[REPOST] Self-determination is overrated

Secession is a conditional right not an absolute one

An assumption that I’ve seen come up a number of times in the debate around Scottish Independence is that Scotland or any other potential nation has a right to cecede.  While I agree that as a practical matter, Scotland probably can decide to quit the UK and deserves to have that decision respected, that is not a specific example of a general right. I explained why in a post from 2014 written in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

…[l]eaving aside the difficulty of conducting a free and fair election in a region under military occupation, even if a majority of the population in the Crimea legitimately did wish to join Russia this would not in and of itself be enough to legitimate the annexation. For good reasons international law balances the right of a people to self-determination with respect for the territorial integrity of nations.

History furnishes another of good examples of where self-determination was clearly a noxious doctrine. Perhaps most notably the South’s bid for independence during the American Civil War was justified in terms of self-determination. However, virtually everyone would now accept this demand was trumped by concerns for the territorial integrity of the US and the human rights of slaves.

One of the best expositions of the legal issues involved in questions of self determination comes from an opinion delivered in 1996 by the Canadian Supreme Court.* It was asked to deliver a judgement on whether Quebec could unilaterally secede from Canada by voting to do so in a referendum. They argued that international law gave them no such right:

“[A] right to secession only arises under the principle of self-determination of people at international law where “a people” is governed as part of a colonial empire; where “a people” is subject to alien subjugation, domination or exploitation; and possibly where “a people” is denied any meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination within the state of which it forms a part.  In other circumstances, peoples are expected to achieve self-determination within the framework of their existing state.  A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self‑determination in its internal arrangements, is entitled to maintain its territorial integrity under international law and to have that territorial integrity recognized by other states.  Quebec does not meet the threshold of a colonial people or an oppressed people, nor can it be suggested that Quebecers have been denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development.  In the circumstances, the “National Assembly, the legislature or the government of Quebec” do not enjoy a right at international law to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.”

To see why this is almost certainly the right- as opposed to merely the legally correct – position consider the Supreme Court’s Judgement on what allowing unilateral secession would do to the principles underlying the Canadian constitution:

“Quebec could not, despite a clear referendum result, purport to invoke a right of self-determination to dictate the terms of a proposed secession to the other parties to the federation.  The democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole.  Democratic rights under the Constitution cannot be divorced from constitutional obligations.  Nor, however, can the reverse proposition be accepted: the continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.  The other provinces and the federal government would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession should a clear majority of the people of Quebec choose that goal, so long as in doing so, Quebec respects the rights of others.  The negotiations that followed such a vote would address the potential act of secession as well as its possible terms should in fact secession proceed.  There would be no conclusions predetermined by law on any issue.  Negotiations would need to address the interests of the other provinces, the federal government and Quebec and indeed the rights of all Canadians both within and outside Quebec, and specifically the rights of minorities.”

This could be applied to the Crimea in a number of ways. In particular, we should be concerned about what happens to minority populations like the ethnic Ukrainians and Tartars if the province is annexed to Russia.

However, these matters are relevant far beyond the Crimea. For example, they raise questions about the validity of claims for independence by wealthy regions (such as Northern Italy or Catalonia) who resent supporting their poorer compatriots. Therefore, I have sympathy for Madrid’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the proposed referendum in Catalonia.

And while I believe that a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum should be respected, the path to independence would still require negotiation. This means that statements from the SNP about what will happen after independence need to be treated with caution. They cannot dictate the terms on which it will happen and London will have its own objectives in any negotiations.

Self-determination is just one value and it is not (and should not) be some kind of trump card. It has value when it makes democracy possible. However, it is not a valid way for groups to avoid the impact of democratic decisions that have gone against them.

Hat tip: http://opiniojuris.org/2014/03/10/ukraine-insta-symposium-crimea-ukraine-russia-self-determination-intervention-international-law/

Besides the point I made above, I’m unsure how relevant this is to a second Scottish independence referendum. To borrow a phrase from Canada’s Supreme Court justices, I don’t think Britain’s “constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority” of Scots that they wished to leave the UK. And there is no compelling rationale I can see for not respecting their wishes. Scotland is not Crimea, the Confederacy, or even Catalonia.

It does, I suppose, put Theresa May’s decision to delay any referendum until after Brexit  in a more favourable light. If the UK can theoretically block independence altogether, then it stands to reason that it can reasonably have a say in the timing of a referendum to affect it. However, I feel the case here is weak, not least because it seems to deny Scotland the remote possibility of maintaining continuous EU membership.

The folly of English Remainers backing Scottish Independence

Remainers and Scottish Nationalists may have a common enemy in Theresa May’s government. That shouldn’t make us friends.

