comedy, human rights cartoon, international relations, intervention

Human Rights Cartoon (63): Human Rights in China

Obama in China, talking about human rights

Obama in China, talking about human rights


What a delightful way to expose the lack of seriousness with which world leaders address human rights in China. Other cartoons about human rights and China:

More about China and human rights is here. More about the human rights hypocrisy that is typical of relations between China and the West is here, here and here.

freedom, law, limiting free speech

Limiting Free Speech (37): Incitement to Murder and Death Threats

death threat elmo


Should a joke about killing the president be protected by the right to free speech and the First Amendment? Or a poll on Facebook asking if Obama should be assassinated? Or a rap song about “killing a cop”? Or do such things cross a line beyond which the government can intervene, can limit the freedom of speech of those involved, and can punish them for having committed a crime? I would say: it depends.

In US jurisdiction, the Brandenburg v. Ohio case stipulates that abstract advocacy of violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct – including violence – may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

So, advocacy of violence can only be prohibited when there is clear incitement of an imminent violent act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

In the specific case of death threats, the Supreme Court case is Watts v. United States (1969). There it says that only true threats aren’t constitutionally protected; mere hyperbole, humor or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected. What is a “true threat? According to Virginia v. Black (2003),

a statement can’t be a punishable threat unless it’s made “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Thus, following Black, a statement is a punishable threat only if a reasonable listener would understand it as a threat of attack and the speaker intended that the listener get that impression. (source)

Personally, I wouldn’t place too much weight on the second clause in that last sentence (after the “and”). I think it’s sufficient that the listener gets the impression of a threat and that the threat produces reasonable fear, even when the person stating the threat didn’t really mean it and was just joking (hence no real “intent”). So a joke about a bomb while on an airplane shouldn’t be protected, while a joke on the radio about killing the president should be protected, because the president or anyone else would probably not take it very seriously. The context of the threat is important. Even when there is clear intent and therefore not just a joke, but no likelihood of the threat being carried out, I would also propose to protect freedom of expression. The main focus is on the reaction of the reasonable recipient and the risk to which he or she is exposed (this focus contains a subjective and a factual element: perception/reaction and factual risk).

More here and here (specifically about cross burning). More posts in this series.

democracy, lies and statistics, statistics

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (15): Measuring Public Opinion But Leaving Out a Chunk of the Public

There seems to be no end to the number of battles in our war against the abuse of statistics. Take a look at this graph:

presidential approval rasmussen


A poll of presidential approval ratings is a public opinion poll, so one expects to see the diverse opinions of the entire public represented in the results. That’s not the case here. As you can see, the numbers for the red and green lines don’t add up to 100%. Only the extreme opinions – strong approval and disapproval – are shown. Now, strictly speaking, there’s nothing to object: all necessary information is given, there’s no undue manipulation of the scales etc.

However, there’s approximately a third of public opinion that’s not included in this graph. At a minimum, this should have been made clear. I admit that my first, quick impression of this graph was that I was looking at a graph that shows the entirety of public opinion. Only after a few seconds of looking more closely did I realize that the graph doesn’t in fact offer a measurement of public opinion, but only of the opinion of the most outspoken parts of the public. Why not include a third and fourth line for “moderately (dis)approve”? Or, even better, include the moderates in the totals and just give the number for approval and disapproval, combining strong and moderate? What’s the added value of only showing the extremes? Or is this part of the current media culture?

I understand that it’s useful to know the strength of the groups who strongly approve and disapprove, but this is misleading. The graph as it is now clearly hints at a strong swing towards disapproval of Obama, but including the moderates could change that impression, and could, theoretically, show an increase in overall approval (moderate and strong). The difference between strong approval and strong disapproval is smaller than the total share of the moderates who are left out; if all or most of those moderates moderately approve (unlikely but possible), then the total approval ratings would be higher than the total disapproval ratings.

For example, the 2004 exit poll put George W. Bush’s strong approval at 33%, to strong disapproval of 34%. But his overall approval was 53% to disapproval at 46%, and he was re-elected 51%-48%. (source)

But maybe the point of this graph is precisely the creation of the impression that Obama is going down the drain. If that’s the case, then this is an example of statistical fraud. There’s no way to know this, however. One thing I know is that all this will strengthen the persistent criticism that Rasmussen, the author of the graph, has a republican bias.

