Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The "Republican" assault on democratic institutions and the right to vote

There is, right now, a concerted attack on a common good-sustaining democratic institutions and on ordinary decency in America. It comes centrally from one of the main political parties – the so-called Republican (actually imperial-authoritarian-racist) party and the public institutions it currently controls. I distinguish this party from ordinary conservatives – those who believe in habeas corpus - the right of each person to a day in court and not to be tortured, support the equal right to vote and oppose imperial crusades like Iraq. Ironically, Obama, when not veering toward authoritarianism (the torture of Bradley Manning) or drones, is pretty much an ordinary conservative, See here and here.

This party has every opportunity of winning and will, even without achieving complete dictatorship, scar the democracy further and quite possibly, permanently.

One element in this, as Charles Blow indicates below, is a consolidated effort to disenfranchise voters reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. See John Lewis’ s recent account of those life and death struggles here. Black people, including many elderly people, and young people, “sinfully” in the Republican view, voted for Obama. They must be cut off the voter rolls.

Take paying for a driver’s license (a fee of $25 to $40 dollars). Many elderly people and others who use public transport (including students) would be forced both to spend time and pay a fee in order to vote. This is literally the same as a poll tax.

In the South, the federal government can sue against violation of civil rights, under the Civil Rights Act. But in Pennsylvania, the Republicans may have cut an amazing 43% of voters off the voter rolls - nearly half a million - in Philadelphia without any excuse whatever. See here:

"About 437,237 registered voters in Philly either lack a state-issued ID or have one that has expired before Nov. 6 of last year, which would make it invalid in the upcoming elections under Pennsylvania’s new law, according to state data obtained by the AFL-CIO. As first reported by Philadelphia City Paper, that number represents 43 percent of registered voters in the city, the highest in any county statewide."

The state of Pennsylvania has announced in a court case that there are exactly 0 cases of voter fraud in the last election (in the whole country, there are perhaps 12 cases, mainly in local elections, among many millions of voters…).

Christopher Broach, a principled voting official in Colwyn, Pennsylvania, has announced that he will not disenfranchise voters – this unjust “law” is no law:

“To ask me to enforce something that violates civil rights is ludicrous and absolutely something I am not willing to do,”

Under threat of losing his job, he invokes Rosa Parks - see below. May his example of caring for democracy inspire every voting official of integrity in this country to stop the Republican "legal" attack on the right to vote in its tracks.

According to Charles Blow’s “Where’s the outrage?” below, Republican (tea-party) legislatures have passed ID regulations in 16 states with enough electoral votes nearly to elect a President:

"According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, at least 180 restrictive voting bills were introduced since the beginning of 2011 in 41 states, and `16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election' because they `account for 214 electoral votes, or nearly 79 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.'"

These are not mere tricks (anti-democratic in themselves), such as robo-calling in black areas to “remember to vote Wednesday” or tying up the voter complaint lines (as Republicans did in New Hampshire in 2010). They are systematically immoral and very likely illegal efforts to restrict the franchise.

It would be appropriate, as with Catholic hierarchs who are at last beginning to face the law for enabling child molestation, if people who deprived others of the right to vote with malice aforethought (the Republican head of the state legislature in Pennsylvania bragged about having thrown Pennsylvania to Romney with this measure) would face criminal charges. The ills are not of the same severity, but depriving people of the right to vote is also a serious crime.

This is not campaigning. This is attacking the core rights of other Americans.

But the assault on American democracy goes much further. The Supreme “Court,” now an organization of a majority of flunkeys of the rich, has steadily four votes for authoritarianism.*

This narrow court majority has now enabled a tiny group of billionaires, notably Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, and the bankroller of both Netanyahu and Romney, sinking personally $100 million into this campaign, and the Koch brothers, to corrupt the political process. In contrast, one person one vote is the theme of democracy and of the civil rights movement.

In John Rawls’ compelling A Theory of Justice, the equal liberty of each person is primary over the difference principle which allows economic inequalities so long as they also benefit the least advantaged. This priority upholds equal liberty by curtailing that level of inequality, otherwise allowable under the difference principle, which would enable the rich to control the government and use it against most people. The US has long been an oligarchy, but the rule of single billionaires - the .0001% - at the expense of the liberties and well being of everyone else is a new stage in the violation of democratic principles.

As Blow puts it,

“According to a report by Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, ‘So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And that’s only what has been publicly disclosed.’ That didn’t include ‘about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season.’

A single billionaire with two puppets, in Adelson’s case, both Netanyahu and Romney, united to commit genocide against the Palestinians and create an expansionary (illegal and immoral) “greater Israel.” See Andrew Sullivan, based on a column by Barak Ravid here.

This combination, destroying democracy through reactionary institutions from above (a Supreme Court is reasonable in a democracy when it preserves the equal basic rights of citizens and temporary political fads ("wills of all" as Rousseau puts it); the American Court is, however, mainly a second Senate (h/t Duncan Campbell), a reactionary body which has historically preserved such injustices such as slavery, genocide against native americans, the abject authority of capitalists and the ultra-rich, and today is furthering a sustained attack on democracy).

Speaking in Jerusalem Sunday, Romney proclaims that capitalists make money by their own efforts (citing David Landes for an intellectual patina) and that, in national terms, everyone reaches a fate determined by those efforts. Thus, the US versus Mexico, he proclaims; even the fact that US aggression stole much of Mexico in 1846-48 - Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, part of Colorado and California - eludes him...

In Jerusalem, he praised the Israel standard of living as due to hard work (he offered the kinder version of the old Nazi slogan that Jews are usurers...) and the lower Palestinian one – ignoring the Israeli conquest and occupation – as due to their supposed inferiorities.

The same Romney formula applies in the United States to the rich and blacks during slavery and segregation or in the prison-industrial complex today. This bit of Ayn Randism is part of a racist point of view, one that will shortly destroy what is decent in America unless it is stopped by a mass movement from below.


Where’s the Outrage?
Published: July 27, 2012

Are too many Democratic voters sleepwalking away from our democracy this election cycle, not nearly outraged enough about Big Money’s undue influence and Republican state legislatures changing the voting rules?

It seems so.

A Gallup poll released this week found that: “Democrats are significantly less likely now (39 percent) than they were in the summers of 2004 and 2008 to say they are ‘more enthusiastic about voting than usual’ in the coming presidential election.” Republicans are more enthusiastic than they were before the last election.

Some of that may be the effect of having a Democratic president in office; it’s sometimes easier to marshal anger against an incumbent than excitement for him. Whatever the reason, this lack of enthusiasm at this critical juncture in the election is disturbing for Democrats.

First, there’s the specter of the oligarchy lingering over this election, which disproportionately benefits Republicans. According to a report by Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, “So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to super PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And that’s only what has been publicly disclosed.” That didn’t include “about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season.”

During a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Sanders put it this way:“What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: ‘You own and control the economy; you own Wall Street; you own the coal companies; you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.’ ”

Then, of course, there’s the widespread voter suppression mostly enacted by Republican-led legislatures.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, at least 180 restrictive voting bills were introduced since the beginning of 2011 in 41 states, and “16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election” because they “account for 214 electoral votes, or nearly 79 percent of the total needed to win the presidency.”

A provision most likely to disenfranchise voters is a requirement that people show photo identification to vote. Millions of Americans don’t have these forms of ID, and many can’t easily obtain them, even when states say they’ll offer them free, because getting the documentation to obtain the “free” ID takes time and money.

This is a solution in search of a problem. The in-person voter ID requirements only prevent someone from impersonating another voter at the polls, an occurrence that the Brennan Center points out is “more rare than being struck by lightning.”

The voting rights advocates I’ve talked to don’t resist all ID requirements (though they don’t say they are all necessary, either). They simply say that multiple forms of identification like student ID and Social Security cards should also be accepted, and that alternate ways for people without IDs to vote should be included. Many of these laws don’t allow for such flexibility.

Make no mistake about it, these requirements are not about the integrity of the vote but rather the disenfranchisement of voters. This is about tilting the table so that more of the marbles roll to the Republican corner.

Look at it this way: We have been moving toward wider voter participation for a century. States began to issue driver’s licenses more than a century ago and began to include photos on those licenses decades ago. Yet, as the Brennan Center points out, “prior to the 2006 election, no state required its voters to show government-issued photo ID at the polls (or elsewhere) in order to vote.”

Furthermore, most voter laws have emerged in the last two years. What is the difference between previous decades and today? The election of Barack Obama. It is no coincidence that some of the people least likely to have proper IDs to vote are the ones that generally vote Democratic and were strong supporters of Obama last election: young people, the poor and minorities.

Republicans are leveraging the deep pockets of anti-Obama billionaires and sinister voter suppression tactics that harken back to Jim Crow to wrest power from the hands of docile Democrats.

There is little likely to be done about the Big Money before the election, and, although some of the voter suppression laws are being challenged in court, the outcome of those cases is uncertain.

These elements are not within voters’ control, but two things are: energy and alertness.

If Democrats don’t wake up soon, this election might not just be won or lost, it could be bought or stolen.


Official Won’t Enforce Pennsylvania Voter ID Law
RYAN J. REILLY JULY 27, 2012, 2:45 PM

Christopher Broach, a Democratic inspector of elections in Colwyn, Pa., says he won’t enforce Pennsylvania’s voter ID law.

“To ask me to enforce something that violates civil rights is ludicrous and absolutely something I am not willing to do,” Broach told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Though there’s the potential he could could face fines or prison Broach said his mind is made up.

“Rosa Parks made the same decision,” he told the paper.

Pennsylvania’s statistics indicate that 43 percent of voters in Philadelphia lack a form of state-issued identification. The law is currently on trial in state court and the Justice Department is conducting a federal investigation into whether the law is discriminatory.

