political graffiti

Political Graffiti (242): Free Speech Enforcement

A clever Banksy on Canal Street, Chinatown, New York City:

banksy graffiti is free speech

(source)

2928287400_860025f7e3

(source)

If the title of this post isn’t immediately clear: the rat graffiti is the expression; the painter – who is a painted painter (look carefully) – represents government censorship (anti-graffiti laws can be seen as censorship but if you want you can see the painter as a mere metaphor for censorship); and the scissors are the enforcers of expression. In a sense, this is anti-anti-graffiti graffiti (no typo).

More generally, it’s true that in many cases people – like the rat – can only count on themselves to enforce their rights.

More Banksy. More graffiti.

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citizenship, international relations

Migration and Human Rights (47): A Phenomenology of Borders

Border, by Banksy

Border, by Banksy

Let’s admit it: borders are an illusion. They don’t exist. The things that do exist are border controls, deportations, entry restrictions, visa requirements, border shootings etc. Those things are real enough and often painful for those feeling the brunt. They are facts in the original sense of the word, from the Latin facere, “to do”. They are things that people do to each other.

But none of those things, not even all those things put together, amount to what we think are borders. We believe, erroneously, that borders are separation lines, separating two or more political and geographical spaces, territories, or pieces of the earth. There’s a real physical, even earthly sense of separation that is implied in the border concept. Borders cut up the earth.

But of course they don’t, really. Borders aren’t facts but ideas, and as ideas they are more or less realized, but never completely real. Those who claim to protect the borders – the “front” in frontière – are not protecting a thing but are rather striving for an ideal, an ideal justified in their minds by a variety of other ideals (culture, prosperity, democracy etc.). The separations are merely fragmentary in real life. This is clear from the fact that people routinely cross borders illegally and without permission, as if there’s nothing there, or at least as if there isn’t a clear separation between territories. They may sometimes find that the difficulty of moving increases and then decreases. Even if they are stopped, shot, caught or deported – which often doesn’t happen – they don’t experience a so-called border. They merely experience an obstacle limited in space, not the territory-encompassing and circular separation that a border is claimed to be.

The lack of reality of borders is also evident from their lack of stability. Below are a few examples. Poland, for instance, ceased to exist completely for some time in its history and its borders fluctuated violently throughout:

Territorial-changes-of-Poland-1635-2009-small

(source)

The Balkans have even given their name to the process of shifting borders:

578px-Balkans_Animation_1800-2006

(source)

Sweden is perhaps an unexpected example of instability:

sweden-through-history2

(source)

This is China, or, better, these are the different China’s throughout history:

china-map

(source)

And here’s France:

220px-French_borders_from_985_to_1947

(source)

In fact, you could pick just about any part of the world and see the same thing. Perhaps because we consume more news than history we tend to see international borders and the shapes of countries as fixed entities. It’s really a big news story when a territory secedes, when countries unify etc. And yet, over a slightly longer time frame, that is normality. You can look at this in two ways:

  • Either this proves the case for strong borders: most of the changes were due to foreign invasions.
  • Or it’s an argument for the lack of importance of borders: after all, if borders change over the course of a few decades, it’s hardly fair to keep people out who didn’t move and who turned from insiders to outsiders through no fault of their own.

My point is that both ways of looking at the reality of borders should retain some validity. If we agree that borders are an idea that can never be realized completely, then the argument is about the degree of realization. Border defenders should realize that there will always be unauthorized cross-border movement because they can’t have their factual separation the way they like it. Defenders of migration, on the  other hand, should admit that “open borders” is not the same thing as “no borders”. Even if it’s just an idea, borders merit some attempt at realization. You can allow limitless immigration and yet try to defend the border against invading armies or immigrants intent on terrorist attacks. This way, your country can remain an independent entity – designed by its borders, or better its idea of a border – while opening its borders to immigrants. Also, you can allow limitless immigration and yet give citizenship only to people born within the country. That’s another way to retain your country and allow immigration at the same time. Hence, immigration restrictionists are wrong to claim that an open borders policy destroys the very concept of the border and equals a no borders policy.