I said before that strictly speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this graph, apart from the fact that it could have mentioned more explicitly that a large chunk of public opinion is left out. However, if we look at this graph against the background of contemporary politics, it becomes more problematic. Politics today is often a shouting match between extreme positions. Such a spectacle is, after all, more entertaining than intelligent discussions that look for a common ground and a real possibility of persuasion of the other side. Hence, cable TV and the internet promote this kind of “gladiator politics“. Graphs such as this one only drive people further down the cul-de-sac of us-against-them politics. I don’t believe democracy was intended to end up there.

discrimination and hate, equality

Right-Wing Protest Signs, Then and Now

A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog makes the connection between the rhetoric of the tea-party protests and of the segregationists some 50 years ago.

race and communism then and now; segregationist and tea-party protest signs

race and communism then and now; segregationist and tea-party protest signs

race and the antichrist then and now; segregationist and tea-party protest signs

race and the antichrist then and now; segregationist and tea-party protest signs

Both movements systematically use(d) the labels “antichrist” and “communist/socialist” to describe their opponents (respectively the civil rights movement and its contemporary product, Obama). So perhaps we’re not talking about two different movements after all, in which case Jimmy Carter would be right in his assessment of the tea-party protests. I personally think it’s a mix of different motivations, and for some of today’s protesters race probably plays a role.

There’s another strange continuity between the old and the new pictures: in the old picture, race mixing is called “the march of the antichrist”; in the new picture, Obama – a product of race mixing – is called the antichrist. Seems like they’re saying: “I told you so”.

More tea-party stuff. And there’s something about race mixing here and here, and something about segregation here.


Remixing Tea-Party Signs

After a first attempt, I kinda got the taste for this. So here are a few more “improved” signs:

tea-party sign life liberty and the pursuit of happiness

(source of the original)

I can understand that for some people the right to life is negated by abortion. And if you really believe that Obama is a Soviet-style “socialist”, then it’s clear he’s the negation of liberty. But welfare the opposite of the pursuit of happiness? Sorry, me no understand. How can the absence of welfare possible contribute to the pursuit of happiness? Is hunger, poverty, lack of healthcare and education part of the pursuit of happiness? And is the effort to do something about these problems the end of happiness?

Here’s another one:

tea party sign poster spread my work ethic

(source of the original)

Some confusion about the meaning of “spreading” here, it seems. And, to be fair to the teabaggers, this next remix (hopefully) shows the conceit inherent in all political protesting, not just the tea-party type:

original: "you are not entitled to what I have earned"

(source of the original which included the comment: “You have worked hard for you money. Why does the government think they have the right to take your money and bail out failed businesses, mortgages and more???”)

More here and here.

comedy, discrimination and hate

Hitler and Obama: Reductio ad Irrelevantum

obama hitler

The refuge of the politically desperate: compare your opponent to Hitler/fascists/nazis, even if the only thing they have in common is an irrelevant detail. This is usually called, in dog Latin, a reductio ad Hitlerum or reductio ad Nazium, and I’ve been accused of it myself.

I wonder what the political right in the U.S. will do when their name calling starts to wear thin. After all, you can’t go any further than Hitler and antichrist. And calling someone the antichrist for years on end without the heavens falling down, will make even the most gullible think twice.

More fun stuff.

PS: for someone with more talent for Photoshop than I, there’s a whole market for remixing tea-party signs. If you want to start a blog and don’t know what about, you’ll have material for months.
human rights facts, statistics, war

Human Rights Facts (43): Defense Spending in the U.S.

The data on U.S. defense spending (“defense” being of course a euphemism) are here. (I hope the connection to the issue of human rights is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out). The amounts involved are incredible, and yet you can still find national security hawks who believe that it isn’t enough, or who advocate that cutting some of this spending would be extremely dangerous. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has an article out lambasting the Obama administration for some supposed spending cuts. They have this graph for instance:

Obama plan on defense spending according to the Heritage Foundation

Obama's plan on defense spending according to the Heritage Foundation

Now, this graph should be used in every textbook on statistics as a classic example of misinformation and manipulation of data. As Benjamin H. Friedman points out:

It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours [GDP] is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950.

The correct way to measure growth or decline in defense spending is to look at the amounts spent on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms. See the solid line in this graph:

us military spending


And then it’s clear that the U.S. spends more now than at the height of the Cold War. Friedman again:

By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level”, you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course. (source)

Defense hawks want military spending to rise together with GDP growth, whatever the international situation, whatever the threats.

As Matthew Yglesias points out:

Since economic growth causes real wages to rise over time, there is some reason for thinking that a military sized appropriately to the strategic environment would need real increases in spending to maintain its level of capabilities. But one way or another, the crucial issue is that the appropriate level of defense spending is determined by the nature of the strategic environment, not by the pace of economic growth. The US economy grew rapidly during the 1990s but the level of military threats facing the country didn’t—thus, a decline in defense expenditures relative to GDP was appropriate.