Answering a question from a reporter this week, Gov. Tom Corbett couldn’t remember what types of IDs were accepted under the law he signed.


*This Court almost made Guantanamo a black hole in which the rule of law should not apply. That is the policy of four of the nine justices for a “national emergency.” With Citizens United, the majority of the court made perversion of democracy by the rich the ordinary situation in America...

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Olympics and the two Londons: letters from Barry Sheerman and Simon Wooley

My previous post here underlined that Britain is still ferociously divided, as Disraeli once suggested, and that despite the vibrant multiracial character of London, blacks and Asians and poor whites are often looked down upon and thrown away.

Barry Sheerman, my fellow student in political sociology with Ralph Miliband at the London School of Economics long ago, sent a pointed and largely justified criticism.


I do enjoy reading so much of your output and it refreshes my memories of the time when we were both students of Ralph Milbands at the LSE, however your latest comments on the militarisation of London are nonsensical. As a politician and someone who has closely monitored the preparations for the Olympics I know only too well that the use of our armed forces came about because the largest private security in the world failed lamentably to recruit and train sufficient security personnel. If you want to criticise any organisation why not focus on G4S, shadowy kind of organisation in itself.

All Olympics require sensible security arrangements and most Londoners will not recognise the outrageous exaggeration of your posting.

Nevertheless I shall continue enjoying your output.

Barry Sheerman”

“Dear Barry,

Thank you very much for this. There is a danger in writing from far away, and I guess I fell into it. I am of course happy about a public presence - the privatization of the military in England emulating the United States is both disturbing and, in this case, feckless. There is certainly a serious need for security at the Olympics and I should have said so.

Still, how sad, in terms of the social structure of London (and not with regard to terrorists), that such preparations are needed. I should, nonetheless, have been more careful in spelling out the importance of reasonable public security for the Olympics.

Thank you for the correction (and the patience).

All the best,

Mitt Romney, who has trouble relating to ordinary human beings (breathed in too many of the fumes of being in the .001% and a Mormon leader) and tends to strike out at what he is uncertain about (remember the young man with long hair whom he and his friends assaulted), managed arrogantly to diss London, and unite many in support of the Olympics, ironically and especially the Tories. The acid comment of David Cameron about organizing for the Olympics in one of the bustling and diverse cities of the world being harder than in the “middle of nowhere” illustrates the difference between presence (too bad Cameron displays none toward poor blacks and Asians and whites) and absence of mind.

And the opening ceremony beginning from the Tempest and a poem by Blake sung angelically was lively, fast-paced, multiracial, amusingly inventive (James Bond and the Queen), not emphasizing the empire or the dark side of hierarchy, and including J.K. Rowling, the national health service, children dreaming, with quite a lot of heart, and something that anyone not a fool could take pride in.

But my post also underlined the great divide, most for black people and Asians but also for many whites (part of the 99.9%).

I also received a letter from Simon Wooley, head of Operation Black vote (the Simon mentioned by Sharon Spencer in her letter in the last post here), which underlines that the Tory minister for Race (?!) has expressed precisely nothing about inequality and the lack of a future for black (and other poor) youth in two years (a fatuousness which rivals Romney…).

One can hear in his words how the deck is stacked against poor people, particularly the young.

“Hi Alan

The climate right now is pretty awful. We have a Minister for Race, who in two years of office has made no public statement in regards any race inequality, much less the persistent and pernicious inequalities such as the criminal justice, education and employment.

Thing is we have to hold on to the belief that we can change things. The other major difficulty as NGO's is our own survival during this downturn when public and private funding of any NGO's, again much less Black ones, is at an all time low.

Thanks for your words of encouragement from across the pond.


The belief that we can change things – always difficult – is what, as Simon emphasizes, we all need (it was a central point in my writing Black Patriots and Loyalists – see here and here).

And the need to be silent about racism is socially enforced, as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes with regard to the acquittal of John Terry, a soccer star for Chelsea charged with racist abuse toward a fellow soccer player, grotesque (some English, not to mention Ukrainean soccer fans have also recently disgraced themselves; a sad psychological aspect of racism is that people project all their bad feelings and uncertainties about themselves onto others…). See here.

In 2010, a Tory mp who did badly on the television with Yasmin tweeted she should be stoned to death. Racism and patriarchy: this is a paradigm of viciousness and emptiness and shows something about what the contemporary Tory establishment is like. See here.

Yasmin also has a fine column on why – until “a guy named Mitt Romney” showed up as Boris Johnson, the Tory Mayor of London, put it to an audience of 80,000 Thursday, many ordinary English people found the Olympics alien, not theirs. McDonalds and Coca Cola - the grasping hands of American “global” civilization - are everywhere. Yasmin also praises Boris for a lot of good work organizing the games – though not otherwise as she indicates. But even in this case, he didn't pit one corporation against others or insist that Londoners, too, have rights. Instead, he is a sycophant of corporations.

Why aren’t English shops there? Why do police goons threaten to tear down handsome Olympic logos put up in local fabric or flower shops? What’s wrong with English pride in the Olympics and in London, as she says, this ebullient multiracial city?

Her words about why the Olympics and London are a good combo, exciting and fun, are apt. Wouldn’t it be better to have a vibrant expression of multiracial Britain, one that deals with inequality by helping the poor and not casting them away. The last post from a reader of Andrew Sullivan – rather odiously said to be “credentialed” – notes that there are Keynsian benefits to employing people for the Olympics (for instance, some 40,000 workers, mainly in construction). The work rehabilitates East London - the five hundred acres of the Olympic park itself and much, as he says, of the housing. As compared to militarism or allowing public moneys to be sucked by the .001% (the banks or through personal tax breaks), this is entirely decent expenditure.

But too bad London didn’t direct this employment mainly toward poor and black youth (what is the Minister of Race for…?). It may, however, have provided some employment: there were a group of 500 welcoming the entry of the Olympic torch into the stadium in, again, a nice touch by Danny Boyle.

In contrast, imagine a political party which had the wisdom to respond to the rebellions of last year, driven by the depression and mass unemployment, by offering a jobs program targeted at poor young people. And think then of the likely multiracial exuberance in Britain surrounding the Olympics.

That is not, however, the Tories of David Cameron (recall him spewing "criminals" at the young, who have no jobs, no future, are stopped and frisked regularly in a Britain with a big population of lifers in prison - 17% compared to 3% elsewhere on the Continent - see here) or for that matter, the Labour Party (which could have fought on this, but is also tied to the grasping elite*).

Instead, the Tories have practiced austerity (for others), strangled recovery and plunged England more deeply into depression than even in the great depression. Lucky they had the Olympics to employ some people and get them spending to offset the continuing fall…

Some of the real tale of the islands now can be seen in Richard Marshall's fierce review - "His Bleak Interregnum" at 3:AM magazine of Owen Hatherley's A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain here.

That the vibrancy of London has been suppressed by Tory harming of the life chances of poor people – no jobs, police harassment and murder, joint enterprise, privatization of prisons and the like – and as Yasmin testifies in addition, by government lackeydom to and hawking of Coca Cola and McDonald’s – good to have the narcissistic Romney to take out some frustration on, but it should plainly also be directed at the mega-corporations who dominated Boris in negotiations and sent Mitt - is sad.


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The Games are here, but they don't belong to us

Only a fool would say the modern Games don’t need big bucks and big names

All last week I was a panellist on The Wright Stuff on Channel 5, a daily morning programme a full two hours long. Its presenter Matthew Wright engages the common man and woman, harvesting and challenging their opinions and feelings about life, culture and politics. The viewers, sharp, sensitive, smart, come from sectors of society largely disregarded by the elite. On Wednesday, Mr Wright asked why the London Olympics weren't firing up really big excitement across Britain. Why were people less upbeat than during the Jubilee? Where were our nation's fluttering flags? Was it celebration fatigue? The recession? Just native grumpiness? The phone lines were set alight, emails and tweets arrived as thick as rush-hour traffic.

One consensus to emerge was that the Games didn't feel truly, deeply, crazily British. The Jubilee, for them, was all that and more, an affirmation of their history and identity. I thought it perverse that they should celebrate a bunch of privileged freeloaders born to lord it over them, but not a festival of superhuman excellence achieved through ambition and skill. But as more responses came in the real reasons became clearer. They were proud that sports heroes were going to be showcased in Britain, but hated the oppressive logos of the big corporate sponsors, the biggest and brashest of them American. Most of us panellists agreed. Our island seems to be subcontracted to the US for the Olympics, without our consent, not good in a democracy. Welcome to the Coca-Cola and McDonald's Olympics – those legendary purveyors of healthy food and drink. Resistance to them is surely a patriotic duty. One thing we could all do is refuse to drink Coke or eat Ronnie's burgers and avoid buying the stuff of other backers until after the Games. But best check. Maybe such boycotts would be a crime in today's sell-out Britain.

Somewhere near Queensway in London on Saturday night we saw a fabric shop window with a gorgeous display using the Olympic symbol of the five rings. I won't tell you where because the "brand enforcers" will dash over and shred the hanging mobile. As this paper reported last Saturday, florists have been forced to remove arrangements rejoicing in the Games, cafes ordered not to refer to the torch or arrange bagels in seditious ways to replicate the official circles, and other shops obliged to remove even the smallest, sweetest symbol of the fact that their country is hosting the Games and they are proud. One email I had from an East Ender said the jackboots were even in the street markets looking for rebels to catch and fine. Even Michael Payne, the man responsible for Olympic business partnerships, says control has gone too far. Yet Seb Coe is cool about it all and told Evan Davis on Radio 4 that those attending events would not be allowed to wear T-shirts of rival brand names, as if that was just fine and no big deal. Although he has since recanted over this, it is cheek and crypto-Stalinism and the people don't like it one bit.