One final image, which should be labeled “who you calling immigrants?”:

BfULY4cCIAAKc9q

(source)

More posts in this series are here.

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human rights violations, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (114): Child Starves to Death in the UK

banksy beggar

banksy’s beggar

(source)

The government has been warned it must urgently fix flaws in its support system for successful asylum seekers, after a destitute child starved to death in temporary accommodation in Westminster. … [T]he family had become dependent on “ad hoc” charitable handouts despite a successful asylum claim because of “significant problems” transferring the family from Home Office to mainstream welfare support services. The family of three was forced to “actually become homeless” before local authorities could offer official help. (source)

Brings to mind this older post. More absurd human rights violations here.

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law, limiting free speech, philosophy

Limiting Free Speech (46): Lies and False Statements of Fact

you lie banksy

by Banksy

(source, the story that inspired this work is here)

Should lies and false statements of fact be protected by free speech laws, or can the speech rights of those who intentionally lie be limited in some cases? The US Supreme Court believes the latter is true, somewhat surprisingly given the often quasi-absolutist nature of First Amendment jurisprudence in the US. In Gertz v. Robert Welch, the Court claimed that

there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.

There are some obvious problems with this exception to free speech. First, it can’t work unless it’s possible to distinguish real lies from false statements of fact that are simple errors. This means it must be possible to determine someone’s intentions, and that’s always difficult. However, one could claim that a person’s speech rights can only be limited on account of lying when his or her intentions are clear.

That would save the exception, but it wouldn’t undo some of its harmful consequences. People who speak in good faith may still be afraid that their speech will unwittingly come across as false, without their good intentions being absolutely clear. Hence, they may fear that they will run afoul of the law, and limit their speech preemptively. The lies exception to freedom of speech has therefore a chilling effect, an effect which is enhanced by the fuzzy nature of the difference between facts and opinions.

Given these problems with the lies exception to free speech, how could we instead argue in favor of free speech protection for lies and knowingly false statements of fact?

One rather ironic way to do it is to appeal to the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas: free speech is necessary for the pursuit of truth (or, in a weaker form, for the improvement of the quality of our ideas). John Stuart Mill has the canonical quote:

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

As such, this doesn’t really justify the acceptance of expressions of lies. If we need lies to see the truth more clearly, you could also say that we need evil to see the good more clearly, and few I guess would accept the latter statement. However, if we interpret this quote liberally (pun intended), we may get somewhere. We could argue that someone’s lies can motivate others to search for, investigate and disseminate the truth. For example, I think it’s fair to say that holocaust deniers have done a lot for holocaust education. They have given teachers and researchers a hook.

cure for cancerAnother reason why we wouldn’t want to prohibit lying, at least not across the board, is the fact that lies are often necessary for the protection of human rights. This is the case that’s made in jest in the cartoon on the right, and is also the origin of the rejection of Kant’s claim that we shouldn’t lie to the murderer inquiring about the location of his intended victim. (I have an older post about the usefulness of lying here).

Michel de Montaigne

Obviously, nothing said here implies that lying is generally beneficial or that it should be welcomed and protected whatever the circumstances. If lying becomes the norm, we will most likely lose our humanity. In the words of Montaigne, “we are men, and hold together, only by our word” and our civilization and systems of cooperation would come crashing down if we can’t generally trust each other. However, the general albeit not exceptionless moral good of telling the truth doesn’t translate into a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth (and to shut up if we can’t). Mortality and human rights don’t completely overlap.

If lying were to become the normal habit, free speech would lose its meaning. We have free speech rights precisely because we want to share information, opinions and beliefs, and because we want to learn and pay attention to verbal assertions. There has to be some level of general trust that people speak their minds rather than the opposite. Otherwise it’s better if there’s no speech at all, and hence also no right to free speech. Hence, the free speech defense of lying has to be limited somewhere.