One interesting trope both in the substance and rhetoric of this argument from Heritage is the idea that 9/11 ought to have touched off a large and sustained increase in defense spending. On the merits, this is a little hard to figure out. It’s difficult to make the case that the 9/11 plot succeeded because the gap in financial expenditures between the U.S. government and Osama bin Laden was not big enough. Would an extra aircraft carrier have helped? A more advanced fighter plane? A larger Marine Corps? Additional nuclear weapons? One of the most realistic ways an organization like al-Qaeda can damage the United States is to provoke us into wasting resources on a far larger scale than they could ever destroy. The mentality Heritage is expressing here is right in line with that path.

More on military spending. And here‘s more on how to lie with statistics.

human rights quote

Human Rights Quote (75): Abortion, the Right to Life, and the Right to Self-Determination

President Obama delivers commencement remarks at Notre Dame on Sunday. Photo by Jeff Haynes - Pool/Getty Images

President Obama delivers commencement remarks at Notre Dame on Sunday. Photo by Jeff Haynes - Pool/Getty Images


I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. At some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature. Barack Obama (source)

Indeed, the views seem to be irreconcilable. But, on closer inspection, they’re rather less than one would assume. Take the pro-choice side: few people really believe that women should have a right to choose in all circumstances. Same for the pro-life side: only a few nutters believe that every fetus has a right to life. Most pro-lifers are ready to permit abortion under some circumstances. And most pro-choicers agree that a woman’s right to self-determination doesn’t go as far as allowing all abortions under all circumstances.

So neither side believes in an absolute right. Hence, as Ronald Dworkin observed, the argument on abortion isn’t between two completely different and incompatible world views. It’s merely a disagreement on matters of scale and extent. Both parties value the interests of both the fetus and the mother. They just balance these interests differently.

Ronald Dworkin

Ronald Dworkin


If we tone down the rhetoric of soundbites and slogans, we would see that pro-choicers aren’t anti-life, and pro-lifers aren’t anti-woman, and we would be able to discuss how to appropriately balance the interests involved. Rather than demonizing the other side and blocking all serious discussion, we would perhaps be able to have them agree to a balancing of interests that is closer to ours. Personally, I believe that there are too many abortions, and that the interests of the fetus (Dworkin wouldn’t agree that a fetus has interests, by the way) aren’t given enough weight in many cases.

I think that’s what Obama means by his “common ground” approach to the issue. Let’s hope that all parties are able to see that such a common ground is indeed possible, or that at least the two grounds can be moved closer to each other. I’m skeptical, however, especially regarding the pro-lifers: it’s hard to give up the view that abortion is a discussion between people who are either for life or against it. And such a view, by definition, doesn’t allow a middle ground. They would do good to admit that they aren’t so absolutely pro-life, and that the others aren’t so absolutely anti.

More on abortion.

compatibility of freedom and equality, freedom and equality, what is freedom

The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (7): Negative and Positive Freedom

spreading the wealth around


It think it’s fair to say that both the libertarian and egalitarian conceptions of freedom are wrong. Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom. More precisely, they believe that individuals should be free from interference, especially interference by the government, and with their property. They don’t accept that it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with but because they can’t choose between opportunities.

Such a positive freedom is preferred by egalitarians (also called social-democrats, progressives, or even liberals). These, however, often make the mistake of denying the importance of negative freedom. In their effort to equalize freedom they often show disdain for non-interference and property rights (which are important).

There is a relatively easy way to bring these two points of view a bit closer together. The main worry of libertarians is that egalitarians will use the power of the state to redistribute property. (Remember the uproar over the claim by Obama that he wants to “spread the wealth around“). As I stated here, there are good reasons to encourage voluntary redistribution by citizens, without enforcement by the state (enforcement should only be necessary when citizens fail to engage in charity). If the resources and capabilities necessary for an equal positive freedom are redistributed voluntarily by citizens, then there is no interference and negative freedom and property rights are safeguarded.

This may sound naive, but I don’t think it is. There’s already an enormous amount of private charity – see here – and remittances are also a very important source of financial aid.

Read other posts in this series.

aid, comedy, justice, political jokes and funny quotes, poverty

Political Jokes & Funny Quotes (45): Need, Greed and Compassion


“Need” now means wanting someone else’s money. “Greed” means wanting to keep your own. “Compassion” is when a politician arranges the transfer. Joseph Sobran

That would be what we call “redistribution” or, in the words of Obama, “spreading the wealth around“. Regular readers know that I’m a proponent of social justice, but I also believe that this is a priori a citizen responsibility. The state should intervene and forcefully redistribute only when citizens fail to act responsibly towards their fellow-citizens. Charity is proof that people don’t always need to be forced by the government to help the needy, who, by the way, don’t want other people’s money, just a decent life.

Here is a post giving some more detail on the role of citizens and the government with regard to poverty reduction.