Now to be fair, I think Coe and Boris have done brilliantly to build the stadium on time and within budget, with all the incredibly complicated planning that goes into such events. Danny Boyle for the opening was an inspired choice and the Cultural Olympiad is truly inclusive and magnificent. I have never knowingly praised Boris before, can't stand his politics, manipulative charm, kinship with big money and adventures with women. His dad Stanley once told me off for being relentlessly critical of his terrific son. Today though I do salute Boris's verve and audacity, his style and infectious enthusiasm which have no doubt lifted the Games even before they take off. London is the metropolis of the world, brighter and buzzier than New York, Mumbai, Paris or any other capital. That it will be illuminated in all its glory over the coming weeks, God willing. And pray there are no bombs and riots to ruin those hopes.

But I still say, for many Brits the Games feel wrong, alien, representing corporate power over the most wholesome endeavours of humanity. And here Boris et al are to blame, absolutely. Only a fool would say the modern Games don't need big bucks and big names. Athletes rent out their chests and backs and heads to brands. Official sponsors were determined, possibly desperate, to get their names up during the Olympics. The 2012 organisers didn't have to be willing harlots. They could have bargained, set their own limits, made space for British small businesses and innovative local schemes, played one lot off against the other, and not accepted the conditions imposed by partners. But then Boris can never say no to billionaire business opportunities. They take our cash and now the Games have been taken from us and London has been too. Maybe next the medals should have sponsor logos on them. That would end the sham that these Games still simply honour physical endurance and skill, the body and spirit.


Andrew Sullivan
The Daily Dish
Olympic Angst, Ctd

A credentialed reader pushes back:

I'm someone who spends every day confronting the cost-benefit argument for the Olympics. The $17bn figure from the public accounts committee includes a lot of folded-in costs. For instance, the extra troops assigned for security were still going to have to be paid; it's just that now that's a line-item for Olympic cost because of how they've been assigned. It's a big number, sure. But a more accurate analysis would look at marginal costs, not just bottom-line costs.

Also, the economic impact shouldn't be measured in the short-term stimulus. Preparations for the Games meant 40,000 people were hired or kept in work, most of them in construction, which is always particularly hard-hit during economic downturns. The regeneration of East London includes turning the Athletes' Village into 11,000 new homes - 3,500 of them meeting affordable housing criteria. The International Broadcast Centre will become retail and commercial space after the Games. Westfield Shopping Center is one of the largest malls in Europe. Improvements to infrastructure - especially transport and high-speed internet - are attracting new business to East London (see Tech City for the primary example).

There's no doubt the Games are expensive. But the headline number doesn't tell an accurate story, and the long-term benefits are nearly impossible to put a monetary value on right now.


*The policies of the .001% are everywhere and increasingly loathsome and counterproductive. There is no more talk of Horatio Algers in America (that is for the now capitalist Chinese "communist" party to proclaim: the rich show the way for each, they say, a Chinese exchange student who is staying with us, told me this week). For a long time, in the advanced countries, revolution seemed distant. But as the emergence of Occupy and the indignados and the struggles in Greece show, the wherewithal to make revolution is unclear and the vision beyond securing a greater and more decent community imprecise, but the need is growing by the day. Would, in terms of common wellbeing, that London itself realized the vision of the Olympic opening ceremony and would that powerful people in Britain and elsewhere remembered the notion of a common good...

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Murder by drone: the seductiveness of the ring of Gyges

The administration and its democratic flacks (including to some extent, sadly, Andrew Sullivan) push the use of drones as minimizing American involvement – no large scale land occupations – and thus, supposedly minimizing innocent civilian casualties. On July 14, the New York Times published a creepy op-ed piece by Scott Shane, their "national security" reporter, parodying the moral issues. It is of the form: here are “serious” answers to nearly unstated objections.

The content, however, mechanized murder controlled from video boards half a world away, of people whose language the operators do not speak, is not washed away. Even Obama has sought to limit the murders – “collateral damage” – by offering the absurd idea that any young men walking near a terror-suspect is himself a terrorist (this is even more weak-minded than joint enterprise in England - see here). It does provide "good" kill numbers for the Times reporter's interviewees to repeat, but the guilt by association here probably needs no further comment.

David Maxwell a retired colonel who teaches at the Maxwell School at Syracuse, sent around a very good letter pointing out that killing people by drone, supposedly easier than using other weaponry, does not remove or mitigate the crime of war (see below; h/t Paula Broadwell). Put differently, murder of a large number of civilians is mass murder – part of what the crime of war has always been – even if it is not as massive as say, aggression against and occupation of a country. One can observe that difference without commending the former, particularly since it breeds, in response, hatred of the far off and secretive killers…

Worse yet, as the wording of the first paragraph of the Times's apology for drones suggests but does state, murdering people in a sovereign country with which one is not previously at war is an act of aggression, a violation, inter alia, of Article 2, section 4 of the United Nations Charter (fought for by Nuremburg prosecutor and later Supreme Court Justice Robert L. Jackson, representing the United States government) and Article 6, section 2 of the Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, which makes treaties signed by the United States the highest law of the land.

Shane cites Bradley Strawser a former air force officer and putative moral philosopher, teaching at the Naval Graduate School who says that given that the cause is just (i.e. killing terrorists), the taking out of others – wiping out innocents – may be “morally obligatory.” Let’s see: the US government commits aggression in another country. That is the crime of war – the cardinal injustice. That removes the Strawser's thought “given that the cause is just” - though he fails to notice this obvious issue (even Shane, a National Security reporter for the Times, is elliptically aware of the issue of sovereignty).

But perhaps the startling injustice is overridden, in this case, by killing an actual mass murderer. That is, in fact, a powerful case for Obama's killing of Bin Laden, not by drone, in Pakistan.

But the justification of this assassination is not generalizable (i.e. it does not justify killing members of the Pakistani Taliban, who have not committed crimes against Americans and have not been charged or convicted in any court, and even the White House offers no statement about them; it certainly does not license murdering random others - i.e. the wife giving one of the Mehsud brothers a back-rub on a roof...), let alone, raining drones down on another country.

In addition, as Maxwell points out, even sniping and certainly capture and arrest are more likely to minimize civilian casualties.

Beyond aggression, butchering civilians in the course of carrying out a war is a separate crime. The idea that the latter could be “morally obligatory” could only occur to someone who puffs himself up to teach philosophy at a military academy (ordinary officers and many teachers at these academies know better).

Avery Plaw, a political “scientist” at U. Mass. Amherst, compares civilian casualties in Pakistan with civilian casualties in declared wars, and finds – surprise – that the US has murdered fewer. It is not clear what sets of figures Plaw is using for the comparison (one would have to be real rather than Rumsfeldian about the figures in Iraq, for example). But neither Shane nor Plaw chooses to notice that the United States is not at war with Pakistan, that these acts are sheer aggression by the United States and thus, need a special justification if one is available. Were this not an apology of the Emperor’s minions and thus, in the Times, it would be really really dumb…

Now if the US is getting mass murderers like Bin Laden or those plotting mass murder, perhaps that would be a sufficient justification. But in most cases, this is improbable. More likely, Pakistan is just weak, the government isolated from the people and paid for by US military aid, the American press like Shane and political scientists like Plaw fumbling and sleepy….

But US efforts are producing a mass movement in response in Pakistan, drone murders being a motivation, which are quite likely to result over time in the Pakistani Taliban coming to power in a nuclear armed state. As a foreign policy, this is so counterproductive and stupid, in addition to its moral odiousness, that it is hard to take in (short term “expediency” defeats the long-term goals of the United States, even where, as in Obama’s case on reducing nuclear weapons, the long-term goal is good). The Democratic policy group is about as feckless – “it’s the only way we can get at them” – as it is possible to be, and journalists like Shane are enablers (he always has the possibility of looking at himself in a mirror and choosing a different course…).

Low balling also helps. Only 3 civilians have been killed this year according to the CIA (and 149 “terrorists”! And we have a bridge in Brooklyn you might like to buy, too…). The CIA, in the business of disinformation (not to mention the US government as a whole) is just who s professional reporter should invoke...

I have spoken with Syed Rifaat Hussein, a former political theory student and close friend, and, today, the leading strategic studies professor in Pakistan. Rifaat reports the slaughters of innocents- in large numbers – by American drones. Obama has probably has cut this some. But the figures in Shane’s article - those that the administration gives out - are phantasms.

At a meeting about drones in Pakistan, Clive Stafford-Smith a lawyer who has defended prisoners at Guantanamo, befriended a young Pakistani whose 16 year old cousin was killed by drone. The boy set out to report on drones. A few days later, he, too, along with another teenage cousin, was murdered by drone. That cases like this have been routinely reported by Clive and others and ignored says a great deal about this “debate” in policy circles.

In a brief letter to the Times (the Times does not allow long letters), Clive gets the issue right.

“Are Drones a Superior Form of Warfare?
Published: July 19, 2012

To the Editor:

“The Moral Case for Drones” (news analysis, Sunday Review, July 15), misses the most relevant considerations. It is not a matter of whether drones kill fewer civilians than my poor father did when bombing Germany (an experience that turned him into a strong supporter of the Geneva Conventions).

Rather, the first question is the issue of legality: Targeting militants in Pakistan without declaring war is illegal. President Obama would not dare to send in F-16s because that would be a more patent act of war.

Second, drones drastically lower the threshold at which politicians are willing to kill, because there is effectively no political downside. Witness the American military strikes in Waziristan, Yemen and Somalia, yet nobody in the United States seems to think twice about them.

I have been to Pakistan and have seen the carnage that Mr. Obama’s robot war has created. As Americans, we need a far more informed debate before declaring that this is the way to go.

London, July 16, 2012
The writer, an American lawyer, is the director of Reprieve, an organization that advocates prisoners’ rights.”

