US rhetorical support for the Hungarian ’56 uprising got a lot of people killed by mattsteinglass
June 18, 2009, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Europe, Iran, United States

The Wall Street Journal editorial page get things backwards. (Via Hilzoy.)

Someday a future president may have to apologize to Iranians for Mr. Obama’s nonfeasance, just as Mr. Obama apologized for the Eisenhower administration’s meddling. But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves. And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference. Hungary would spend the next 33 years in the Soviet embrace.

The support of the US government for the Hungarian uprising in 1956 “could have made a difference” only if the US were prepared to invade Hungary and go to war with the USSR. The US would quickly have lost such a confrontation to the overwhelming Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe, and would have risked seeing Soviet tanks roll into Western Europe as well. The US would then have been faced with the decision of whether to launch a nuclear war. President Eisenhower made the correct — the only possible — decision, in declining to intervene in Hungary.

The error in 1956 was on the part of Radio Free Europe, in holding out to Hungarian resisters the false hope that the West would or could intervene on their behalf. It would be similarly cruel and immoral to give Iranian demonstrators the false idea that we in the democratic world can offer them anything more than our sympathy. We can’t. We will not invade Iran, and nothing else we do will have much of an effect on the behavior of a regime fighting to retain its hold on power. The demonstrators in Iran must know that they have to win the struggle for a fair election on their own, and must be prepared to face the consequences of failure. And they do know this. That is precisely what makes them so courageous. It would be stupid and irresponsible of the US to use their struggle as an occasion for ineffectual rhetorical grandstanding, and fortunately President Obama, unlike our last President, seems able to resist the temptation.


Should we ban sex-selective abortion? by mattsteinglass
June 17, 2009, 1:19 am
Filed under: Asia, Gender, United States

William Saletan “attempts a gotcha” (notes Scott Lemieux) by asking pro-choicers whether they oppose restrictions on sex-selective abortions:

Would you oppose regulation even of abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls? Because there’s increasing evidence that such abortions, which take place by the millions in Asia, are now being done by the thousands in the United States as well.

I happen to live in a country where abortion as such is unrestricted and extremely common, but where abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls are illegal. In fact, here in Vietnam, it is illegal for doctors even to inform expectant parents of the sex of their child before birth, in order to preclude such sex-selective abortions. And guess what? These regulations are completely ineffective. Doctors flout the rules, telling mothers after sonograms that “it looks like you have a butterfly” (girl) or “a bird” (boy). Widespread sex-selective abortion contributes to a clearly unbalanced sex ratio at birth. According to UNFPA, in 2008, 112 boys were born for every 100 girls, up from 110 in 2006.

Saletan cites a recent NY Times article about the apparent use of sex-selective abortions among Asian-Americans. He might have noted this point made in that very article, by a doctor who performs such abortions:

“It’s a real touchy thing,” Dr. Steinberg said. “It’s illegal in Asia, and culturally, it’s private.”

Apparently, legal restrictions on sex-selective abortion don’t work in the countries where they exist. So, yes, I would oppose regulation of abortions aimed at preventing the births of girls.

That said, however, I actually agree with Saletan that these questions are worth asking:

Should schools teach that aborting girls is wrong? Should doctors counsel couples not to do it? Should community leaders speak out against it?…What about purveyors of sex selection? Roberts notes that at least one assisted reproduction provider, the Fertility Institutes, offers sex selection and “has unabashedly advertised its services in Indian- and Chinese-language newspapers in the United States.” …The clinic’s medical director, Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, says the practice is “not harming anyone.” Is he right? Should he be allowed to continue peddling sex selection (as he does in this video) to Asian-Americans?

Yes, yes, yes, and no. The apparent high rates of abortion of girl embryos among Asian-Americans stem from the remnants of systemic prejudice against women in Asian-American culture. In the United States, we have a culture of gender equality. Our public institutions and community leaders should make it clear that aborting female embryos because they are female is wrong. And Dr. Steinberg should not be allowed to advertise the practice. To say that we should not criminalize something is not to say that people should be allowed to develop an industry around it.

