The Political Animal

Amnesty’s Arrogance


For those whose vision is not obscured by their own committed advocacy, the map of how Amnesty International lost its way over the past decade and more is there to be read. From irreproachable defender of human rights to clearly ideological activist on behalf of one vision of political development, an organization now easily impeached, the loss to human rights advocacy is profound. Once it was obvious that nearly only tyrants challenged an Amnesty International report. When a free nation did, it was an embarrassment for that democracy in the eyes of nearly all, its rationalized misbehavior an otherwise indisputable black mark drawn by an organization with an unassailable reputation. Now, those always unsympathetic to Amnesty’s work can point to its own clear biases in dismissing the NGO’s judgments. How much easier, for instance, to seek an accounting of a United States torture and war prisoner abuse regime in the immediate post 9/1 years were AI not chargeable as anti-American in its advocacy.

I won’t retread here well-known paths. The road AI has traveled is on the record, and I’ve written about it multiple times before. The markers are both subtle and as obvious as broken tree limbs. The former kind shows up in a sentence like this, from the introduction to Amnesty’s 2012 report.

At the heart of many of these conflicts were economic development policies that left many, particularly those living in poverty and marginalized communities, at increased risk of abuse. [Emphasis added]

The kinds of “economic development policies” to which this sentence refers – would those be “neoliberal” economic development policies; I think they would be – are certainly arguable and grounds for a debate on economic development policy as a basis for social development. That these policies are also highly arguable as a focus of attention for a human rights organization is now beyond AI’s institutional ability to recognize.

What kind of marker represents the more obvious variety? How is this?

Amnesty International Calls on Sweden to Assure Julian Assange Won’t be Extradited to the United States

(Washington, D.C.) — Amnesty International calls on the Swedish authorities to issue assurances to the United Kingdom and to Julian Assange that if he leaves Ecuador’s London embassy and agrees to go to Sweden to face sexual assault claims, he will not be extradited to the United States in connection with Wikileaks.

Now Amnesty International is the philosopher king of the free and unfree worlds, the NGO Solomon seeking to divide the mother of judicial possession from the grasping arms of selfish enmity. How wise AI must be to take itself for a vision of justice made politically flesh and infallible.

Amnesty International believes that the forced transfer of Julian Assange to the United States in the present circumstances would expose him to a real risk of serious human rights violations, possibly including violation of his right to freedom of expression and the risk that he may be held in detention in conditions which violate the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

No, that is not a paragraph about the Soviet Union in 1966. Yes, the “forced transfer” distortion is a conscious, prejudicial substitute for legal “extradition.” Is it now the postion of Amnesty International that the United States is illegitimately governed, its legal system not merely to be questioned, but opposed, with the organization advocating that other nations forswear action in accordance with legal treaties of cooperation with the U.S.?

Arrogance is always striking, regardless of the repetition, but AI’s defensive advocacy of Julian Assange and Wikileaks is neither new nor surprising. The introduction to its 2011 report began,

The year 2010 may well be remembered as a watershed year when activists and journalists used new technology to speak truth to power.

Later it added,

This year Wikileaks, a website dedicated to posting documents received from a wide variety of sources, began publishing the first of hundreds of thousands of documents which were allegedly downloaded by a 22-year-old US Army intelligence analyst….

Wikileaks created an easily accessible dumping ground for whistleblowers around the world and showed the power of this platform by disseminating and publishing classified and confidential government documents. Early on, Amnesty International recognized Wikileaks’ contribution to human rights activism when Wikileaks posted information related to violations in Kenya in 2009. [Emphasis added]

The intellectual dishonesty of an organization with so exalted a sense of its own rightness should give one pause: imagine it as a nation-state and you might imagine it little different from any other in its process of blind self-justification. “Downloaded” is an awfully innocuous term. It masks the notions of theft and espionage and violation of national security, particularly as engaged in by a member of the military. “Whistleblowers” are cool; “spies” not necessarily so much, and what Amnesty elides in every presentation on the subject I have read is the nature of the relationship between Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, which is precisely the area in which the legitimate consideration by the United States of criminally prosecuting Assange is to be found. Here is AI in a published Q & A on Wikileaks.

Would prosecution of Julian Assange for releasing US government documents be a violation of the right to freedom of expression?

The US government has indicated since July 2010 that it is conducting a legal investigation into the actions of Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange for distributing secret documents.  A range of US political figures have called for a criminal prosecution of Assange.

According to Amnesty International, criminal proceedings aimed at punishing a private person for communicating evidence about human rights violations can never be justified. The same is true with respect to information on a wide range of other matters of public interest. [Emphasis added]

Notice that the focus here is on Assange’s releasing the documents and not on the process of acquiring them. What, also, if it is not only evidence of human rights violations that is released, but if this information is contained in what is really a much larger dump of legitimately classified and national security information? And what is the nature of this “information on a wide range of other matters of public interest” the illegal transmission of which AI justifies, on what legal basis?

Is it legitimate for governments to seek to keep their diplomatic discussions and negotiations confidential when they perceive it to be in their national interest?