One addition to Clive’s letter: what drone-murder does is not only illegal but immoral. We rightly condemn the terrorists for murdering 3,000 innocents on 9/11 and many otherwise. But the US government in Pakistan, too, has murdered many innocents. When the US takes out innocents, it, in fact, commits terror by drone.

The Times is a little uncertain about retailing, so abjectly, the emperor’s new clothes about murder. Peter Minowitz sent me an on line Opinianator piece from the Times website by two philosophers, John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, invoking Plato’s tale of the ring of Gyges below. In book 2 of the Republic, Glaucon tells the story of a shepherd discovering in a storm in a chasm in the earth a large wooden horse with a naked corpse in it, adorned only by a golden ring. Taking the ring, he returns to his fellow shepherds and discovers that, turned inward, it makes him invisible. He goes to the capital and commits great crimes,* and so, Glaucon suggests, would any other person who had such a ring.

For more on the resonance of this tale in Plato’s subtle psychological understanding of politics as well as in Lord of the Rings and Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, see here, here and here.

This piece gets, to some extent, the darker associations of drone murder. But isn’t evil by invisibility still evil? imagine if Hitler could have gassed all the Jews, Roma, Polish children – he murdered some 2 million, and many others – without anybody connecting it to him.

Would the act not be evil? And if the invisibility cloak slipped…?

Actually, Hitler's invisibility in Germany was guaranteed by the political-media-genocide complex...

What David Maxwell names “the seductiveness of drones” gets the ring-like fascination of this weapon for Obama and others. This is the fascination of the ring in Tolkien, developed, as an Oxford classicist, from the ring of Gyges in Plato, but with the compulsion/fascination of the ring – “my preciousssssss” – spelled out.

Though the two philosophers’ account has an element of truth, it also misses the main point. Everyone affected knows that Barack Obama orders this murder. American militarism resembles more the Company in Avatar (largely privatized), sending its minions to dominate and butcher the Navi. The American murderers under Obama are too pathetic actually to send soldiers to fight, even mercenaries. Instead, they send their missiles from Creech Air Force base in Nevada half a world away.

Just change the name of the killer to Russia or China and imagine those suffering to be in Montana or Texas, part of a weakened United States in the late 21st century – see "Imagine" here - and ask how you would feel (this is one of Ron Paul’s good points). Many nations are working on drones; the clock is ticking. Good luck on making this morally sympathetic or politically wise.

Part of Obama’s motivation, as a politician, is to head off attacks from the Right – see here. This is part of what I name the right-wing two step of American politics, rooted in the war complex and militarism, and with the imperial authoritarian party (misnamed conservative) always bellowing to the right (consider the bomb Iran crescendo...). As President, Obama has proven his toughness with Bin Laden. But the murder of innocents proves no toughness, harms the United States, and corrupts the head of the Empire (it is perhaps not avoidable to be the titular head of a trillion dollar military-industrial-Congress-media-intelligence complex with 1280 bases abroad and not be corrupted).

Only Americans are temporarily fooled as also in the case of torturer elite (Obama has made himself accomplice to the war crimes – by international and American law – see here – of Bush, Cheney, Rice et al) and the continuing criminality of bankers (faking LIBOR rates, however, is finally, perhaps, inviting some prosecutions).

But no one else is fooled.

The many friends and relatives of the 100 people blown up by drone at a wedding party in Yemen – and many who hear about it – know who to blame.

Obama recognizes some problems. He has taken to having Tuesday afternoon meetings to decide personally on who will be murdered. Possibilities are offered by the “priestly” John Brennan - a former torturer under Bush – on baseball cards. The Times was given that story by Obama, once again, to prove Obama’s toughness as opposed to Romney (this isn’t hard; Romney and my student Condi Rice are vapid sound-offs – Condi is, in addition, a war criminal, Romney still a want-to-be). One cannot help but feel here a touch of Gyges.

For as I said in a recent post here, Gyges finds the ring on the hand of a naked corpse in a Trojan Horse. The horse deceived Troy, but the thought that arises here is: what about the deceivers? What did their conquest win them, Odysseus on his long, mad quest to come home, and the others?

In Homer, warriors on both sides die. They all descend to become naked corpses with perhaps a ring on their finger...

And how does the ring of invisibility dress up a corpse?**

Gyges eventually become the tyrant in Lydia. How many tyrants fare well as Plato sees them? The vision that a tyrant is not happy – is always plotting, fearing sudden death, cutting off others, turning his ring ceaselessly to command obsequious priests, advisers, professors and reporters, never able to sleep peacefully...

Is it simply good for Barack to choose the baseball cards, limiting the killing? Now Romney, his possible successor, is already crazy, a man without a conscience, that is, a man who would do or say anything to gain power (being a religious leader does not mean one knows right from wrong or has a stopping point...).

But the danger to Barack’s psyche in what is described so sycophantically in the Times piece on the Tuesday meetings here is clear enough (Scott Shane was a co-author). Can Obama now (even in a second term) turn away?

One may hope that those who have suffered from American power and American drones distinguish ordinary Americans from their leaders. But the outliers won’t.

Unjust killings – murders – breed the desire for revenge. They do not stem the killing; they invite more killing (and by the by, strengthen American militarism as a continuing and self-destructive force).

As opposed to taking out Bin Laden, something done carefully, without murder of civilians and not done by drone, Obama and his coterie (the neo-neo cons) are wrong that this new kind of war makes America safer. It does not.


The Moral Case for Drones

Published: July 14, 2012


FOR streamlined, unmanned aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage these days, along with their Hellfire missiles. Some people find the very notion of killer robots deeply disturbing. Their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes.

But most critics of the Obama administration’s aggressive use of drones for targeted killing have focused on evidence that they are unintentionally killing innocent civilians. From the desolate tribal regions of Pakistan have come heartbreaking tales of families wiped out by mistake and of children as collateral damage in the campaign against Al Qaeda. And there are serious questions about whether American officials have understated civilian deaths.

So it may be a surprise to find that some moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.

“I had ethical doubts and concerns when I started looking into this,” said Bradley J. Strawser, a former Air Force officer and an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School. But after a concentrated study of remotely piloted vehicles, he said, he concluded that using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.

“You have to start by asking, as for any military action, is the cause just?” Mr. Strawser said. But for extremists who are indeed plotting violence against innocents, he said, “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.”

Since drone operators can view a target for hours or days in advance of a strike, they can identify terrorists more accurately than ground troops or conventional pilots. They are able to time a strike when innocents are not nearby and can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.

Clearly, those advantages have not always been used competently or humanely; like any other weapon, armed drones can be used recklessly or on the basis of flawed intelligence. If an operator targets the wrong house, innocents will die.

Moreover, any analysis of actual results from the Central Intelligence Agency’s strikes in Pakistan, which has become the world’s unwilling test ground for the new weapon [a circumlocution for American aggression against Pakistanis], is hampered by secrecy and wildly varying casualty reports. But one rough comparison has found that even if the highest estimates of collateral deaths are accurate, the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.

AVERY PLAW, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, put the C.I.A. drone record in Pakistan up against the ratio of combatant deaths to civilian deaths in other settings. Mr. Plaw considered four studies of drone deaths in Pakistan that estimated the proportion of civilian victims at 4 percent, 6 percent, 17 percent and 20 percent respectively.[the Pakistan government says the rate is 600 civilians for 1 terrorist – but of course, why should their studies count…]

But even the high-end count of 20 percent was considerably lower than the rate in other settings, he found. When the Pakistani Army went after militants in the tribal area on the ground, civilians were 46 percent of those killed. In Israel’s targeted killings of militants from Hamas and other groups, using a range of weapons from bombs to missile strikes, the collateral death rate was 41 percent, according to an Israeli human rights group.

In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.Mr. Plaw acknowledged the limitations of such comparisons, which mix different kinds of warfare. But he concluded, “A fair-minded evaluation of the best data we have available suggests that the drone program compares favorably with similar operations and contemporary armed conflict more generally.”

By the count of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, which has done perhaps the most detailed and skeptical study of the strikes, the C.I.A. operators are improving their performance. The bureau has documented a notable drop in the civilian proportion of drone casualties, to 16 percent of those killed in 2011 from 28 percent in 2008. This year, by the bureau’s count, just three of the 152 people killed in drone strikes through July 7 were civilians.

The drone’s promise of precision killing and perfect safety for operators is so seductive, in fact, that some scholars have raised a different moral question: Do drones threaten to lower the threshold for lethal violence?

“In the just-war tradition, there’s the notion that you only wage war as a last resort,” said Daniel R. Brunstetter, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine who fears that drones are becoming “a default strategy to be used almost anywhere.”

With hundreds of terrorist suspects killed under President Obama and just one taken into custody overseas, some question whether drones have become not a more precise alternative to bombing but a convenient substitute for capture. If so, drones may actually be encouraging unnecessary killing.

Few imagined such debates in 2000, when American security officials first began to think about arming the Predator surveillance drone, with which they had spotted Osama bin Laden at his Afghanistan base, said Henry A. Crumpton, then deputy chief of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, who tells the story in his recent memoir, “The Art of Intelligence.”

“We never said, ‘Let’s build a more humane weapon,’ ” Mr. Crumpton said. “We said, ‘Let’s be as precise as possible, because that’s our mission — to kill Bin Laden and the people right around him.’ ”

Since then, Mr. Crumpton said, the drone war has prompted an intense focus on civilian casualties, which in a YouTube world have become harder to hide. He argues that technological change is producing a growing intolerance for the routine slaughter of earlier wars.

“Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we’re doing today,” Mr. Crumpton said. “The public’s expectations have been raised dramatically around the world, and that’s good news.”

Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times.

A version of this news analysis appeared in print on July 15, 2012, on page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Moral Case For Drones.

