The hearbreaking image of a drowned toddler on the shores of Europe reminded us all of the responsibilities towards others on this planet. Human ties towards distant ‘others’, however, have historically been loose and fickle. Only rarely do people feel closely committed to the needs and troubles of others beyond their immediate family. Distance usually decreases empathy. One of the reasons that states appeared was to deliberately overcome this innate human tendency to prioritize close relatives over strangers. If human settlements were going to work, large communal groupings required closer ties among people who did not interact daily on a face-to-face basis. To accomplish this, national groupings took on the trappings of families (the ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’, ‘homeland’) and encouraged people to imagine the state as their proxy family writ large.
However, creating states to bond national groups together had a counter-effect, it created a new category of humans: outsiders and ‘others’ who were encountered only when travel (either by explorers sent out from the homeland or migrants coming in) brought them together. Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices to help them classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated. Partly, these rules have emerged from historical experience and are particular to individual societies. For example, the European memory of the mass starvation and refugee crises following World War II has shaped the image of what a refugee is today. Ultimately, because European states had an inordinate influence on the creation of global order in the post-War era, European ideas have heavily influenced international laws. A ‘refugee’ is a classification of people distinct from a ‘migrant’ in two main ways: 1. a refugee has rights to legal process, material support, and protection in the country they are seeking asylum; and 2. a refugee has the right to not be forcibly returned to their country of origin.
Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices that help them to classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated.
However, states have jealously guarded their own rights to define someone as a citizen or to keep them out of the national family. In doing so, states have created legal categories that make no sense when applied to real humans, because states’ rights and human rights conflict.
This background helps us to understand more clearly the landscape of political arguments going on now around migrants, as well as the ways in which the rules are being interpreted and applied. It also allows us to recognize the limitations of these rules, in particular the ways in which these rules have arbitrarily divided humanity into categories that systematically de-humanize them and construct them as ‘strangers’, outside of the ‘families’ created by states. The insistence on the application of these rules by state leaders reveals their emptiness. Insisting that migrants register in the first country of arrival, that they be registered in order to apply for further transit, and that they somehow demonstrate and document that their movements are involuntary, are levers designed to ensure that they remain outside of the national family, not that they be embraced by the protections of refugee law. Insisting that the solution to the problem is to ‘solve the Syrian conflict’ or ‘eliminate ISIS’ is similarly meant to distract from the fact that migrants have already waited 4 years or longer for the world to do something to help them, and that many thousands of refugees remain in countries closer to their countries of origin in the hope that they may be able to eventually return. Some of these host countries, including Turkey, have been unwelcoming and hostile to their presence, driving them further afield to find sanctuary. The insistence that migrants be prevented from ever settling in their countries of refuge ignores the legal invocation that they not be refouled back to danger. The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
In light of these realities, it is amazing that some have now decided to re-invoke humanity and the home/family analogy, and have even opened up their homes and lives to help strangers. The defeat of the
The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
Harper government in Canada is a rebuke of a legislative program designed to reinforce categories of separation and exclusion, to invoke tribalism in the legal guise of statehood. It is understandable, if not totally forgivable, that this welcoming comes late, and that it comes only with the ever-closer proximity of the suffering of others. Maybe that’s the best that humans can do. However, states are another matter. States are created by humans to encourage the embrace of strangers into a larger family. The next step is to build on the initiatives begun by states to encourage the expansion of the national family and to begin to challenge the arbitrary categories that divide humanity up. The human willingness to challenge the separation created by distance has communicated empathy throughout the state system. What remains is to communicate this to states in the future through new laws that strengthen human ties rather than state rights.
After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another. However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy. The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth. The rise of the internet has not made it any easier. In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral. So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.
There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.
In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit. Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides. Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants: a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom. Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view. Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments. Here is another.
2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.
Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides. Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales. In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event. One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture. Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.
3. People and systems are distinct things.
Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it. Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing. People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.
4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.
Beware of the ad hominem argument. An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action. A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.
5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.
It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy. The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire. For example, some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible. Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”. Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause. Have anger, and have empathy.
6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happens when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference. Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.
7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.
Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information. Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.
8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions. Beware of manipulation.
The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke. Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.
9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources. Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.
Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting. They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.
10. Beware of appeals to authority.
Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie. People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable. However, they are also not infallible.
Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off. Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems. It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education! Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences. There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.
Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian. He declared:
“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”
Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.
This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies. Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level. Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor. The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently). As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.
The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…
I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric. Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket]. But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool? It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.
I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society. What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group. For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.
Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests. A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset. Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another. This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty. If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.
Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].
Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!) In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract. That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.
Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change. Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.
Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change. This strategy has had some success. Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”
In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction. By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing. The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints. These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views. The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.
Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.
Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.
However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated. Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations. Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.
Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests. But international relations is different. In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak. The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible. Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.
For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is: first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change. It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit. It is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change. Defection means cheating. Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.
Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies. Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.
Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions. No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price. To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.
To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence. Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change. Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.