What Russian literature has to teach us about Guantanamo by mattsteinglass
June 16, 2009, 1:20 am
Filed under: Human Rights and Torture, Literature, Russia, United States

With at least a few of the Uighur detainees finally enjoying their well-earned freedom in the very civilized country of Bermuda, reflecting on Guantanamo is feeling at least slightly less morbid than it did for a long time. But during my visit to Finland I got back into Russian literature a little — basically, I dropped by a bookstore and picked up a couple of recent Russian novels for the first time in years — and that has prompted me to reflect once again that the relevant literary referent for the US’s merry adventures in torture and gulags comes from the land of the ice and snow. We’ve already covered Dostoevsky. Today let’s talk Victor Pelevin.

In Helsinki, I picked up Pelevin’s latest, entitled “П5: Прощальные песни политических пигмеев пиндостана,” or “P5: Farewell songs of the political pygmies of Pindostan”. (The words for “farewell” and “song” begin with the letter P in Russian, so it’s five P-words in a row, hence the “P5”. The word for “five” also begins with P, extending the alliteration.) The book’s cover is fantastic — on the front, two kitschy fat-faced Chinese manga fairies in Disneyfied Central Asian outfits are embossed in red plastic and gold glitter; on the back is an image of a dead Teletubby with a bullet hole in his forehead, surrounded by a Hallmark wreath (again embossed with gold glitter) and the English legend “Forever Young”. The back cover boasts a banner line (in Russian) “The truth of life in every word!†”, while the cross — a cross, one notes, not an asterisk, with reference to the oleaginous ubiquity of Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Russia — sends us to a footnote at the bottom of the back cover: “This guarantee extends to each word, but does not apply to combinations of words in quantities of two or more, irrespective of parts of speech, components of sentences…” etc.

So far I’m still on Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Singing Karyatids,” which concerns a girl named Lena who is recruited with 11 others to stand for days at a time completely naked, stock-still, and covered with a green paste that makes them appear to be made of malachite, posing as a “karyatid” (the Greek female figures who hold up roofs in the neo-classical eclectic architecture that proliferated in Russia in the late 1800s) in a bunker 300 meters beneath Moscow, waiting for participants in orgies to ask them to sing or otherwise put them to use. Lena and the other girls are aided in this endeavor by doses of a muscle-freezing formula created by Soviet scientists in the 1980s to help snipers remain absolutely still. They are initially recruited by a fat cigar-smoking sleazeball named “Uncle Petya”, who then presents them for an inspirational speech by the real boss, a smooth and clean-cut athletic man in a dark grey suit, a “grey cardinal” (apparently in the KGB or FSB), who explains to them that their mission involves the national defense, and that “despite the superficial…ambiguity, shall we say, of your work, it is every bit as important as that of the sailors of the submarines that carry our country’s nuclear shield. Perhaps even more important — because war today is not what it was half a century ago, and is carried out with completely different means.”

I probably should have written the above paragraph the other way around, because what’s spectacular in Pelevin’s work here, as in his early novel “Omon-Ra”, is the bitter and hilarious contrast between patriotic ideological rhetoric and high technological jargon, and the humiliating and disgusting everyday reality of the human service activities undertaken in the service of these high goals and supposedly sophisticated machinery. In “Omon-Ra”, the hero is recruited into the Soviet unmanned space program only to find that it is not in fact unmanned, and that human volunteers are required to carry out the functions supposedly performed by robots before dying in the vacuum of space. In P5, the reader is equally gob-smacked and horrified both by the atavistic language of patriotic militarism employed by the “grey cardinal” and by the alternating tedium and exuberant sexual degradation of Lena’s actual work. Lena herself, seemingly, couldn’t care less about either one; she is utterly devoid of illusions about the nature of society and is happy to accept any legitimation for work that will earn her good money. The power of the writing comes from the contrast of the “grey cardinal’s” language — “it is a tremendous responsibility, but also a great honor” — and the comic treatment of Lena’s absurd work regimen, standing naked in an underground room, waiting for perversion.

So: Guantanamo. What was the language that echoed in those soldiers’ and interrogators’ heads, when they enlisted? What did they think they would be doing? Defending the nation from nihilistic murderers? Saving innocents? Fighting for democracy? Did they imagine they’d end up doing this by inserting a spider into a cardboard box in which a naked man was confined? By smearing ketchup on someone and pretending it was menstrual blood? By placing their underwear on his head? How did the rhetoric of justice spin itself down to these acts of petty, tedious, absurd cruelty?