From: "Maxwell, David COL RET"
Date: July 15, 2012 10:01:10 EDT
To: David Maxwell
Subject: The Moral Case for Drones

I still think the issue is not the weapon system or the platform. It is the decision making process and authorities that should be examined. Why have we never talked about Hellfire missiles delivered by manned Apache helicopters? Or any other weapons systems from a sniper rifle to a B-52? Is it more precise and minimize collateral damage (I think sniper shots and capture and arrests problem result in even less collateral damage if we are going to make those comparisons)

Yes there are issues with the "seductiveness" of drones, perhaps seeming to make the decision to use them more attractive because of the less risk to US personnel since it is unmanned but that "seductiveness" impacts the decision making process and authorities. The drone itself is amoral. Sure the case can be made that a drone could lower the threshold of lethal violence. But that is not the drone's fault. The responsibility lies with those who chose to employ these weapons systems. Morality rests with men and women making the decisions.

Yes there are many issues that will need to be examined and debated particularly if there is a move toward autonomous decision making for employment of weapons but the decision to use such systems is what needs to be examined. It should not be about the platform but about the people making decisions.

Our research scientists and the defense industry are going to keep developing new capabilities for us to employ against our enemies in more efficient and effective ways. But the moral dilemmas for employment remain the same as at the time of Socrates, Plato, Augustine and Aquinas. Again, we need to focus on moral decision making of leaders and not the morality or immorality of platforms because as I said such platforms are amoral.

But I think one of the most important questions is in the first paragraph regarding employment of US lethal operations within sovereign nations with whom we are not at war. This is a question that is going to haunt the debate for years to come. The question of respect for sovereignty is something that is going to need to be thought through.

On the one hand we should not be distracted by drones and focus on their employment. On the other hand drones are providing the catalyst and opportunity to examine the moral dilemmas of modern war. But in the end those dilemmas still rest on the moral dilemmas man has faced throughout history.

July 22, 2012, 5:15 PM
The Moral Hazard of Drones

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.

As the debate on the morality of the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles (“U.A.V.’s,” also known as drones) has intensified in recent weeks, several news and opinion articles have appeared in the media. Two, in particular, both published this month, reflect the current ethical divide on the issue. A feature article in Esquire by
Tom Junod censured the “Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama” for the administration’s policy of targeted killings of suspected militants; another, “The Moral Case for Drones,” a news analysis by The Times’ Scott Shane, gathered opinions from experts that implicitly commended the administration for replacing Dresden-style strategic bombing with highly precise attacks that minimize collateral damage.

To say that we can target individuals without incurring troop casualties does not imply that we ought to.

Amid this discussion, we suggest that an allegory might be helpful to illustrate some of the many moral perils of drone use that have been overlooked. It shows that our attempts to avoid obvious ethical pitfalls of actions like firebombing may leave us vulnerable to other, more subtle, moral dangers.

While drones have become the weapons of our age, the moral dilemma that drone warfare presents is not new. In fact, it is very, very old:

Once upon a time, in a quiet corner of the Middle East, there lived a shepherd named Gyges. Despite the hardships in his life Gyges was relatively satisfied with his meager existence. Then, one day, buried in a nearby cave, he found a ring.

This was no ordinary ring; it rendered its wearer invisible. With this new power, Gyges became increasingly dissatisfied with his simple life. Before long, he seduced the queen of the land and began to plot the overthrow of her husband. One evening, Gyges placed the ring on his finger, sneaked into the royal palace, and murdered the king.

In his “Republic,” Plato recounts this tale, but does not tell us the details of the murder. Still, we can rest assured that, like any violent death, it was not a pleasant affair. However, the story ends well, at least for Gyges. He marries the queen and assumes the position of king.

This story, which is as old as Western ethics itself, is meant to elicit a particular moral response from us: disgust. So why do we find Plato’s story so appalling?

Maybe it’s the way that the story replaces moral justification with practical efficiency: Gyges’ being able to commit murder without getting caught, without any real difficulty, does not mean he is justified in doing so. (Expediency is not necessarily a virtue.)

Maybe it’s the way that Gyges’ ring obscures his moral culpability: it’s difficult to blame a person you can’t see, and even harder to bring them to justice.

Maybe it’s that Gyges is successful in his plot: a wicked act not only goes unpunished, but is rewarded.

Maybe it’s the nagging sense that any kingdom based on such deception could not be a just one: what else might happen in such a kingdom under the cover of darkness?

Our disgust with Gyges could be traced to any one of these concerns, or to all of them


*The philosophers are careless about the story and its history, describing with Plato as seduction something very likely to have been rape. I compare Plato’s story to Herodotus’s tale of Gyges, which Plato knew and modified. There the Queen, who is shamed by being seen naked by Gyges, is a leading actor. See here.

**Hans Christian Anderson’s "The Emperor’s New Clothes" is also a version of the Gyges’ tale.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Poem: ap o c alypse


deser tofBeckett-Colorado


smokeblin dwindthree




along mountain



over the dead




Monday, July 23, 2012

The nub of the problem: was Crispus Attucks a lone ranger? Conversation with Marc Steiner

Marc Steiner of WEAA in Baltimore loves and reads history. He prompted a new kind of conversation about Black Patriots and Loyalists, one that enabled me to articulate something fundamental. Listen here.

When the New York Times corrected the Daughters of the American Revolution in praising its new integrated chapter (July 4th) here, it did so only by saying, with the genealogist of the D.A.R., that some blacks participated – 5,000 out of 400,000. That comment made the role of black Patriots sound minor. But as Mike Goldfield, author of the brilliant The Color of Politics who has read my book very carefully, wrote: doesn’t the article lowball the number and significance of black fighting even on the Patriot side?

I sent the Times a letter on this point here, but the op-ed page did not print it. The nub of the problem might be put this way: the dense screen of racism has sufficiently abated so the Times could mark the passing of an aspect of the D.A.R. and S.A.R.’s racism, but not so that it could include a serious view of the role of black Patriots (or Loyalists). Yes, blacks participated eccentrically, it seems to say; tailing after the main American forces, they were Lone Rangers or Don Quixotes...

Yes, their descendants deserve admission to these organizations.

But no one could consider their role central to Patriot efforts, let alone that the fight against bondage shaped the American Revolution and rendered it, through gradual emancipation in the North, consistent, and that rebellions against bondage, initiated in the Caribbean in the 1750s and 1760s and extended through the American Revolution to Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, and Saint-Domingue, continued to inspire democratic uprisings through 1865 and beyond.

Interestingly, even the D.A.R. genealogists (not the director of the project) have noticed that the standard figure - 5,000 derived by repetition from an estimate of the great black abolitionist William Nell - is low. See here. The two now estimate that 6,600 blacks and Native Americans fought on the American side, a confirmation, name by name, that one-third more than historians had previously thought, in fact, fought. This is a positive step. And these genealogists say, there are more to be found, as I argue in chapter 2 of Black Patriots and Loyalists, probably quite a lot more.

As Marc Steiner's interview stresses, however, even this discovery does not get at - and in certain ways, avoids - the new perspective Black Patriots and Loyalists brings. Black soldiers were important, often central, recruited by the Crown and the Patriots and (mostly) freed, I argue, because not enough foreign or white soldiers, Loyalist or Patriot, would fight. The war increasingly depended on black soldiers and their quest for freedom. Hence, as German Private Georg Daniel Flohr said walking around the field at Yorktown, the crucial battle in which General Cornwallis was defeated and the British forced to surrender, most of the corpses, on both sides, were “Mohren” (blacks).

All of Marc’s questions and comments reflect this; this is part of a history in which the struggle from below for black liberation (as he puts it) is essential, starting from the some 20 uprisings against slavery in the Caribbean and extending to the United States, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Venezuela, the Black Baptist revolt in Jamaica, the fall of slavery in the British empire (four years after Jamaica) and the U.S. Civil War (Black Patriots and Loyalists, pp. 4-5, 10-11). The fight against bondage - what I call the second revolution - shapes the American Revolution and is integral to it. The independence movement is not, as it were, a white sun around which black soldiers orbit; the movement against bondage made the American Revolution consistently for freedom and was central, as in the First Rhode Island Regiment, to the fighting itself.

Before Black Patriots and Loyalists, very able historians had envisioned blacks, as Gary Nash titles an otherwise eloquent book, as The Forgotten Fifth. Nash sees them as fighting primarily with the British, the “dirty secret” which has prevented American historians, often for shame, from talking about the role of blacks for 225 years. Blacks were more than a few, but nonetheless, their significance is still circumscribed intellectually to a kind of identity politics (the force of Nash's work, some 25 books on blacks, poor whites and native americans in the Revolution, however, goes far beyond this).

In her powerfully titled and written Water from the Rock, Sylvia Frey in 1991 spoke of the blacks as a third force mainly in South Carolina. (Patriot militias patrolled to recapture slaves, and did not recruit blacks; in Georgia, the one black recruit, Austin, was hailed as unusual for "people of his color"...). But even in this case, the war of Independence and George Washington are the stars, black soldiers a distant but a circling planet.

In contrast, Black Patriots and Loyalists shows that blacks who escaped from or occasionally (widely, internationally) rose up against bondage gave the Revolution its meaning. The American Revolution was the first fight for freedom, not just of white people and slaveowners as Samuel Johnson cuttingly said, but of all. “How come” he quipped in response to the first Continental Congress, “we hear the greatest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?”

Abolitionism was brought to the Revolution on the American side by sailors, impressed into the British navy, experiencing a real slavery (worse than a three penny tax on tea), rebelling against it in riots against press-gangs – a leading feature of pre-War revolutionary activity (Black Patriots and Loyalists, p. 10 – and composing much of every revolutionary crowd.