That is why, despite the fact that in general there shouldn’t be a right to be told the truth or a legal duty to tell the truth, we do want some cases in which there is such a right and such a duty. Lying is legitimately prohibited in the case of libel, of witnesses testifying under oath, of someone impersonating a doctor etc. But those are cases of different rights having to be balanced against each other: the free speech rights of the liars against the rights of those suffering harmful consequences when people lie (consequences such as bad medical treatment, miscarriages of justice etc.). The duty of government officials and elected politicians to tell the truth is based on the requirement of democratic transparency, and is therefore also a case of balancing rights: democracy is a human right, and democracy can’t function if there’s no transparency and if people in power don’t tell the truth about what they are doing.

More posts in this series are here. And here are some posts about the related topic of lying with statistics.

(image source)
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law, most absurd human rights violations

The Most Absurd Human Rights Violations (87): You Can’t Do What I told You to Do

Banksy Frisk

Banksy, Frisk

(source)

Critics say that as part of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, officers routinely tell suspects to empty their pockets and then, if marijuana is displayed, arrest them for having the drugs in public view, thereby pushing thousands of people toward criminality and into criminal justice system. (source)

More on the war on drugs. More Banksy. More absurd human rights violations.

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various

My Latest Tweets

twitter

  • Is there a lot of light between cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and motivated reasoning? if not, why the excess jargon? Jargon bias?
  • I guess I must be a libertarian communist: http://wp.me/pd52p-9VD + http://wp.me/PJ3Oa-5
  • adventures in meta: “overhyped” now a hype itself #Irene
  • someone should coin the phrase “unconomy”
  • can anyone explain why democratic politics always devolves into a Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging?
  • London rioters don’t like Banksy http://wp.me/pd52p-1eB #riot
  • Jeez: “religious practices even when inflicting pain on the helpless do seem to fall within constitutional protection” http://bit.ly/jwqqLa
  • just occurred to me that the word “law” is an acronym: “losers always win” which is indeed what happens in a perfect system of l.a.w.
  • Mubarak, leaving the way he did, improved his image undeservingly; Ghaddafi, staying the way he does, worsens his image deservingly
  • maybe it wasn’t such a good idea 2 build nuclear plants right at the coastline of a earthquake-prone country that invented the word #tsunami
  • I’m applying for Guinness world record: highest ratio of books written to books sold (slowly reaching a number >1) http://bit.ly/hDoaX4

Follow me here. Previous overviews of tweets are here, here, here and here.

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art

Riots!

For some reason, my older posts on rioting are now immensely popular. So here’s an overview:

no control graffiti

(source)

Picture taken during the G20 protests in London in 2009

(source unknown)

(source)

(source)

Banksy's flower riot

(source)

I’m not in the mood for serious analyses, but I do want to warn against simplistic explanations involving the words “poverty” and “multicultural”. (See also here). Those types of punditry are usually way off the mark.

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economics, human rights violations, measuring human rights, poverty, statistics

Measuring Human Rights (20): What is More Important, the Number or Percentage of People Suffering Human Rights Violations?

banksy I hate mondays

I hate mondays, by Banksy

(source, more Banksy here)

Take just one human right, the right not to suffer poverty: if we want to measure progress for this human right, we get something like the following fact:

[N]ever in the world have there been so many paupers as in the present times. But the reason of this is that there have never been so many people around. Indeed never in the history of the world has been the percentage of poor people been so low. (source)

Percentage of world population in extreme pove...

Percentage of world population in extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank ($1.25 per day)

So, is this good news or bad news? If it’s more important to reduce the share of the world population suffering a particular type of rights violation, then this is good news. On the other hand, there are now more people – in absolute, not in relative numbers – suffering from poverty. If we take individuals and the distinctions between persons seriously, we should conclude that this is bad news and we’re doing worse than before.

Thomas Pogge has argued for the latter view. Take another example: killing a given number of people doesn’t become less troubling if the world’s population increases. If we would discover that the real number of the world’s population at the time of the Holocaust was twice as large as previously assumed, that wouldn’t diminish the importance of the Holocaust. What matters is the absolute number of people suffering.

thomas pogge

Thomas Pogge

On the other hand, if we see that policies and interventions lead to a significant lowering of the proportion of people in poverty – or suffering from any other type of rights violation – between times t and t+n, then we would welcome that, and we would certainly want to know it. The fact that the denominator – total world population – has increased in the mean time, is probably something that has happened independently of those policies. In the specific case of poverty, a growing population can even make a decrease in relative numbers of people suffering from poverty all the more admirable. After all, many still believe (erroneously) in the Malthusian trap theory, which states that population growth necessarily leads to increases in poverty in absolute numbers.