A few years back, I was an intern at a solicitors firm.* At one point, I was sent to court to help the barrister representing one of our clients in a child protection case. It was a few days. The client was severally depressed and several of her children had already been taken into care on account of her neglect. But she kept having children, and social services was now preemptively applying for them to be taken away from her as soon as they were born. The tragedy was that she wasn’t a bad person and really did want to be a good mother. She just couldn’t manage her own life well enough to care for a child. At the conclusion of the hearing, the barrister clearly sensed that a small proportion of her heartbreak had worn off on me, and took me out for coffee. During the course of it, he made a valiant effort to convince me that family law was not always this bad, which wound up achieving the exact opposite. For example, one of his observations was that “contentious divorce cases are really nasty. They become like knife fights. By the end, both sides are usually bleeding badly”.

Unfortunately, British politics has brought the questions of divorce in the past few days. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has announced that the SNP will be seeking another independence referendum in the near future.

I regarded the prospect with alarm the last time it was put to vote and was relieved to see my nation survive. It was, therefore, much to my surprise that I found my facebook and twitter feeds filling up with comments from English friends looking to be divorced. They typically said something like: ‘I would have voted no last time, but after Brexit, I feel the Scots should now take their chance to stay in the EU’. Others have gone further and toyed with the idea of a united Ireland, or even an independent London.

At a certain level, I sympathise with this position. Brexit will hurt Scotland, like it will the rest of the UK. And Theresa May, has casually disregarded the views of the almost majority that didn’t want Brexit. Like Cameron before her, when it comes to Europe she prioritises unity in the Conservative Party over unity in the country. I can, therefore, understand a lack of emotional investment in that country on the part of remainers, both in Scotland and beyond.

However, I cannot really empathise. Despite my horror at Brexit, I find the prospect of the dismemberment of my country even worse.

That is partly an expat’s sentimentality for a distant homeland. Leaving Britain for a time has revealed to me quite how British I am. I delight in the delight Koreans and Americans  take in: our accents, our books and TV shows, and in the proudly shown selfies taken in front of our Houses of Parliament. Strikingly, in East Asia the Union Jack has become an omnipresent fashion symbol. It is plastered on clothes, pencil cases and motor bikes. And  each time I see it I smile a little. Or rather, I did. Since Sturgeon’s announcement the sight of my flag has been a melancholy one, for I know the nation it represents will likely only exist for a year or two more.

I do, of course, understand that many feel the same way about other nations. And it is similar emotions about Scotland that turn many Scots into nationalists. However, it is the English remainers that I find inexplicable. How have they concluded that the disaster of a rupture in the European Union is ameliorated, rather than compounded, by also rupturing the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom?

In the process of repudiating the Brexiteer’s delusions, this group of remainers seems set to replicate them. The process of taking the UK out of the EU is showing that a divorce is never a simple as one would hope: there will be assets to divide, arrangements to be made, and new partners to be located. Which is painful enough if both sides approach it in a practical, good faith manner. But it is the nature of divorces, as my barrister aquintance observed, to turn nasty. They can transform from a search for compromise into a battle for victory. And in the event that happens Scotland and the UK would have plenty of ways to make each other bleed.

If the attempt to extract the UK from a glorified free trade area it has belonged to for 40 years is complicated, imagine trying to break apart two countries that for ten times as long have been part of the same state. The level of integration within the UK massively exceeds that within the EU. You would have to deal with, for example, how to divide up one of the world’s most powerful armed forces, the control of physical territory, and with fiscal transfers an order of mangnitude greater than the UK’s contribution to the EU budget. The morass that Scottish independence could swiftly become far exceeds the potential challenges of Brexit.

Hence when I hear Scottish nationalists asserting that Scotland joining the EU will be a mere formality, or that there will be no border checks between Scotland and England, I also hear the echo of Brexiteer’s glibly saying that the EU will give the UK a deal because they need to sell us prosecco, or that there will be no hard border between the UK and Ireland.

Anger at one act of self-destructive nationalism should not make us into cheerleaders for another. Voting to leave the EU was a mistake, but the price the United Kingdom pays for it should not be death.

 

 

*For non-UK readers: both barristers and solicitors are types of lawyers

 

When politics happens all at once (Cable from Korea #10)

So, what on earth is happening in Korea at the moment?

Rather a lot! Indeed, developments in Korean politics seem to have conspired to happen all at once!

There are three major strands to recent events.

  • Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport. The Malaysian authorities have indicated that he was killed with VX nerve gas and North Korean agents appear to have been responsible. Malaysian nationals in North Korea have been barrred from leaving until Pyongyang is sure that everyone accused by of the murder by the Malaysians is returned ‘safely’.
  • North Korea’s nuclear program continues to agitate its neighbours. Last week it test fired four ballistic missiles. Its capabilities are developing such that, within the near future it will likely be able to target the continental US. Predictably, Washington does not like this. Just a few hours after the latest test, it announced it was accelerating its deployment to South Korea of an anti-missile system known as THAAD. That in turn has upset China, which fears that THAAD’s radar will allow the US to peer into its territory. Beijing has responded by going after Chinese companies doing business in China, and squeezing the number of Chinese tourists going to South Korea.
  • South Korea’s Supreme Court removed the country’s President, Park Geun-hye, from office for “acts that violated the Constitution and laws”, namely encouraging Samsung to pay money into charities controlled by her friend, and purported shaman, in exchange for instructing a government pension fund to vote in favour of allowing two parts of the conglomerate to merge. The news of her final downfall was met by protests both in support and opposition, the latter of which turned violent and resulted in protestors dying.