Sailors influenced J. Philmore in London in 1760 who wrote Two Dialogues concerning the Man-trade and James Otis in Boston in 1764 - The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved which maintained that all men, black as well as white, have natural rights. These pamphlets were the subject of discussions among sailors and artisans in every working class tavern in the run-up to the Revolution. The forces from below, white sailor and artisan (mostly) as well as black, who composed the Revolutionary crowds, were abolitionists. So were the Shays rebels, revolutionary farmers, as I point out at the end of my book (pp. 255-56) in the stunning letter of three Western Massachusetts farmers in 1787 rejecting the Constitution. Imagine they say, that you sent your daughter to fetch water from the stream and she was kidnapped and sold into bondage for her whole life. This is a precursor, eloquent and powerful, of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Black Patriots and Loyalists is the story of why.

I had not met Marc before. But he is a longstanding anti-racist activist, also with poor whites, members of the White Patriots, a Chicago gang similar to the Young Lords among Purerto Ricans, who came to the Poor People’s encampment, Resurrection City, in Washington in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King. Marc reads as an historian who likes a new take. He gets and then works on the new ideas in the book. If Britain had freed and recruited even more blacks,* they might well have won the war. In fact, the British initiated and extended the competition to recruit and free black soldiers; they nearly did. This is an important counterfactual which Black Patriots and Loyalists explores.

In addition, I offer an international perspective, one of black revolts from below against slavery surging into the American revolution and beyond, extending to all the independence movements in the Hemisphere of black and brown people. Thus, in the greatest and one successful slave uprising in all of history, slaves made Haiti. In Venezuela, Bolivar was losing to Spain until he went to republican Haiti for aid. Yes, this Great Liberator continued to oppress indigenous people in Venezuela. But bondage was gone.

In the story of comparative revolutions as in Barrington Moore and Theda Skocpol and in the study of the American independence movement, black and brown people - and revolutions to the South - are whited out. Black Patriots and Loyalists corrects this.

Looking at the first independence movement and slavery in the light of comparative politics, comparative revolutions or comparative social history, the subsequent North American civil war over slavery is eccentric. American historians - both biographers, long the primary form of writing about the Revolution, in contrast to the French who write mainly histories of class struggle on the French Revolution, and even American social historians - have preserved this isolation. The singularity of the American case is a paradigm which drapes the pages of the New York Times and is rooted in and shapes previous academic thinking about the role of black soldiers in the Revolution.

Black Patriots and Loyalists explodes this framework.

This book went through 16 years of writing, revision and review, including four at the University of Chicago Press. It has passed a high muster. Chicago has provided a stunning cover - see its Facebook page on the book here - and printed it beautifully. But its themes require a shift in perspective, a paradigm shift in Thomas Kuhn’s phrase. And that may sometimes be - sadly - too much, in prevailing quarters, to handle.

In contrast, Marc's interview rests on a straightforward reading of the history - one which takes in the facts - and shows something of what a sophisticated conversation might look like.

On the issue of bondage in the Revolution, many historians have recently done important work. Recognition of black Loyalists - see Nash, Hodges, Frey, Schama, Pybus, inter alia - is real, though perhaps not their significance within British forces, since 1990 and especially since 2005 (Nash, Schama and Pybus all published in 2005 and 2006). But the role of black Patriots and the military competition between Patriots and Loyalists to recruit and free blacks has been understated or missed.

As Marc realized, reading without the heritage of American racism (it affects him, as it does me, as a matter of laughter, ridicule and opposition) and the still fairly timid reaching for new truth among post-civil rights era historians, Black Patriots and Loyalists provides an entirely new perspective.

Washington, though the leader of the first new nation, was not so great a leader for freedom. If he had been really good, he would have been a Toussaint (the leader of the Haitian uprising). Sadly, though forced from below to accept black recruitment and pressed by the great John Laurens, Washington was not quite…

In Sierra Leone, blacks, as Marc's questioning emphasizes, founded a new democratic regime with a shorter work week (by 24 hours) than in England or America. English or American workers might well have learned from this great democratic uprising in Freetown...

A new story meets resistance. That is the nub of the problem.

*Everyone including Cassandra Pybus – see "Jefferson’s Faulty Math" – thinks they recruited many. Estimates range from 20,000 – Pybus - to 100,000; it is probably, as I show in increasing the estimates for Nova Scotia (pp. 207-09), a good deal more than 20,000...

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Peace, cooperation - and the militarization of London

London, with private militarization combined with official English troops, is now more armed for the Olympics than its current occupying forces in Afghanistan (see below).

The Olympic torch is a symbol of peace and cooperation among nations. Is there peace and cooperation in London?

Seamus Milne, a Guardian reporter, comments that London resembles 'a militarized occupation zone. East London has become lockdown London.'" See here.

Sharon Spencer, a member of JENGbA (joint enterprise no guilt by association) sent me a report of a meeting in the House of Commons, which concluded with some ugly laughter that young people – in fact, despised and disregarded – are not rebelling right now because of the weather. Despising "criminals" (Diamond of Barclay's? Rupert Murdoch? Rebekah Brooks?...himself?), David Cameron has cut back the programs that help young people and has made London “secure” for the Olympics.

No one will be able to move without a police presence.

If Beijing had smog (cut down for the occasion, but still, many athletes wore oxygen masks), London has the police.

As Sharon relates, one young man from Luton, who got lost in Birmingham at the time of the riots, was detained and sentenced under joint enterprise to life (eighteen years).

It is our loved ones, she says, who are in danger of being shot down by the police as Mark Duggan was.

In the House of Commons, there are no measures suggested for changing any of this.

Her words are worth taking in.

The New York Times editorial below concerns how with the privatization of prisons and an incentive to jail, imprisonment for debt, a literal meaning of debt-slavery, is now, though plainly illegal and unconstitutional, being practiced in the United States. There are ordinary standards of decency – non-murderousness, habeas corpus, non-torture, non-imprisonment for debt – which the rule of law is designed to uphold.

In London and the United States, the rule of law is faint, the military and prison-industrial complexes increasingly overbearing.*

Privatization of what must be and remain genuine public functions in any decent regime is one leading reason. Failure to make available jobs - public spending during an economic crisis and not austerity - and education (the latter is just a restatement of the first point) to all and particularly the poor - a failure of the government to defend a common good - is another.

With the horror in Aurora – my son had planned to go to Batman with his friends at another theater in Denver – the madness of militarization and privatization is coming home. Even those who were spared on the scene will feel its psychological echo (or ptsd as it is now called). See Rob Prince's comments here.

Perhaps to protect the NRA and the capacity to slaughter from any sensible regulations about large scale weapons, there will now be armed guards (and a mini-tsa) in the theaters….

If at the Olympics, reactionaries may surmise, why not at Batman?

There were 9,484 who died of gun violence in the United States last year, 60 in Spain, 35 in Australia, 17 in Finland (the massacre by the Knights Templar - roughly, tea-party - guy in Norway a year ago today was an exception; yet Norway still upholds the rule of law). These places are all smaller in terms of population.

Still, the problem in America stands out.

For other posts on joint enterprise and complicity, see here, here, here, here and here.

Sharon wrote:

“Just back from the House of Commons on the UpRising (RIOTS) last year, arranged by Diane Abbott, on the panel was Diane Tim Reporter for The Guardian he undertook research in collaboration as there was no public enquiry into the Riot's or major enquiry, they focused on the voices of the rioters as they were not heard, as it was felt it was important to understand why some youth's who had never committed a crime before took part. They studied the policing of the riots, talking to lawyers/barristers/defence/prosecutors/Judges/Magistrates as the sentencing process as it duly harsh for offences, such as a young person stealing a bottle of water. The outcome of this research showed 3/4 major things that primarily OUR Young People felt why they got involved , one they felt marginalised, Alienated, there were no Opportunities for them in Modern Britain. secondly they felt the injustice of the blatant killing of Mark Duggan, so they took control and made reality which they watched and controlled. Thirdly it was consumerism, want, greed, anger, injustice. Young people were fed up with the injustice being stopped & Searched by the police, bankers, MP's fiddling, Phone Hacking they so the injustice that all these people in their positions were committing crimes and were getting away with it, and all they got was high Uni fee's, No more EMA, poxy GCSE's. Issues that came out of it all was One of the Core Aspect of Policing, were there enough Police on the streets during the riots, (i felt good job there were'nt as there would of been more arrests than there were, my opinion.) Community Consultation's are they strong enough between the police and the communities it polices. Trust comes to mind, there isn't any. Simon From Operation Vote Black spoke quite openly & frankly talked about his mistrust of some of the newspapers and how there was a feeding frenzy to the point of being quite salacious, including MP'S. The Cheif Inspector from Tottenham Police Station spoke next, he was in charge the night the UpRising kicked of, he painted a picture of him being a father to two children and how that night will be etched in his memory forever, he was dealing with five other factors that evening that could of also warranted police attention. He said that there was no way that he could of assessed that night it would of started a ricochet of what followed for several days after. I didn't like him but other's may of, he just had a grin on his face the entire time, his Borough Commander was in the audience. I asked the panel what statistic's does it have in terms of young people/adults who have not been sentenced and how many under Joint Enterprise, and named a recent case of the young man from Luton (Campaign to free Wayne Collin-Debe-Nat Taylor) who was in Birmingham when the Riot's kicked of up there, i believe people know the case, he was not involved in the riots, he was lost and scooped up with other's he did not know or could know, why is he now doing 18 years under JE, why are you targeting young BEM men and incarcerating them when Keir Starmer said last year that JE needed guidelines regarding arresting and charging, sentencing needed to be reviewed, so where are the Guidelines and why are we still charging people with JE if there are no guidelines. There was no response apart from preaching to the converted i know what JE means and stands for, i live it every day, tell me something new. Claudia Webb the Chair for Trident talked about black men still dying on our streets, you know when u wanna shout so its ok for the police to kill our loved ones in cold blood though, but i remembered where i was. Anyway Claudia talked that Black men were dying on our streets from bullets knifes, that black lives were cheap and the lives of our black men. There was a need for change, by tackling men of violence, building trust & confidence in the community. We have to look at how the police stop & search, Death's in Custody. She talked about how the Duggan family were treated after the shooting and the failure to inform the family of his death and the disappearance of the Borough Commander on that night, when the family wanted to deal with him rather than the Chief Inspector. The advise received from the Community Activists wasn't listen too, police were saying its intelligence whilst the community were saying it's a feeling, the police said they couldn't act on feelings. Hence civil unrest. Next was Tundi Okewale Barrister from Doughty St Chambers and also Advisor for the Tottenham Riots & Urban Lawyers. He did and Introduction/Poem/Statistic's which i will get him to forward me as they were interesting as 90% of people arrested & charged were male. He has represented People under JE he also represented 8 people for the riot's getting 7 out of the 8 Not Guilty's. Maybe a good source for any future JE charges. Anyway i came away from this as i do with most conferences these days thinking i didn't hear any solutions to these issues, people joked about how the reason the youth's are not rioting again as the weather has been appalling, that may be true but jokes aside, as we know summer holidays are coming up, we've got the army now doing security at the Olympics, millions of other people in the city, this is going to be fun. Sharon”