More posts in this series are here.

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freedom, human rights nonsense, law

Human Rights Nonsense (25): Reductio of Private Property Rights

Banksy No Trespassing

Banksy, No Trespassing

(source)

In the case of Hinman vs. Pacific Air Transport, a landowner, Hinman, sued an airline (Pacific Air) for trespass. Hinman wanted Circuit Judge Haney’s court to affirm his right to stop airlines from flying over his property. … The judge … realized that giving every landowner a right to treat air traffic as a trespass would throttle air traffic, because the cost of an airline buying off every potential veto would be prohibitive.

The plaintiff’s unsuccessful suit relied heavily on the concept of ad coelum, an ancient Roman dictum that “he who owns the soil owns it to the heavens.” Was ad coelum relevant to questions about airplanes crossing over someone’s land at high altitude? Before the advent of air travel, there was no fact of the matter. No legal dispute had ever brought the issue to a head. (source)

Just to show that a lot of nonsensical talk about human rights stems from an erroneously absolutist understanding of those rights. More harmful examples of this kind of absolutism are here and here.

More about property rights is here; more posts in this series are here.

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data, discrimination and hate, economics, education, equality, poverty, racism

Racism (16): Race and Crime

Banksy mural depicting a scene from the movie Pulp Fiction, starring Samuel L Jackson and Jonh Travolta

Banksy mural depicting a scene from the movie Pulp Fiction, starring Samuel L Jackson and Jonh Travolta

It’s well-known that African-Americans make up a disproportionate part of the U.S. prison population. Racists of course have an easy explanation for this, but what is the real explanation? Part of it is probably racial profiling and bias among jury members. Another part of the explanation can be poverty, unemployment and lower education, burdens from which African-Americans also suffer disproportionately. And although crime has many possible causes, there’s some evidence that at least some types of property crime go up during recessions. This indicates that there’s a link between crime and poverty, something which in turn can explain different arrest ratios across races given the different poverty rates across races.

Vincent and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson...

Screenshot from the film Pulp Fiction (1994), showing Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) in their well-known pose

There’s an interesting paper here studying the effects of both labor market conditions and asset poverty on the property crimes involvement of American males. It turns out that poverty and labor market outcomes account for as much as 90% of the arrest rates ratio. More on racism and crime. More Banksy.

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art, political graffiti

Political Graffiti (124): Banksy, 0% Interest in People

banksy in chicago

(source)

More on capitalism, corporate governance and corporate democracy. More Banksy. More political graffiti.

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economics, poverty, terror, war, work

Terrorism and Human Rights (26): Is Terrorism Caused by Unemployment?

bansky girl holding bomb

girl holding bomb, by Bansky

(source, more Banksy here)

I don’t think I need to spell out the ways in which terrorism is a human rights issue (beyond the obvious violations of the human rights of the direct victims of terrorism there are serious human rights implications of the so-called “war on terror“).

Some time ago, I linked to a paper claiming that poverty and lack of education do not, contrary to common belief, contribute to terrorism. If this claim is correct, then it has major implications for counter-terrorism efforts. There’s another paper here making a similar claim, looking at the correlation between violent insurgencies and levels of unemployment, specifically in Iraq and the Philippines. One often assumes that unemployment and the economic and social alienation resulting from it, are elements causing or facilitating political violence, and that efforts to promote employment can have a beneficial effect on social cohesion and political loyalty. The unemployed are believed to have the mindset (frustration etc.), the time and the opportunity to radicalize and be radicalized, whereas people who are employed have a lot to lose, economically, from political instability. Positively stated,

insurgency is a low-skill occupation so that creating jobs for the marginal unemployed reduces the pool of potential recruits.

However, the authors find

a robust negative correlation between unemployment and attacks against government and allied forces and no significant relationship between unemployment and the rate of insurgent attacks that kill civilians. … The negative correlation of unemployment with violence indicates that aid and development efforts that seek to enhance political stability through short-term job creation programs may well be misguided.