What connects all this?

I’m hesitant to say anything does. They are distinct phenomenon.

It is tempting for outsiders, to see all South Korean politics through the lense of relations with the North. But domestic factors are at least as important, and Park’s downfall was basically a South Korean affair: her corruption was exposed by other South Koreans, and produced an outcry not only because it was intrinsically objectionable, but also because Koreans had grown frustrated with declining economic opportunities.

Even though it happened thousands of miles away, Kim’s assassination was also basically about domestic politics. It was an act of dynastic housekeeping, that removed a potential rival to Kim Jong-Un, who by the law of primogeniture should have been Supreme Leader.

That said, these developments will feed into each other.

Malaysia is one of the few countries with which the North enjoyed something approaching a normal relationship. Then it used a WMD to kill someone on its territory, and is now holding its citizens hostage to escape the blowback of that decision. Which is the kind of behaviour that leaves you so isolated that you become convinced that you need to build nuclear weapons to survive.

[See also: Setting of a large bomb at one of your ally’s most important monuments]

The South Korean response to that program will probably change along with its president. Park and her conservative party not only agreed to the deployment of THAAD but also tougher sanctions and the closure of a South Korean run industrial park in North Korea. It seems highly likely that her successor will come from a left-wing party and progressive Koreans have traditionally been more sceptical of the American alliance and more willing to gamble on outreach to the North. For example, the front runner in the presidential election, Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in, has indicated that he would ask the American’s to remove THAAD from Korea.

What should I watch for now?

Principally, who becomes the next South Korean president. New elections need to happen within two months. As former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has ruled himself out as a candidate, it seems doubtful that the conservatives have anyone who can stop Moon. Plus, it appears that the right will be divided between pro- and anti-Park parties. It is therefore quite likely that the main obstacle to Moon’s ascension will come in his own party’s primary. If Ahn Hee-jung, a centrist governor who is more equivocal on THAAD, bests him then expect relief in Washington and disappointment in Beijing.

Pyongyang would probably also favour a liberal government in Seoul. So, it will be interesting to see if they act to avoid undermining Moon’s chances. For example, there are indications that the North is preparing for another nuclear test. If it carries it out before the election, then that would indicate that the North either isn’t interested in the party politics of the South, sees its interests differently from how we do, or that the timings of tests are driven by technical rather than strategic considerations.

If Moon or another left-winger wins then relations with Washington are potentially tricky. Trump has previously indicated that he has doubts about the value of the US-ROK alliance. He’s since rode back from that position and its clear that people like his Defence Secretary, James Mattiss, do think that working with Seoul is to America’s benefit. However, I fear that a new left-wing South Korean president might appear ‘insolent’ to Trump, which might bring his petulance to the fore, and could trigger an anti-US backlash in South Korea.

A victory for Moon or another progressive candidate would go against what appears to be the global trend for left leaning parties to struggle. Indeed, combine a Moon victory with Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote in the US, Macron becoming French president, Geert Wilders struggling in the Dutch elections and the Democratic Party retaining power in Italy – all of which seem plausible – then the very existence of the trend would look dubious.

That said the anti-Park movement has been a very populist one, drawing on opposition to the political power of large corporations, so the observation that we are in an age of populism seems vindicated by these events.

Indeed, the often voiced populist demand for politicians and corporate execs to be locked up for their misdemeanours may well come to pass in Korea. Park no longer enjoys presidential immunity, so I would expect charges to be brought against her. Many of her associates have already been indicted. Perhaps more importantly will be the trial of Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung. The conglomerate is the third largest company in the world by revenue, which is a huge deal in a medium-sized economy like South Korea’s, but given the global reach of Samsung’s activities would matter well beyond the Korean peninsula.

 

The case against Chinese Democracy is bogus

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The Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing (Credit: そらみみ)

Why isn’t China a democracy? And why do many Chinese people not want it to become one?

In the West where (openly) questioning the merits of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ is a taboo, we don’t often consider such questions.

When we do, we tend to focus on the purported superiority of technocracy. But my sense is that China’s communists find a different argument more compelling. This one focuses less on the strengths of their system, than the perils of adopting ours.

It is expressed well by the journalist Tim Marshall in his book ‘Prisoners of Geography‘. It examines how physical features like mountains, deserts, seas and the like drive foreign policy questions. In the chapter on China, he considers how its geography arguably necessitates China (or rather its government) to take apparently aggressive actions to protect its security. For example, its territorial waters do not give it a route to the open ocean that could not be cut off by the Americans and Japanese. So, it grabs islands outside this potential noose; the protestations of the Fillipinos and Vietnamese that the territory is their’s be damned.