Governments can of course in general seek to keep their communications confidential by using technical means or by imposing duties on their employees; it is not, however, legitimate for governments to invoke broad concepts of national security or national interest in justification of concealing evidence of human rights abuses.

Also, once information comes into the hands of private individuals, states cannot rely on sweeping claims of national interest to justify coercive measures aimed at preventing further public disclosure or discussion of the information. [Emphasis added]

“Comes into the hands of.”

Is Amnesty International concerned about the potential for harm to individuals as a result of the leaked information?

Amnesty International has consistently called on Wikileaks to make every possible effort to ensure that individuals are not put at increased risk of violence or other human rights abuses as a result of, for instance, being identifiable as sources in the documents.

However, risks of this kind are not the same as the risk of public embarrassment or calls for accountability that public officials could face if documents expose their involvement in human rights abuses or other forms of misconduct. [Emphasis added]

This last is very curious. The first sentence seems to warn against the possibility of individuals coming to “harm” – “increased risk of violence or other human rights” – as a consequence of unauthorized national security document releases. Let’s be clear, which AI is not, that what we mean by using such language in this context is death, and you would think, given the nature of an organization like Amnesty, and its hallowed history, that it would hold no higher goal than to work against such death. In that consideration “every possible effort” is pusillanimous, even deceptive, diplomatese. As it might be uttered by the nations committing the violations AI opposes, it means, “We tried, but in the end, other things were more important.” So the assurance-of-principles messaging is already muddled.

But the second, “however” sentence is totally incoherent. Given that the first sentence predicates the importance of protecting life (or, at any rate, making “every possible effort”), a “however” contrast would naturally introduce an exception to that paramount concern:

risks of this kind are not the same as the risk of public embarrassment or calls for accountability.

Well, I’m confused. “Not the same” how, exactly? Are they greater risks? Lesser? Of more importance? Diminished importance, in the greater scheme of things? Given the preceding statement, the however contrast should logically be telling us diminished – the potential harm to individuals is of diminished importance when weighed against the greater goal of “calls for accountability that public officials could face if documents expose their involvement in human rights abuses or other forms of misconduct.”

But Amnesty International, the defender of human rights, of, in the good old days, individual human rights – every individual’s – cannot possibly mean that?

Can it?


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The Political Animal

Blasphemy Is not Bigotry


The President has spoken (at the United Nations). People are praising what they think he got right and what he got not so right. (We ignore here today the people who think he gets most everything wrong. They get too much attention anyway.) On the issue of free speech stemming from the “Innocence of Muslims” video and the paroxysms of (I use the word mindfully ) mindless violence that have followed from it, some people – when they think that President Obama got it right – are, along with the President, wrong. Oh, the basic message about freedom of expression is rightfully stated in the usual way, but a crucial point is mangled and will remain the source of misunderstanding.

It all begins with a categorical misunderstanding. Most problems begin with categorical misunderstandings. (You heard it here.) It is the point I make in my most recent commentary at the Algemeiner, “‘Innocence of Muslims’ and the Faith Fallacy.” Faith doctrines are owed no special respect, and the continuing obeisance to the notion that they are deserving of special regard is, in reality, a source of ongoing conflict over them. This is not a claim derived from atheistic thought. It is an intellectual argument, which is the whole point: faith doctrines are intellectual claims, no matter the desire of adherents to sanctify them. They are due no greater respect than any other intellectual claim, and they are due respect only on their merits.

David Frum, no Obama partisan, cited in complement this passage from the President’s speech to the U.N.

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support.

Here is the President’s categorical error:

Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.

Criticizing – even ridiculing – a religion, in argument or symbolically (desecrating an image of Jesus Christ) is not the same as denying the Holocaust. I am not privileging anything Jewish here. The Holocaust was an historical occurrence: it is a historical fact. Religious doctrines (and the symbols and figures that represent those doctrines) are not facts. They are sets of ideas. Disagreeing with, and even disdaining, an idea is not the same as denying a historical fact. This is simply a fundamental intellectual error, a categorical confusion, that President Obama has perpetuated in the desire to represent himself and the U.S. in a balanced, ecumenical manner. It would actually have been very easy to achieve coherently the balance the President sought, merely by choosing a symbolic representation (a Jewish Star?) of the Jewish faith rather than a historic calamity that befell the Jewish people.

Of course, the contextual incoherence of that intellectual coherence would have been the reality that unpleasant attacks against Jews are not made on the basis of their faith, but their being, as Jews. Holocaust denial is not a manifestation of intellectual dispute – it is a product of racial prejudice. Christianity and Islam and all the rest of the religions are doctrines and traditions, but not ethnic identities. Disagreement with or even dislike of Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam, however intellectually sound or unsound, is an adverse judgment against someone’s beliefs, not a bigotry against someone’s person.

Jeffrey Goldberg also responded to the President’s speech with some praise and some reservation. I know he fully agrees with me on the absoluteness of the principle. He even cites Hussien Ibish, who is very much to the point:

Blasphemy is an indispensable human right. Without the right to engage in blasphemy, there can be no freedom of inquiry, expression, conscience or religion.