Published on Friday, July 13, 2012 by Common Dreams
Increasing Militarization at London Olympics: Royal Air Force Threatens 'Lethal Force'
- Common Dreams staff

The already militarized tone at the London Olympics is ratcheting up with the Royal Air Force (RAF) stating that it is ready to use "lethal force" against unauthorized aircraft during the games.

A corporal with Britain's Royal Air Force with equipment that will be used in London during the upcoming Olympic Games. (photo: Leon Neal/AFP)

"As a last resort, we will have lethal force as an option," said Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha, the Olympics air security commander, referring to the RAF's power to shoot down aircraft that do not follow the air restrictions and do not heed warnings.

RAF's announcement comes after confirmation that surface-to-air missiles would be set up at six spots around London and the navy's biggest warship would be stationed in the Thames.

Private security contractor G4S, hired to provide security for the games, stated that it was unable to provide the number of personnel demanded and is therefore turning to Britain's military to acquire 3,500 extra personnel.

This means that there will now be 17,000 military personnel, including 11,800 soldiers, patrolling the games, more than the number it has currently stationed in Afghanistan.
NBC news reports that this "is the largest British security operation carried out in peacetime."

Seamus Milne writes that London resembles "a militarized occupation zone. East London has become lockdown London."

This militarized atmosphere is apparently the kind London Mayor Boris Johnson wants to foster. "We have increased the number of people who will be involved and I think anybody who goes to Wimbledon and sees the role of the Armed Services in venue security, making the thing run well, will like it. It will add an element of tone to our proceedings over the next few weeks," he said.

* * *

EDITORIAL (New York Times)
Return of Debtors’ Prisons
Published: July 13, 2012

A tenet of the American legal system is that it treats the poor and rich alike. The Supreme Court made this clear in 1970, 1971 and 1983, ruling that it is fundamentally unfair and violates equal protection under the Constitution for a judge to lock up an indigent or unemployed person because he cannot afford to pay a speeding ticket or a fine for a misdemeanor.

Yet judges routinely jail people to make them pay fines even when they have no money to pay. As Ethan Bronner reported last week in The Times, minor offenders who cannot pay a fine or fee often find themselves in jail cells.

And felony offenders who have completed their prison sentences are often sent back to jail when they cannot pay fees and fines they owe because they could not earn money while locked up. Often, these defendants are not told that they have a right to a court-appointed lawyer to challenge their detention.

This devastating problem has gotten far worse the past five years, the result of budget-strapped state courts looking for sources of revenue and ever more poor people becoming ensnared in the court system. For decades, state court systems have gotten short shrift in the budget process and are often starved of revenue. Since the recession began, courts have increasingly had to fend for themselves by imposing fees on criminal defendants to address budget gaps. In Cambria County, Pa., for example, the Court of Common Pleas imposed 26 fees on a woman convicted of a drug crime, including $8 each for postage and judicial computers.

This revenue-oriented approach is made worse by the increasing use of for-profit companies to collect fees owed to the courts. They add hefty fees of their own to make their profits and have gotten judges to issue arrest warrants if someone has not paid up — with no apparent need to consider a person’s inability to pay.

State judicial leaders need to take on these indefensible practices. They should require trial judges to assess individuals’ ability to pay and reduce fines to what an offender can afford or to impose community service time in lieu of fines. They also need to monitor and discipline judges who continue to allow the poor to be imprisoned, flouting the Constitution, Supreme Court holdings and basic fairness.


*About torture under President Bush, however, the American military resisted, the "civilians" who were tyrants or fascists, persisted. Civilian control of the military is good when civilians adhere to the rule of law and are not crazed.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gandhi, Socrates and satyagraha, part 1

In London, I saw my old friend Bhikhu Parekh, a Gandhian, a fine political theorist – author of Gandhi’s Political Philosophy - a leader about race relations in Britain and now a member of the House of Lords. He gave me his wonderful new book - Talking Politics - which included a startling fact I had not known. In 1908 in South Africa, Gandhi translated Plato’s Apology into Gujerati (vol. 8). Meditating on it was part of Gandhi’s campaign to fight against the racist degradation of Indians (and blacks) under the British foreshadowing of apartheid (divide and rule). As he relates in his Autobiography, it was near the beginning of Gandhi’s great journey.

I wrote immediately to Bhikhu to ask about what bent Gandhi reveals in the translation (I do not know Gujerati, but fortunately, Gandhi also published an English version of his translation/commentary). I had long known that Gandhi relied on Socrates along with Jesus as a founder of satyagraha – roughly, cleaving to the truth - along with 8 Hindus including Mirabai.*

And I had long underlined Socrates (and Plato’s) stance that it is better to suffer evil than ever to do it in the Apology and the Republic as a foreshadowing of and commonality with Gandhi. This is a unique attitude in the history of political philosophy, one which separates them from others and, in the twentieth century, gives rise to nonviolence or satyagraha.

But Gandhi’s translation of the Apology reveals a devotion to Socrates – a model of what we call civil disobedience see here, here, here and here - and a deeper pursuit of the experience and argument in the Apology and Crito – than I had realized. As I will suggest, Gandhi also studied the Symposium and Phaedo.

In "The Story of a Soldier of Truth," Gandhi offers an English commentary on his translation (see vol. 8 here). Note how he renames the Apology: Socrates, the first satyagrahi in Gandhi's view, is a soldier of truth. This vision is also part of Gandhi's notion of satyagraha as the nonviolence of the strong: those who could strike back but choose not to, those whose spiritual strength subdues the opponent. They are thus soldiers of truth...

One might recall Socrates's own statements about holding to his post as he had done in battle (28d-e) and his analogy with Achilles who did the honorable thing, avenging Patroklus, rather than sulking in his tent (28b-d). One can get the image of the soldier of truth strongly from the Apology.

One of Gandhi’s rules for satyagrahi is that one must protect the weak, under attack. This is both a point about Indians in South Africa – victims of English proto-apartheid (apartheid was legally specified under later Boer rule) but its worst victims (see my recent post on Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s experience of divide and rule in Uganda here) – and a deeper conclusion.

As Gandhi recognized, the cause of truth is not limited to oneself or to people of one’s own ethnicity, but extends to all humans, and thus, sharply to the most oppressed. This makes humanity and not nationality the core point. It is similar to what Marx practiced in fighting for what I call democratic internationalism (see Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy, ch 4)

Gandhi’s 17th rule for satyagraphi is that a Hindu practitioner must interpose himself and, if need be, give his life to defend a Muslim being beaten by a Hindu mob:

"17. do not take sides in [communal] quarrels, but assist only that party which is demonstrably in the right; in the case of inter-religious conflict, give your life to protect (non-violently) those in danger on either side." (Gandhi, “Some rules of satyagraha,” Youung India (Navajivan), 23 February, 1930 in Collected Works, vol. 48, p. 340)

Gandi knew and had braved that which he spoke of. For he had gone back to India from South Africa in 1898 and mobilized Indians about the indignities that their countrymen suffered in the latter. When he returned to Natal, a mob came out to lynch him. And he barely escaped.

“As soon as we landed, some youngsters recognized me and shouted 'Gandhi, Gandhi.' About half a dozen men rushed to the spot and joined in the shouting. Mr. Laughton feared that the crowd might swell, and hailed a rickshaw. I had never liked the idea of being in a rickshaw. This was to be my first experience. But the youngsters would not let me get into it. They frightened the rickshaw boy out of his life, and he took to his heels. As we went ahead, the crowd continued to swell, until it became impossible to proceed further. They first caught hold of Mr. Laughton and separated us. Then they pelted me with stones, brickbats, and rotten eggs. Someone snatched away my turban, whilst others began to batter and kick me. I fainted, and caught hold of the front railings of a house and stood there to get my breath. But it was impossible. They came upon me, boxing and battering. The wife of the police superintendent, who knew me, happened to be passing by. The brave lady came up, opened her parasol though there was no sun then, and stood between the crowd and me. This checked the fury of the mob, as it was difficult for them to deliver blows on me without harming Mrs. Alexander."

"Meanwhile an Indian youth who witnessed the incident had run to the police station. The police superintendent, Mr. Alexander, sent a posse of men to ring me round and escort me safely to my destination. They arrived in time. The police station lay on our way. As we reached there, the superintendent asked me to take refuge in the station, but I gratefully declined the offer. 'They are sure to quiet down when they realize their mistake,' I said 'I have trust in their sense of fairness.' Escorted by the police, I arrived without further harm at Mr. Rustomji's place. I had bruises all over, but no abrasions except in one place. Dr. Dadibarjor, the ship's doctor, who was on the spot, rendered the best possible help."