More relevantly, for the discussion at hand, it concludes that it must retain control of its restive border regions. Tibetan independence might be nice for the Tibetans but it would be problematic for China. If Tibet is in Chinese hands then the Himalayas separate the Indian and Chinese militaries from each other. That makes a large-scale land war between the world’s two most populous countries virtually impossible. Which is just as well because they both claim parts of the other’s territory. Seen from Beijing, a free Tibet looks a lot like a potential route for a rival superpower into the Chinese heartland.

Marshall explains how these concerns foreign policy concerns affect assessment of China’s internal politics.

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Such arguments can have greater merit than western liberals like me wish to admit. There are nations whose populations are so disparate, that a strong state is all that holds them together. Consider, for example, what happened to Yugoslavia in 1990s. A communist autocrat, Marshall Tito, held together federation of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians and Slovenes. However, when both Tito and European communism died within a few years of each other, the regime fell. Democratic elections were held that brought to power nationalist politicians, who broke Yugoslavia up into its constituent parts. Those nationalisms pulled the nation apart. This was not to clean separation but a violent dismembering. The newly independent republics grappled for territory, and often asserted control over it with brutal campaigns of ‘ethnic cleansing’. By the time the fighting subsided, one hundred and forty thousand people were dead, and four million were displaced.

This kind of argument does also get made for countries like: Afghanistan, Congo and Iraq.

However, its relevance to China is limited, which is not a fragile nation created in modern times by a colonial power or nationalist ideologues. Rather it is a genuine nation-state anchored in two millenia of history.  It has not always had the same borders as the modern-day PRC but something recognisable as China has existed for more than two millenia. It is, therefore, not plausiable that its existence depends on the Communist Party, which has existed for less than a century.

This deep heritage has gifted China, a unified national culture that woud be very hard to pull apart. For all that the Communist Party worries about restless minorities, the Chinese population is actually pretty homogenous. More than 90% of Chinese are from the majority Han. By contrast, the Tibetans and the Uighurs that so alarm the Party amount for barely 1% of the population. And the government is making a conscious effort to ensure that they become a minority even in Tibet and Xinjiang, and is encouraging the Han to move there. China also has a national lingua franca: Mandarin. A clear majority of Chinese speak it, and most of the other languages spoken in China are indistinguishable from Mandarin when written. Furthermore, China is one of the most secular countries in the world, so religion seems unlikely to become a focal point for sectarian divisions. In short, while there are real divisions in Chinese society, between rich and poor, and in particular between rich and poor regions, they seem unlikely to become the kind of intractable cleavages that destroyed Syria and Yugoslavia. Rather they are involve the kind of issues over which democracies can and do mediate their way to solutions.

Indeed, we might wonder if the Communist Party’s insistence on autocracy is promoting division rather than unity. Its interference in Hong Kong’s affairs – including kidnapping dissidents from within the city – has conjured a separatist movement into existence in the majority Han city. And the PRC’s autocracy does much to discredit the notion of reunification in Taiwanese eyes.

More broadly, it is hard to see an argument for why democracy could not work in China. As we’ve seen fears that a democratic China would be torn apart by internal divisions are disproportionate to the actual divisions within the country. The contention that political liberty would somehow turn toxic in the atmospher of Chinese culture, is flatly contradicted by Taiwan’s succesful transition to democracy. And the Chinese people are increasingly affluent and well-educated, both of which are factors associated with sustaining democratic government. Indeed, there are many example of open political systems operating succesfully in countries that are poorer and less united than China. Take, for example, India. It has maintained a democracy for sixty years, and in that time has gained rather than lost territory.

The upshot of this, is that if the Communist Party wishes to justify its continued rule, it has to make a positive case for autocracy. If it wishes to take away the Chinese people’s freedom, it has to give something back other than protection from phantom threats of national disintegration.

Democracy Dies in Darkness: Spotlight and the Trump Presidency

When it won the Best Picture Oscar a year ago, Spotlight’s message about journalism seemed important. With Trump in the White House, it is essential.

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Last year’s Oscar winner

It is hard to feel sorry for a film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, was nominated for four others and grossed $90 million. However, a year after Spotlight surprised many by winning the most prestigious Academy Award, it is hard not to think it arrived just a little too early to be truly appreciated.