Some of the reasons given in the paper in order to explain this negative correlation are:

  • Counter-insurgency forces usually spend money to buy intelligence from the general population. More unemployment means that the available money can buy more intelligence, hence bring levels of violence down.
  • Insurgents also need to live. If there’s a lot of unemployment, they need to spend more time on basic survival and hence can spend less time on violence.
  • Efforts to enhance security—establishing checkpoints and the like—damage the economy.
  • etc.

The paper deals only with two countries, neither of which is perhaps a very typical case. Moreover, cross-border terrorism doesn’t seem to fit well into the analysis. But still, the findings are interesting.

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international relations, measuring human rights, statistics, war

Measuring Human Rights (9): When “Worse” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Worse”

I discussed in this older post some of the problems related to the measurement of human rights violations, and to the assessment of progress or deterioration. One of the problems I mentioned is caused by improvements in measurement methods. Such improvements can in fact result in a statistic showing increasing numbers of rights violations, whereas in reality the numbers may not be increasing, and perhaps even decreasing. Better measurement means that you now compare current data that are more complete and better measured, with older numbers of rights violations that were simply incomplete.

The example I gave was about rape statistics: better statistical and reporting methods used by the police, combined with less social stigma etc. result in statistics showing a rising number of rapes, but this increase was due to the measurement methods (and other effects), not to what happened in real life.

Precision Bombing by Banksy

Precision Bombing by Banksy

I now come across another example. Collateral damage – or the unintentional killing of civilians during wars – seems to be higher now than a century ago (source). This may also be the result of better monitoring hiding a totally different trend. We all know that civilian deaths are much less acceptable now than they used to be, and that journalism and war reporting are probably much better (given better communication technology). Hence, people may now believe that it’s more important to count civilian deaths, and have better means to do so. As a result, the numbers of civilian deaths showing up in statistics will rise compared to older periods, but perhaps the real numbers don’t rise at all.

Of course, the increase of collateral damage may be the result of something else than better measurement: perhaps the lower level of acceptability of civilian deaths forces the army to classify some of those deaths as unintentional, even if they’re not (and then we have worse rather than better measurement). Or perhaps the relatively recent development of precision-guided munition has made the use of munition more widespread so that there are more victims: more bombs, even more precise bombs, can make more victims than less yet more imprecise bombs. Or perhaps the current form of warfare, with guerilla troops hiding among populations, does indeed produce more civilian deaths.

Still, I think my point stands: better measurement of human rights violations can give the wrong impression. Things may look as if they’re getting worse, but they’re not.

More Banksy. More on ius in bello. More on measuring human rights.

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democracy, poverty, why do we need human rights

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction. Read more here and here.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally). See here, here and here.
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions. See here, here and here.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights. See here, here, here, here and here.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

Banksy, monkey parliament

Banksy, monkey parliament

(source, there’s more Banksy here)

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

More here. See some statistics on public support for democracy here.

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art, equality, political artist

Political Artist (33): Banksy

Banksy, Eat the rich

(source, in case you can’t read the “footnote”: it says “with our new 2 for 1 offer including a choice of wine”)

A similar one:

poor have nothing to eat but the rich

(source)

eat the rich

(source)

More Banksy here and here. More on income inequality. More political artists.

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art, freedom, law, political graffiti

Political Graffiti (40): Banksy and Anarchism

banksy anarchism

Banksy

(source)

There’s a strange dualism inherent in the concept of state/government. Many of the most brutal rights violations are caused by governments, but rights also need governments. More here and here on the role of government and the efforts to minimize its scope. See also the previous post in this series.

The phrase is a quote from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a 19th century anarchist.

More Banksy.

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art, justice, law, political artist

Political Artist (16): Banksy

In September 2006, Banksy smuggled a life-size replica of a Guantanamo Bay detainee Disneyland, inside the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the California theme park. It remained in place for 90 minutes before the ride was closed down and the figure removed:

guantanamo disney banksy

Banksy: Guantanamo goes to Disneyland

(source)

And here’s another version:

guantanamo sunset by Banksy

(source)
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