It’s always been the Russians’ peculiar fortune to be able more quickly to perceive the gaps between the ideology we create to justify Western society, and the actual activities that constitute that society. In part that’s because in Russia, Western ideology has never fit well, and has tended to quickly collapse or be spun into a caricature of itself. In Russia, the “Washington consensus” rhetoric of privatization and the free market was warped into the absurdities of the oligarchs, just as the Marxist rhetoric of an earlier generation had been warped into the absurdities of Stalin’s show trials. The width of the gap between ideology and reality in Russia fueled the genius of Dostoevsky and, now, Pelevin. Unfortunately, the Russians seem to be so quick to perceive the absurdities of such ideologies that they are unable to take political principles seriously, and they repeatedly end up with societies in which a thin overlay of cynical ideology masks a politics and economy of pure unprincipled force.

That said, Victor Pelevin is fantastic, and everyone should read him.

Democracy vs. technocracy in Washington and Beijing by mattsteinglass
June 5, 2009, 9:46 am
Filed under: Asia, China, democracy, United States

I’m about to travel to Helsinki to discuss freedom of the press with a couple of excellent and eminent Chinese journalists. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of progress towards democracy in East Asia and whether or not it’s really happening, or whether it’s actually something else that’s happening. And on this anniversary of the crushing of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen 20 years ago, it seems apt to talk about what’s happening with Medicare.

Wha…? Bear with me. Ezra Klein and a number of others have been talking recently about an Obama Administration initiative to take Medicare policy making away from Congress and give it to MedPAC, basically a technocratic commission that’s been around making smart recommendations for over a decade but has no power to implement the changes it recommends. In his initial post on the subject, Klein wrote this:

Medicare payment policy is too technical for the Congress. There aren’t five senators with an informed opinion on the “equipment use standard” for imaging machines, much less 50, and much less 100.

That’s undoubtedly true. More generally, health care policy is one of any number of areas in the US where urgently needed policy changes are being paralyzed by…well, basically, by democracy. When Asians of a certain ideological cast say they don’t want multiparty representative democracy, or don’t want “too much” multiparty democracy, and so forth, this is exactly the argument they use. How can legislators be expected to understand complicated regulatory issues thoroughly? How can the public be expected to understand them at all? Why should we set policy by empowering political demagogues to form parties that struggle over power using different policy positions as cheap rhetorical weapons? Can this really be the best way to chart the course of government? Doesn’t policy and governance wind up overwhelmed by the vicious, noisy, potentially violent struggle for power? Or paralyzed by factional warfare?

The MedPAC proposal, the increasing importance of the Federal Reserve in making and implementing economic policy, the looming bankruptcy of California due to populist referendums and political polarization, the abdication of Congress from questions of national “defense” and war-making, the apparent political impossibility of cutting carbon emissions enough to avoid climatological disaster…all of these are evidence that governance in the 21st century is posing problems that electoral democracy is hard-pressed to solve. When Asians think about multiparty competitive democracy, they may increasingly draw a contrast not between the US and the USSR — the contrast still assumed by many Americans — but between, say, China and Thailand. The challenge posed by the success of technocratic elite governance in China and Singapore is the possibility that government in the current era may increasingly demand not more democracy, but less.

It’s possible that this thesis is completely wrong. Perhaps it’s still true that responsibility towards one’s citizens through multiparty elections is the best or only guarantee of good governance. But then again, maybe not.

So that’s what I’m thinking about as I head to Helsinki.

IP in the developing world by mattsteinglass
June 4, 2009, 3:19 pm
Filed under: Development, Law, United States, Vietnam

Matthew Yglesias and Megan McArdle find a rare point of agreement in opposing the extension of copyright law to time periods long after the death of the author, where the only goal is rent-seeking behavior by big corporations that want to make more money off of their government-created monopoly.