It tells the story of a team of journalists investigating one of the largest criminal cover-ups in American history. For decades, Catholic priests in Boston abused children. Confronted with this fact, the church hierarchy acted not to protect the victims but the perpetrators. It used its enormous informal influence in the city to keep allegations away from both the criminal justice system and explicit public attention. But Spotlight’s real focus is not on the priests or the church. Rather it is on the city of Boston itself. The film’s contention seems to be that abuse was widespread that most Bostonians knew it was happening. But it was easier to tacitly accept it, than to face the fact that a key ingredient of the social glue holding the city together, was in fact toxic to children. At one point a character opines that: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Even some of the journalists shown acting heroically to uncover the scandal, are shown to have been willing to partake in this silence, until pushed to confront that truth. That push comes, perhaps inevitably, from outsiders. Thus, in a film that is in large part about Catholicism, key narrative roles are played by non-Catholics. There is Mitchell Garbidian, an Armenian-American litigation lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, who specialises in representing victims of clerical sexual abuse, and who keeps trying to raise the alarm about quite how many clients he has. But most compellingly there is Marty Baron.

Though Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were nominated for Oscars for their performances, the best performance in the film comes from Liev Schreiber as Baron. The real Baron grew up in Florida, the son of immigrants from Israel. He worked at a number of America’s most prestigious newspapers before returning to Florida, to edit the Miami Herald, before moving to Boston in 2001 to do the same job for the Globe.

Spotlight repeatedly underlines the importance of his status as a Jew in a Catholic city. From his trying to learn about the city’s baseball team from a book, to his being handed a Catechism by Archbishop Law, the film’s ‘big bad’. On multiple occasions native Bostonians at the Globe are leaned on by Diocesan officials to convey to Baron that the digging he has instigated is not ‘how things are done round here’. Yet it is precisely because he is not invested in the city and its dominant religious institution, that he understands that something untoward is occurring. It is he, who forces his journalists to investigate the abuse allegations, and to focus on the church rather than individual priests.

The revelations that resulted would force Archbishop Law to resign, provoke institutions well beyond the Catholic Church into taking stronger measures to protect children, and end much of the deference previously showed towards the Church. It would also win Baron and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact and fiction

Writing about seeing himself on the screen, Baron wrote that:

Liev Schreiber portrays me as the newly arrived top editor who launched that investigation, and his depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar.

But he also saw a broader significance in the film’s depiction not of him but of his profession:

Aside from the acclaim of critics, “Spotlight” already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled “scum.”

One journalist wrote me that “the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way.”

A reporter for a major national publication said he had gone to the movie with his entire family. “My kids suddenly think I’m cool,” he said.

Especially heartening has been the reaction of some publishers. One in California rented a theater to show the movie to the paper’s entire staff. Another wrote me on Facebook: “You and the Spotlight team . . . have reenergized me to find a business model to support this critical work.”

Cut to the present

Marty Baron is no longer at the Boston Globe. Since 2012 he has edited an even more august publication: the Washington Post. That has made him an important player in the unsettling confrontation between the media and President Trump.

The print publication that Trump appears to have the most animosity towards is the New York Times. However, it is arguably Baron’s journalists who’ve unearthed the most damaging revelations about the new president.

A staff reporter named David Farenthold revealed that despite Trump claiming to be a generous donor to charity, he actually gave hardly anything away. Most of the money possessed by his charitable foundation was donated by other people, and that was frequently used not for charitable purposes but to enrich Trump. For example, to pay out of court settlements arising from the misdemeanours of Trump’s businesses.

Then Farenthold also got hold of the so-called ‘Access Hollywood tape’ in which Trump makes a succession of crass comments about women, including that being famous allowed him to ‘grab them by the pussy’, which was interpreted by many people, including me, as an admission of committing sexual assault.

Most recently, it was Post reporters who revealed that Trump had been warned that his National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, had been communicating with Russian diplomats. Something the administration had previously denied.

This has naturally not escaped Trump’s attention. His ire appears to be directed not at Baron but at Jeff Bezos, the Post’s owner and a co-founder of Amazon. Before the election, he complained about “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” the Post was writing and warned that he might take his revenge on Bezos by going after Amazon. At one point saying: “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems” and intimating that he might target Amazon for tax and anti-trust investigations.

Shooting the messenger

At a conference in 2002, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a future US Ambassador to the Vatican would proclaim that: “…if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

You see, the tendency to deride good reporting that you find inconvenient as ‘fake news’ is not new.

For almost a century journalists have been reciting variants of the saying that “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” One such variation replaces the word ‘advertising’ with ‘public relations’. And as Mark Harris of Vulture has written because Trump’s interaction with the media has primarily been in the context of the entertainment industry, he’s primed to thinking that journalists should indeed act like publicists:

Every entertainment journalist will, sooner or later, be told by a PR representative, “Hey, we’re all in the same business here.” For the journalists and quasi-journalists Trump encountered during his decade-long run as The Apprentice’s star and co-producer, that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Trump thought they needed him more than he needed them, and believed that if they stepped out of line or off of the publicity game plan, he could punish them by cutting them off. And the evidence he chose to see backed him up. For proof, you have only to think back to the perfectly titled Access Hollywood and ask yourself what put Trump on that bus in the first place and allowed him to talk so freely. The answer: It was a safe space, a faux-journalistic enterprise produced by NBC, the network that aired The Apprentice, in which different house rules prevailed. The “interview” was a publicity segment, the “journalist” was a douchey wingman, the actress unwittingly roped into being their tour guide was a performer on Days of Our Lives, an NBC daytime soap on which Trump was about to do a cameo, which would help Days of Our Lives, which would help The Apprentice, which would help Access Hollywood. Hey, we’re all in the same business here.”