"There was quiet inside, but outside the whites surrounded the house. Night was coming on, and the yelling crowd was shouting, 'We must have Gandhi.' The quick-sighted police superintendent was already there, trying to keep the crowds under control not by threats, but by humouring them. But he was not entirely free from anxiety. He sent me a message to this effect: 'If you would save your friend's house and property and also your family, you should escape from the house in disguise, as I suggest.'

"Thus on one and the same day I was faced with two contradictory positions. When danger to life had been no more than imaginary, Mr. Laughton advised me to launch forth openly. I accepted the advice. When the danger was quite real, another friend gave me the contrary advice, and I accepted that too. Who can say whether I did so because I saw that my life was in jeopardy, or because I did not want to put my friend's life and property or the lives of my wife and children in danger? Who can say for certain that I was right both when I faced the crowd in the first instance bravely, as it was said, and when I escaped from it in disguise?"

"It is idle to adjudicate upon the right and wrong of incidents that have already happened. It is useful to understand them and, if possible, to learn a lesson from them for the future. It is difficult to say for certain how a particular man would act in a particular set of circumstances. We can also see that judging a man from his outward act is no more than a doubtful inference, inasmuch as it is not based on sufficient data."

"Be that as it may, the preparations for escape made me forget my injuries. As suggested by the superintendent, I put on an Indian constable's uniform and wore on my head a Madrasi scarf, wrapped round a plate to serve as a helmet. Two detectives accompanied me, one of them disguised as an Indian merchant and with his face painted to resemble that of an Indian. I forget the disguise of the other. We reached a neighbouring shop by a by-lane, and making our way through the gunny bags piled in the godown, escaped by the gate of the shop and threaded our way through the crowd to a carriage that had been kept for me at the end of the street. In this we drove off to the same police station where Mr. Alexander had offered me refuge a short time before, and I thanked him and the detective officers.”Autobiography, pp. 123-4 here.

In the Apology, Socrates says that crowds kill lightly and then, wish sometimes, if they could, to bring the dead back to life...(Apology 24c, 30a-b, Crito, 48c),

Yet Gandhi was able to withdraw the sting of the mob's anger with nonviolence. More than others – though Mr. Laughton and Mrs. Alexander helped him and thus, provide a paradigm for his rule 17 for satyagrahis – he was able to pursue a course of removing the cause of rage. But he suffered wounds…

“On the day of landing, as soon as the yellow flag was lowered, a representative of The Natal Advertiser had come to interview me. He had asked me a number of questions, and in reply I had been able to refute every one of the charges that had been levelled against me. Thanks to Sir Pherozeshah Mehta, I had delivered only written speeches in India, and I had copies of them all, as well as of my other writings. I had given the interviewer all this literature and showed him that in India I had said nothing which I had not already said in South African in stronger language. I had also shown him that I had had no hand in bringing the passengers of the Courland and Naderi to South Africa. Many of them were old residents, and most of them, far from wanting to stay in Natal, meant to go to the Transvaal. In those days the Transvaal offered better prospects than Natal to those coming in search of wealth, and most Indians, therefore, preferred to go there."

"This interview and my refusal to prosecute the assailants produced such a profound impression that the Europeans of Durban were ashamed of their conduct. The press declared me to be innocent and condemned the mob. Thus the lynching ultimately proved to be a blessing for me, that is, for the cause. It enhanced the prestige of the Indian community in South Africa and made my work easier.” p. 126

Consider, in the context of this mob violence, Gandhi’s words in 1908 in admiration of Socrates going to his death and expressing the defiant thought that he did not know whether death was a bad thing as people say. Socrates did know that participating in injustice (in ceasing questioning about virtue, i.e. who he was, or in Gandhi’s case, allowing a mob to tear apart an innocent human being) was worse.** In the conclusion of the Apology, he says:

“Now the time has come, and we must go hence: I to die, and you to live. God alone can tell which is the better state, mine or yours.”

[Gandhi says:] This is a historical event, that is, an event that actually occurred. We pray to God, and want our readers also to pray, that they, and we too, may have the moral strength which enabled Socrates to follow virtue to the end and to embrace death as if it were his beloved. We advise everyone to turn his mind again and again to Socrates’s words and conduct."[From Gujarati]

Indian Opinion,
9-5-1908 (from The Story of a Soldier for Truth which includes the translation, Gandhi, Collected Works, vol. 8 here ).

One might repeat Gandhi’s powerful words: that each of us must pray to have the moral strength to, if need be in pursuit of virtue, embrace death as if it were his [or her] beloved.

If one thinks of Gandhi’s Autobiography with its emphasis on defeating desires and purity of motive – see, for instance, the chapters on Brahmacharya - and Socrates’s (and Plato’s) emphasis in Phaedo in being a soul and renouncing the body, one will recognize a deep commonality. (That Gandhi’s attitude toward the body is fiercer than Socrates’s except perhaps in the Phaedo, also needs to be taken in. And of course, others of us might disagree with each of them – the soul is embodied…)

“We advise everyone to turn his mind again and again to Socrates’s words and conduct.” In his Autobiography, Gandhi says something as strong only about Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within you or the Bhagavad Gita. The Apology was an experience whose words Gandhi lived with, modeled satyagraha on.

In reading Gandhi's translation, an additional and equally prominent theme about questioning and seeking the truth came quickly to mind. Gandhi did not believe that a wise person could hope to learn the "absolute" truth. Instead, he was interested in experiments with truth. It is what gives his life, in seeking to overcome hypocrisies, to fight indignities in South Africa, to develop the ashram as well as the movement for a united and free India, its meditative, flexible, and innovative qualities. In Gandhi’s Political Philosophy, Bhikhu describes Gandhi’s efforts to cleave to the truth – satyagraha. That is, the truth is something that none of us possesses beyond glimmers (the glimmers, i.e. that slavery or colonialism are bad, are dazzlingly clear compared to alternatives- see my Democratic Individuality, ch. 1).

The theme of the Apology is Socrates’s questioning: it is the sense in which Socrates is a soldier of truth (28d-e). For the Delphic oracle, speaking for Apollo, has stationed him in seeking out the riddle of the saying that he is wisest (Socrates himself chooses to do so by questioning others reputed to be wise). Listen to his words:

"Wherever a man stations himself in belief that it is best, wherever he is stationed by his commander [Apollo, Socrates's daimon], there he must I think remain and run the risks, giving thought to neither death nor any other thing except disgrace. When the commanders you chose stationed me at Potidaea and Amphipolis and Delium, I there remained as others did, and ran the risk of death; but I should indeed have wrought a fearful thing, Gentlemen of Athens, if then, when the God stationed me, as I thought and believed, obliging me to live in the pursuit of wisdom, examining myself and others - if then, at that point through fear of death or any other thing, I left my post." (28d-29a)

In characterizing his wisdom as merely human wisdom – not puffing oneself up to be divine and out of hubris committing the frivolous murders of politicians, not thinking because one knows something (as artisans do) that one knows about other things, Socrates relies on the path of questioning - of experiments with truth - and conversation (22a-e).

"From this examination, Gentlemen of Athens, much enmity has risen against me, of a sort most harsh and heavy to endure, so that many slanders have arisen, and the name is put about that I am 'wise.' For on each occasion those present think I am wise in the things in which I test others. But very likely, Gentlemen, it is really the God who is wise, and by his Oracle means he means to say that 'human nature is a thing of little worth, or none.' It appears that he does not mean this fellow Socrates, but uses my name to offer an example, as if he were saying that 'he among you, Gentlemen, is wisest who, like Socrates, realizes that he is truly worth nothing in respect to wisdom.'

The Delphic oracle had told his friend Chaerophon, a democrat, that Socrates was wisest of them all. Socrates set out to test this saying by questioning those who seemed to be wiser. But he soon detected, that he himself was wiser only in this:
that they think they know and do not, whereas I neither know nor think I know.(21c-e)

"...I concluded that though he [a famous politician] seemed wise to many other men and most especially to himself, he was not. I tried to show him this; and thence I became hated, by him and by many who were present. But I left thinking to myself, 'I am wiser than that man. Probably neither of us knows anything worthwhile; but he thinks he does and does not, and I do not and do not think that I do. So it seems at any rate that I am wiser in this one small respect: I do not think I know what I do not."(21 c-d)

Gandhi’s view of truth – of experimenting with or striving for truth which goes beyond what one has known or experienced and which Gandhi identifies with God - is explicated by this passage in Socrates’s Apology. In the Apology, Socrates says that he lives in poverty because of his service to the God...(23c)

Note that Gandhi was raised a Hindu – and maintains the vegetarianism of the Vaishnava - but that he is not one religiously (he recognizes in the Autobiography that many traditions get aspects of the truth). If one had to say, in argument, what Gandhi thought about these matters, his translation of the Apology and words about it would give one a direction…

No other explication is as deep or pointed.

About the truth to which he cleaved, Gandhi follows the example and words of Socrates.***

*Gandhi invokes Mirabai at p. 141 of his Autobiography: "'The Lord has bound me
. With the cotton-thread of love, 
I am His bondslave,' 
sang Mirabai. And for me, too, the cotton-thread of love that bound me to the community was too strong to break. The voice of the people is the voice of God, and here the voice of friends was too real to be rejected."

**Upon reading the Apology in the beauty of the original Greek, I.F. Stone, who had stopped writing his brilliant Weekly because of a heart attack, said the last lines gave him chest pain. He had not known of Gandhi’s response; he might have reconsidered some of his thinking about Socrates had he realized this alternative way of looking at the latter's experience – ironically, a questioner’s or dissident’s way, a way nearer Stone's own than what he offers in The Trial of Socrates. But Stone's response to these lines is deep – see here, here, here, and here.

***As is Martin Luther King in his jail cell in Birmingham. See here.