Imagine the following: China secretly buys up gold futures in the hopes of stockpiling a war fund to fight inflation caused by US ‘quantitative easing’. If the US goes too far in trying to fund its stimulus by debasing the dollar, China triggers a crisis by buying up gold. The ultimate statement of lack of confidence in the US dollar (which is the key currency for all international trade and capital reserves) leads to a catastrophic run on the dollar and a collapse of globalization as each country tries to ‘beggar’ its neighbour with cascading tit for tat devaluations. In his book Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis, Jim Rickards presents several scenarios by which the world could come to the brink of collapse as a result of governments’ efforts to manipulate their currencies, thereby stimulating their economies at the expense of their trading partners. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine how the monetary underpinnings of globalization could easily come crashing down given the wobbliness of the top currency, the high level of US debt, and the lackluster response of the US consumer, traditionally the world’s growth engine, in recovering from the 2007 recession. Indeed, one could argue that even a much less complicated scenario might lead to crisis: what if China simply decided to use it’s so-called ‘nuclear option’ and stop buying US treasuries, triggering a cascading dive of confidence in the world’s reserve currency? What if politics really did take over economics?
The alarmism over a coming hyperinflationary crisis appears to be growing, and it’s not without some foundation. Fiscal stimulus appears to have met its match in the global system of monetary exchange, where politics and economics do not just interact, but essentially meld. However, at least some of the alarmism should be taken with a grain of salt. The calls for curbing the US fiscal deficit (quite apart from the debt) are at least in part motivated by an ideological discomfort with government’s influence on the market as well as a moral panic over Americans’ dependency and perceived complacency. This view tends to see the world as a dangerous, zero-sum place where countries await any and every opportunity to force an advantage over their competitors. However, economic competition is not exactly the same as political rivalry, and should not be equated. While it is not impossible for countries to mutually try to obliterate each other (see the Great Depression) it is not likely given the availability of much more palatable options.
It is important to remember that unlike real wars, currency wars that result in hyperinflation are not really deliberate—they result from governments’ fumbling and lack of effort to cooperate or lead rather than from single-minded plans to dominate the world. They are tragedies (or tragicomedies) rather than evils. They are not so much caused by politics as by a lack of politics. Because of the uncertain results of currency manipulation, it is a very blunt and unpredictable instrument of policy indeed. As with nuclear deterrence, mutual deterrence is more likely than not to push countries to cooperate and to head off crises before they get out of hand. Indeed, this is exactly what has been happening for the last (almost) 42 years. The players may change, but the game will remain: keep the poker face on and ensure the world continues to have a world reserve currency with some usefulness to everybody. The alternative is just too awful to contemplate.
In Egypt this past summer, former president Hosni Mubarak and former interior minister Habib El-Adly were sentenced to life in prison for complicity in the murder and attempted murder of protesters in the 2011 uprising that removed Mubarak from power. In Liberia, Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 50 years for aiding Sierra Leonean rebels who raped, maimed, and murdered tens of thousands of civilians (Harper’s Weekly Review June 4th, 2012). In March 2012, the International Criminal Court delivered a guilty verdict against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who was found guilty of the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between September 2002 and August 2003. At present, the ICC has publicly indicted 30 people, and has proceedings ongoing against 24, including against the top five members of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, including Joseph Kony, for similar crimes.
With human rights increasingly in the news, and the activities of multilateral agencies like the ICC at the forefront, it seems that two distinct pathways to criminal justice for egregious violators of human rights are now becoming evident. In the first pathway, former heads of state are held to account using the bodies of law of the country they once led. Under this pathway, the process can yield successes (as in the case of Mubarak) but it also has flaws. Judges appointed by the former leader may be reluctant to apply the rule of law, or, alternatively, too severe outcomes can actually undermine the rule of law by placing the whole process under suspicion. This is especially true if the society has a history of sectarian violence. In the latter case, for example, I’m thinking of the sham trial of Saddam Hussein following the US invasion of Iraq, which probably set back the rule of law in that country by decades and opened the door to a vicious sectarian war. It should be noted that until recently, with the establishment of the ICC as a legal body, national prosecution of such cases was, essentially, the only available route to justice.
The ICC was established to fill a gap in international human rights law that addressed some of these flaws. The gap lay between the politics of sovereignty and the universal laws of human rights. But the ICC was to be derivative of sovereign law, a supplement, and decidedly not a force for subversion or displacement of national bodies of law. Far from it. International law steps in where national law and politics fail, but fail first they must. It is through this pattern of repeated failure that the full justification and realization of the importance of the ICC to the system of sovereign law will emerge. For this reason, it is entirely wrong to criticize the ICC as toothless or helpless in the face of national power. It also entirely wrong to criticize the ICC for overstepping sovereignty The body of law upon which the ICC draws is the logical and reasonable outgrowth of sovereign law itself. For this reason, every case brought to justice by the ICC strengthens, not weakens, the force of sovereign law to protect human rights and bring violators to justice. Even though there are two pathways to justice, they are heading in the same direction, towards a world where violators will have nowhere to hide with impunity.