This is Trump’s understanding of journalism; it’s the bubble in which he lived for the decade before his campaign began, and it shocks and enrages him when journalism decides to be something other than flattery-for-access.

The result Harris argues is that real journalism of the kind done by the Boston Globe or the Washington Post looks to him like bad journalism. He complains that it is not only ‘fake’ but also ‘nasty’ and bemoans that it relies on leaks of confidential information. He has also accused the media of representing ‘special interests’ rather than ‘the people’.

Baron has suggested that, in this context:

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Renewed relevance

It is, therefore, regrettable that Spotlight came out last year rather than now. Many of this year’s nominees can be seen as gaining relevancy from Trump presidency. But broadly speaking, they do so with a general message about tolerance of minorities. Spotlight appears inadvertently much more specifically directed at our present moment.

At the time of its Oscar triumph, Spotlight’s message was considered worthy but not controversial. Objecting to the value of investigative journalism would have seemed as silly as attacking helping the unlucky or striving against the odds. Now it is a divisive political issue. The President’s chief strategist has openly questioned the right of the media to investigate his boss and said the media should ‘keep its mouth shut‘.

Spotlight is a great dramatisation of the case for why this must be challenged with the utmost intensity. A tale of journalists breaking a story, based in part on leaks of confidential information,  about the wrong doing of people in power, that must have seemed ‘nasty’ to those powerful people, who disparage it as ‘false’ even though the carefully assembled evidence shows it is true, is something we could really do with seeing on the screen right now.

Baron recently authorised a change in the Post’s masthead. Underneath the paper’s title now sit the words ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.  Spotlight dramatises the truth of that sentiment for its audience. It illustrates that only by having powerful people asked awkward and potentially ‘nasty’ questions, can those with less power be protected from having ‘nasty’ things done to them.

There will always be men like President Trump and Archbishop Law. Let us hope there will remain journalists with the freedom to investigate them.

Cable from Korea #7: The fall of the house of Park

The ‘shaman’ scandal that brought down President Park Geun-hye illustrates many of the weaknesses of Korean society but also the vitality of its democracy.

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Teddy Crosshttps://www.flickr.com/photos/tkazec/30021968224/

The competition for strangest political story of 2016 is a tough: Donald Trump is now leader of the free world, the Prime Minister of India decided to nullify the value of close to 90% of the Rupee notes in circulation and the leader of the famously Catholic Philippines is now a guy who called Pope Francis a ‘son of a whore’.  However, the ‘prize’ probably goes to South Korean president Park Geun-Hye being impeached for abusing her office to benefit her shaman.

Ms Park gave this shaman, a woman by the name of Choi Soon-Sil, access to classified briefing materials including, it appears, some relating to North Korea. In addition, Choi ran charitable foundations and leveraged her connection to the president to get donations from a succession of large Korean companies including Samsung and Hyundai. Choi then embezzled from these foundations. In response to the discovery of these improprieties, the Korean parliament impeached her and as of Friday the prime minister has taken over as acting president. The Constitutional Court could still reinstate her but that seems unlikely.

The best and most evocative account of this truly bizarre scandal comes from Ask a Korean. I’d seriously recommend you go away and read it. It’s one of the best pieces of political writing I’ve seen this year. It captures not only the strange details of the case – like Choi’s personal trainer being appointed as presidential aide – bust also why a Korean public rather inured to accusations of corruption by their politicians have turned on Park so decisively. In addition, it shows real empathy for Ms Park.

At the root of her present predicament is that she lost a parent to an assassin’s bullet not once but twice.

Her father is probably the most divisive figure in modern Korean history. He became leader of South Korea shortly after the horror of the invasion by the North. His rule lasted for almost two decades. At the beginning the country was devastated by war, vulnerable to another invasion and poorer than the average sub-Saharan country. By the end, its economy had pulled ahead of the North’s and it was well on the way to becoming the modern affluent country it is today. However, the elder Park was also a military strongman responsible for many human rights abuses. He was eventually killed by his own intelligence chief whilst contemplating an even more intense crackdown on democratic activity.

However, it is the slaying of Park’s mother five years prior to these events that is most directly relevant to her relationship with Choi Soon Sil. A North Korean sympathiser attempted to kill General Park whilst he gave a speech to commemorate Korea’s Independence Day but he botched the attack and having been wounded by the president’s security team, began shooting wildly. One of these shots struck and killed Park’s mother.  It is at this point that Choi’s family enters the story. Her father might (generously) be described as a ‘religious entrepreneur’. He approached the distraught Park telling her that he was able to communicate with her mother. This seems to have led to Park becoming emotionally dependent on him and then when he passed away on his daughter. Given this situation it is hard not to see Park as a victim as well as perpetrator, and the Chois as vultures feeding off Park’s pain for their personal gain.