You see the point? Blasphemy is not the blemish on free speech with which we must live. (You want that face? The pimples come with it.) It is the very essence of free speech. Goldberg demurred in a merely personal way:

Blasphemy, as Hussein Ibish argues, is an indispensable human right. I’m not much into blasphemy myself — I generally find it offensive. But as Americans, we are compelled to defend the right of any blasphemer to be an asshole.

This only half gets the point. The blasphemer may be an asshole. Manifestly, many non-blasphemers are assholes. But the blasphemer is not an asshole because a blasphemer. Blaspheming is the very root of disagreement. It is the original “no”: “no” spoken, no shouted, no painted on one’s forehead, no as even the way one lives one’s life. Every great mind is a blaspheming mind.   In the notion of blasphemy, the authoritarian dressed in priestly garb attempts to sanctify the secular (the idea become a faith), close the mind and crush the personality. Every dissenting mind, presuming to disagree, first, before the argument is even articulated, says, “No.” And freedom flourishes.

Blasphemy is not the bastard, the black sheep, the bad seed of freedom. Blasphemy is freedom.


The Political Animal

The Right to Denigrate Religion


Over at Jeffrey Goldberg’s place (there’s coffee, hamentashen) we have seen a little exchange between Goldberg and Neera Tanden of the Center for American progress. The subtle but not insignificant difference of opinion has been over the balance between the right of free speech and the responsible exercise thereof. The latter, in this case, relative to that stupid movie and the infinitely more ignorant reaction to it in some Muslim quarters, concerns responsible exercise in relation to the wildly inflammatory sensitivities of some people regarding beliefs they hold. Tanden’s most recent reply to Goldberg, today, is thus:

Murdering four people for any statement is obviously both horrifying and barbaric.  And should be condemned totally. My only point to free speech advocates, of which I count myself, is that we can both believe strongly in freedom of expression and also believe that freedom should be exercised responsibly. Obviously making a blasphemous video should not be equated with murder; that doesn’t mean making a video designed to denigrate a religion, any religion, should be celebrated as an act of freedom. Its contents can and should be criticized.  One can believe absolutely in the protection the First Amendment affords a certain expression, and believe a certain expression is dumb.  It is a conflation to equate support the First Amendment and support for all content. In that way, Americans can adhere to our most fundamental principles of both freedom and tolerance. [Emphasis added]

One can see, just by the several calibrations back and forth in Tanden’s response, that this is a matter of very subtle balancing, accomplished in the end by what follows the final “but.” I find the weakness in Tanden’s argument in the two statements I have emphasized. She says,

It is a conflation to equate support the First Amendment and support for all content.

However, the issue is not “support for all content.” It is support for the expression of all content. This is the crucial issue that, in her apparent distaste for what the video expresses and her support of tolerance toward religious views, Tanden overlooks. This is specifically an argument over a principle, and the principle has nothing to do with the content, but with the expression of it or any content.

More closely relative to the content of the video itself, Tanden says

that doesn’t mean making a video designed to denigrate a religion, any religion, should be celebrated as an act of freedom.

Actually, it does. I do not say this because of the content of the video; other than a few tidbits from news reports, I am unfamiliar with the content. Once again, though, Tanden is missing where the emphasis should be in clarification of the principle. No, the content should not, all depending, necessarily be celebrated. But the “making [of] a video designed to denigrate a religion”; that is to say, the right to make such a video should be celebrated, and – this is so fundamental as to be inseparable from the right – a right that cannot be exercised without unjust consequence, and must therefore be voluntarily restricted,  is no right at all.

I will go a step further. I will say, even, that the critical content of a video denigrating a religion should be celebrated. I do not mean any particular critical content. From the little I know, the content of this video is puerile – so by critical content, what I mean here is critical nature. The critical nature of any expression against religion, or any other set of ideas, should be celebrated as the very action of critical discourse – for which in an enlightened world there should never be violent consequence – regardless of the quality of the criticism or discourse.

People’s reactions to politicized debate consistently reflect an unexamined piety that transcends any political divide, even that between the religious and the secular. Whether about Islam more globally, or, these days, Christianity and Mormonism domestically, that piety is the profession that people’s faiths, even if they are not shared, should at least be respected. But there is nothing other than circular reasoning to argue that a nonbeliever should acknowledge any religious doctrine, far from sacred, as anything more than just another set of ideas. From the standpoint of reason, we know religious doctrines are generally something less than just another set of ideas.

For the past week I have severely criticized the ideas of Judith Butler; one might say, in the ridicule I have leveled at them, that I have even denigrated them. There is no question in anyone’s mind of empathy for any violent response to such criticism. There should not be, either, any empathetic consideration for a violent response to criticism, now matter how severe, of the doctrines of religious faith.

From that standpoint of reason, we need to consider religious doctrine as we would any other set of ideas, any other conduct, any other argument or claim about the nature of the world. There is no good reason – no reason at all – to treat faith any differently. No faith, as a system of belief and a practice of living, is automatically deserving of respect just because others commit their lives and pray to it. Ideas, whatever label we affix to them, including that of faith, must earn our respect intellectually, not be awarded it uncritically.


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