many many battles that still have to be won – not just for marriage equality, but for the right to live openly as an LGBTI person in countries as varied as Uganda, Russia, Greece and Saudi Arabia – let us bask in the sun  for just a few brief seconds longer. Sure enough, some distant cloud is fast approaching.

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* Oddly enough, women were off the hook, at least in terms of the written law.

** Starting from January 2015: (1) continuing to kill in the name of religion (might not be predominantly for Christianity now, but still); (2) the Yarmouk camp and the Syrian refugee crisis as a whole; (3) the perishing of thousands of migrants at sea; (4) the persecution of the Rohinga people; (5) human trafficking worldwide; (6) allowing Sepp Blatter to run for a 5th term at FIFA…

*** Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Inter-sex

Saving European basketball from obscurity: “Oh, so you’re not talking about The Voice, when you say ‘Final Four’?”

Search for “Final Four” in Google News and you’ll be hard pressed to find an entry that doesn’t reference a US lacrosse team or the four finalists of The Voice. The first mention of the Euroleague Final Four Basketball Championships, which kicked-off with the semi-finals in Madrid Friday night and culminated with a gut-wrenching final last night, only comes on the 4th page – and that’s an article dating back a few days. For fans of European basketball, however, it’s their equivalent of the NBA Playoffs; albeit with smaller-scaled European nationals playing alongside a handful of behemoths imported from the US. For everyone else, the Euroleague still remains as marginal an event as the Eurovision*.

Euroleauge Final Four Basketball Championship Final 2015

Euroleauge Final Four Basketball Championship Final 2015

If you were in Madrid, you could be fooled into thinking the Final Four is more than just a speck on the global radar. An estimated 120,000 Russian, Greek and Turkish fans cheering on CSKA Moscow, Olympiacos Piraeus, and Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul descended on the Spanish capital for the 3 day event (Real Madrid fans were lucky enough to just have to stay put and avoid the additional influx of tourists). Unlike the 2013 games in London when it was impossible to tell the city was hosting the championships until you were in the 02 arena, Madrid fully embraced the games. The city not only had sponsored festivities taking place right outside the Royal Palace, but the cup presenter was none other than the King himself.

The matches didn’t disappoint either: to pass through to the final, Olympiacos used its trademark last-ditch-attempt game play to steal the match from CSKA, 70-68, while Real Madrid overcame Fenerbahce, 96-87, with some effortless team play that surely instilled fear in the lesser confident Olympiacos fans (the more confident ones having put the onus wholly on the weak defence of Fenerbahce). As for the final itself, well that depends which side you were on. Let’s just say Real Madrid won, 78-59 and leave it at that.

There are many factors that keep European basketball in the shadow of its better-known older US brother. Aside from their smaller frames, the players’ general appearance doesn’t help their cause. Some of the league’s most talented athletes (e.g. Olympiacos’s Vassilis Spanoulis & Real Madrid’s Sergio Rodríguez) look like they would have been picked last at try-outs for their high school basketball team. Others look like they were picked for their high school team and are still playing for it. Then there’s the fans who (for the most part) throw good sportsmanship out the window in favour of good old Eurovision-style country alliance and opposition politics**: Fenerbahce fans provoked Olympiacos fans. Olympiacos fans slighted Fenerbahce fans. In the absence of a fellow former USSR team, CSKA Moscow fans remained aloof. And supporters of Real Madrid stuck it to everyone; because, let’s face it, it was a home game and they far outnumbered the rest.

Just about all sides seem to have missed the class on the benefits of positive reinforcement, choosing instead to go negative and slag off one another – in the case of the Greeks, this was either by inviting their opponents to perform acts of self-fornication or to do so unto their mothers – all the while never straying from the rhyming rule of thumb. Despite the goading on all sides, the games nonetheless remained peaceful. A feat undoubtedly owing (at least in part) to the security guards who were hired to sit with their backs to the court and stare down spectators into submissiveness for the duration of the games.

It’s obvious that the Euroleague is trying hard to follow the NBA model. Since its founding in 2000, the league has managed to hook big-name sponsors like Turkish Airlines and Citroën. They have a kiss and bongo-cam to liven the pre-show, complete with a presenter who can nail an American accent and hot cheerleaders to hype up the crowds. They’ve adopted some skewed version of the half-way line throw, which involves running from the half way line and doing a lay-up for the chance to win a signed ball, instead of making the shot for a large sum of money.  And, while it might not be Alicia Keys, they did hire gold-sprayed Bulgarian men clad in nothing but speedos to perform some astonishing (yet, unfortunate, given the costume choice) gymnastics for the half-time show. Considering the clear similarities, it’s a mystery how European basketball still trails far, far behind the NBA in both recognition and viewership. A suggestion for Berlin 2016: a “Final four at the Final Four” half-time show collaboration with The Voice might just do the trick. At the very least it will guarantee the games a higher Google search entry.

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*For readers not born and raised on the broader European continent: the Eurovision is as odd an experiment in international community building as they come. A song contest, created in 1956, which began with the goal of highlighting music from European nations (and their periphery) and ended up with the majority of contestants singing in English to pander to a larger demographic. In it’s heyday, it did propel some singers to fame, notably: Abba, Celine Dion and Julio Iglesias.

** Recall Cyprus giving full points to Greece and vice versa.