As it happens this issue is live this morning in Hanoi, with representatives of the US Trade Representative’s office meeting with Vietnamese officials to discuss enforcement of IP law. One issue is recent opposition in the Vietnamese National Assembly to a 75-year copyright term. The deal is, the Berne Convention only requires a 50-year term of copyright for certain works (notably movies and sound recordings). But the terms of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), signed in 2000, demand a 75-year term. Vietnam is in the process of amending its IP legislation, and several representatives in the Assembly pointed out Monday that having a longer term of copyright doesn’t seem to serve Vietnam’s interests.

The arguments made by the representatives were a bit confused, but they’re essentially right: the main beneficiaries of the longer term would be foreign media corporations like Disney and Warner, who could continue to demand royalties on properties like “Bambi” and “Twist and Shout”* that would otherwise be in the public domain now, or within a few years. There are no Vietnamese likely to benefit from 75-year copyright terms at the moment with the possible exception of the heirs of ’60s folk-pop musician Trinh Cong Son.

But in actual fact, all of this debate is rather pointless, because IP law simply isn’t enforced in Vietnam. I talked to a US Embassy official today who was in the talks, and he said whatever was said in the National Assembly seems to be irrelevant. First of all, the terms of Vietnamese legislation probably can’t invalidate the terms of the BTA and Vietnam’s WTO commitments. But more important, the discussions this morning focused entirely on beefing up enforcement of existing IP law. The piracy rate for software in Vietnam is falling — from over 90% down to a current rate of 85%. The piracy rate for DVDs and CDs is still well over 90%. (I’d make a rough guess at something like 98% for DVDs.) Discussions of the consequences of different IP regimes in the developing world still seem largely theoretical and irrelevant, because where enforcement doesn’t exist, copyright doesn’t exist.


* Under EU and Berne rules, the performance rights on the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout” will expire 50 years after its recording, i.e. in 2013. That means you could use the song as the soundtrack to a TV commercial without paying anything to Paul McCartney. The rights to the underlying composition will last longer. Bertrand Berns, who co-wrote “Twist and Shout”, died in 1967. Under Berne rules his half of the royalties would lapse in 2017, but the EU now sets copyright term at 70 years from the death of the author, which would be 2037. The other composer, Phil Medley, died in 1997, so even under Berne rules his heirs will still be living it up “About A Boy”-style in 2047. I don’t want to deal with what the US terms of copyright will be — I’ve wasted enough time looking this up already.

He can’t be the first black president anymore by mattsteinglass
June 3, 2009, 5:31 pm
Filed under: President, United States

Mark Kleiman comes back wowed from hearing Cory Booker speak, and says he’d already heard that Booker was “Newark’s Barack Obama”. But I remember a NYT Magazine profile of Booker in the late ’90s, I believe, that said people were saying he could be America’s first black president — well before anybody outside Chicago had ever heard of Barack Obama. Which is interesting because it reminds us that there was a wellspring of interest in that project that wasn’t yet attached to a particular personality. Obama is a political giant, but the place he moved into in the national conscious — like the place of the smart liberal good ol’ boy that Bill Clinton and later John Edwards moved into — was a place people were looking for someone to fill.

Not our Van Gogh by mattsteinglass
June 2, 2009, 2:54 am
Filed under: Religion, Terrorism, United States

Not to be pedantic, but Dr. George Tiller is not “our (Theo) Van Gogh”, as a commentor writes to Andrew Sullivan. Theo Van Gogh was an obnoxious, deliberately provocative lout who called Muslims “goat-fuckers” and milked anti-Muslim sentiment for television ratings. He was at times extremely funny, but if he were working in the US he would have been kicked off the air for racism and bigotry in five minutes. He wasn’t a one-trick pony, he’d done good viciously satirical “Borat”-type stuff before he started going after Muslims and he actually made a rather touching “Romeo and Juliet” teledrama about a romance between a Muslim and non-Muslim teenager. But he was a slovenly provocateur who got killed because he was playing with fire in an ammunition dump.

Dr. George Tiller was not a provocateur. He was a professional doctor. He ran a fertility clinic that, along with many other reproductive services, conducted late-term abortions. He practiced medicine according to his convictions and refused to be cowed by political intimidation and harassment. He must have been a very stubborn man, but he fell into a civil war by accident, because he was treating patients in the fashion he felt they needed to be treated. Theo van Gogh deliberately stirred up the conflict that killed him. George Tiller was dragged into a conflict he never sought.