However, notwithstanding her personal tragedy, she’s clearly done more than enough to justify her impeachment and has few defenders. I live in the region that is the bastion of her conservative Saenuri party. Despite this few of my Korean friends and acquaintances have been willing to speak in her defence and none has been prepared to do so with any enthusiasm. The far more common response has been a mixture of fury and, when forced to discuss it with a foreigner, acute embarrassment.

Which is no small matter in Korea. I am wary of pseudo-anthological generalisations about national cultures, but I do feel comfortable asserting that Korean society places a real premium on maintaining ‘face’ and a deep sense of shame generally results when this is not possible. This seems to apply not only to individuals but also to the nation as a whole, which apparently requires a large amount of validation by the rest of the world. The government spends large sums of money promoting its culture abroad. The global success of K-pop and K-drama is both a source of great pride and the product of deliberate marketing by both private and public sectors. Within the country itself, one of the pre-eminent measures of one’s social standing is your aptitude for English. For example, even businesses that have few, if any, non-Korean customers still plaster their store fronts with English signs to demonstrate their sophistication. One result of this is that billions of dollars are spent on English education, much of which goes on bringing foreigners like me over from the west to teach in the country to share our cultural capital with young Koreans.

In this climate, it is considered to Ms Park’s considerable discredit that she has exposed so many of the flaws of Korean society to global attention. For weeks now, the world’s media has been interrogating the high levels of political corruption, the prevalence of pseudo-Christian cults, the overweening power of a few huge conglomerates and their intermeshing with the government, and even the national fixation on educational credentials for the roots of Ms Choi’s unmasking lay in her attempts to get her unqualified daughter into an elite university demonstrating, as Ask a Korean says that “If there is one thing that Koreans cared [about] more than their lives, it is their (and their children’s) college degree.” This worldwide airing of their dirty linen has clearly been painful for Koreans. The disposition they frequently adopt when talking about the scandal is to stare down at the floor or table, put their hands to their temple as if trying to hide their face, and repeat the mantra: “shameful, so shameful”.

If the antics of Ms Park and Ms Choi have not exactly been a great advert for South Korea, the crisis they’ve begat has paradoxically demonstrated the durability and maturity of its democracy. A few months ago, even eminent and sensible western publications were publishing pieces with headlines like: Is South Korea Regressing Into a Dictatorship?and to note that “President Park Geun-hye is squelching protests, suing journalists, and jailing opposition politicians.” Events have obviously shown this to be a misplaced fear. But it is not simply that the scandal came along and stopped dead a shift to authoritarianism. Rather the response has shown such a shift was always high unlikely. The Korean public is clearly willing to fight for good government. The anti-Park protests that made her impeachment an inevitability were enormous, at their peak including over two million people or almost 5% of the Korean population. Not only were they peaceful but so well organised and disciplined that the protestors arranged to clean up their own litter.

Media and prosecutors sometimes assumed to be supine and unwilling to challenge the country’s elites have swung into action. Saenuri law makers have shown acted in both the nation’s and their own interests, and backed the impeachment. A major political convulsion appears to have passed without a major impact on the day to day running of government or lasting damage to financial markets. More broadly, the decline in support for democratic values seen amongst western electorates, appears to not to have affected their Korean counterparts.

So not only is Ms Park’s presidency over but so is the system of government her family name represents. Korea still faces real challenges, most obviously North Korea but also an aging population, a disaffected youth and economic model that has probably outlived its usefulness. South Korea will need to make tough decisions about its future. But I’m confident it will make them democratically.

‘Choigate’ may have been lurid, it may have been painful for Korea and it may have served as a showcase for many of its worse aspects but the nation has dealt with this once in a generation crisis like a mature democracy should. Which leads me to believe that democracy is in better shape in South Korea than it is in the bulk of the West.

 

 

*I don’t know if former Korean presidents retain their titles like American ones do. Under the circumstances, I am disinclined to grant Ms Park an honorific unless I am sure she deserves it.

Why Luddism Protects Democracy

Two pieces of technology allow voters to cast their ballots reliably and securely. They are both hundreds of years old and begin with the letter ‘p’

The story goes that during the space race the Americans spent millions of dollars on pens that would work in zero gravity, whilst the Russians gave their astronauts pencils. This is actually an urban legend: both of the rival superpowers started out using pencils before concluding they were a fire hazard and switching to some form of specially designed pen. But true or not the merit that tale has been on my mind because I’ve been mulling the merits of the humble pencil.

The catalyst for this is Jill Stein. Having shown precious little interest in stopping Donald Trump before the election, the Green Party presidential candidate has raised large amounts of money to petition for recounts that aim to show that he did not in fact win a number of swing states. Which if nothing else prompted one of my favourite tweets of the entire election season:

The basis for Stein’s action seems to be the claim by some tech experts and election lawyers that in a number of swing states Clinton performed worse in counties that used electronic voting than those that stuck with physical ballots.

This notion is lent credence by the fact that during the election campaign someone – probably linked to the Russian intelligence services – was carrying out hacks designed to hurt the Clinton campaign. There is no reason to rule out the possibility they would have continued once polling day itself came around.

While all of this is true, it almost certainly doesn’t indicate fraud. When two journalists at FiveThirtyEight,  and , looked at the gap between Clinton’s vote in counties with different voting methods they found that the disparity was likely the result of demographics rather than manipulation. You would expect the counties that used electronic voting to lean Trump anyway as they were whiter and populated by fewer graduates. In addition, the states in question are all in the midwest and Trump seems to have gained ground across that region and not only in states like that still use paper ballots exclusively. In short, there does not appear to be a mystery for which the manipulation of electronic voting systems might be an explanation.

Whilst it may not have happened this time, the use of electronic voting machines leaves American elections vulnerable to fraud. As this video by the tech journalist Tom Scott illustrates, it is practically impossible to secure such machines.

This is not to say that an election conducted with paper ballots can never be fraudulently swayed. Being involved in British politics gave me direct experience of that. During the first election campaign I ever played a decent sized role in, my side spent a lot of time trying to work out if our Labour opponents were casting fraudulent postal votes. We believed – and the police appeared to agree – this had happened in the previous election. But there was no repeat. In the intervening period, a new law had been introduced requiring voters to include a signature and D.O.B on both their application to vote by post and a form that was posted back along with the ballot. This simple step proved sufficient to mostly end abuse of this voting method. And even at its height postal vote fraud in the UK – to my knowledge – only affected local elections. Even under a system lax enough to draw criticism from international democracy watchdogs, getting hold of enough physical ballot papers to influence a parliamentary election without getting caught proved too difficult for potential fraudsters. Imagine, therefore, how difficult it would be to manipulate an election in American states that have a population in the millions.

Once you dispense with physical ballots and record votes only as data, these logistical impediments to fraud fall away. As Scott says:

once you have electronic voting, it can take as much effort to change a million votes as it does one.

But the problem with electronic voting is not only that it makes fraud possible. It also makes it impossible to disprove fraud. You cannot do a recount because there is nothing to recount. The kind of exercise that Bialik and Arthur conducted depends on their being counties and states that don’t use electronic voting in order to compare with the places that do. And even then, the two authors are forced to admit:

It’s possible nonetheless that the election was hacked, in the sense that anything is possible. (And the best hackers are experts in erasing their tracks.) Maybe hackers knew which control variables we’d look at and manipulated the vote in a way that it would look like it was caused by race, education and population driving different voting preferences. Maybe hackers didn’t manipulate the share of votes in individual counties, but rather the turnout, increasing the number of votes in counties likely to favor one candidate or another.

In this context, there is no justification for the use of electronic voting. It may get you results faster but that’s not worth it if the result at the end may have been tampered with. Even if it hasn’t been then the possibility that it might have been is corrosive of trust in the democratic process and a threat to the peaceful transfer of power.

So please Americans go back to paper and pencils. Not only is that more secure but also more reliable. Maintaining a system based around some of the most common items in the world is easy compared to maintaining machines. If a pencil breaks, you do not need an engineer to fix it. If you run out of them, then someone with no training on their first day at work is quite capable of going to Staples and buying some replacements. And because pencils and paper cost next to nothing they can be replaced as and when needed. By contrast, buying new machines is expensive so many electoral authorities put it off. Do this long enough and you wind up in the situation of Pennsylvania which on November 8th 2016 was still using touch screens:

….from the ’80s made by…companies that don’t exist anymore.

That led to fears that even if the machines weren’t hacked they might simply make errors that resulted in them recording votes incorrectly.

In addition, there’s no need to teach voters how to use pencil and paper, hence there is less chance of ‘a hanging chad‘ style fiasco.

A number of states have wound up with the weird compromise of having voters cast their ballots using machines that then produce a paper copy of the ballot. Which – to borrow a phrase from Scott – makes the voting machine into nothing more than “the world’s most expensive pencil”.

If they wish to speed up the counting process, election authorities could always bring in machines to count ballots. This is less problematic than using them to record results because there remains a physical ballot paper that can be recounted by hand if there’s a question about the machine’s accuracy.

That exception aside Luddism is the best option when it comes to election. The ubiquity of pencils and paper speaks to their versatility. There is no need to invent any special technology to enable people to vote: a perfectly good tool for the job has been around for at least 500 years.

 

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I’ve written before about why I think the dangers of voter impersonation are dramatically overstated both in the US and the UK.