Institutions

Samethink, Otherthink, and the Russian Constitution

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

Statue of Lenin in Moscow. Photo by author

A few days ago, a member of Russian Parliament announced that he and some colleagues are working on legislation that could change the country’s society and politics, and not for the better.

Duma Deputy Evgeny Fedorov and the others propose removing language from the 1993 constitution about adherence to international laws and norms regarding human rights, saying that Russian law shouldn’t be subordinated to external laws.

They also want to change Ch.1 article 13, which forbids any official state ideology.

Considering Russia’s past, that’s a sensitive issue, to put it mildly.

In the Soviet Constitution, the Communist Party was explicitly given the “leading role,” and Marxism-Leninism was the party ideology.

Depending on who was in power and what was going on politically, there were times when people felt brave enough to criticize the system—gently or very obliquely. Twentieth-century Russian literature is full of impressive examples. At other times, people suffered greatly for daring to question the official version of events openly.

English: Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during...

Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov in the 1910s, during his university years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the USSR collapsed and Russians wrote a new constitution, they banned any official or obligatory ideology, with the understandable aim of not repeating that history.

Fedorov’s argument in favor of bringing it back now—twenty years later—is that Russian law has no soul as long as the state has no ideology. He told Moskovsky Komsomolets, “Fundamental Law deprived of ideology is a document without a heart. We want it to have a heart.”

The journalist comments during the interview that the 13th article “is a guarantee that the state won’t persecute people for thinking differently [inakomyslie]. … We have a thousand-year history” of punishing people for that.

Fedorov is more concerned with the health of the Russian state, which he says is “ill.” “The 13th article is a ban on moral values and state support of them. How can one live without an understanding of good and evil? The state must have the right to support good, patriotism, a healthy lifestyle, properly teach schoolchildren.” He says it isn’t right that Russians should have a law forbidding ideology. “It isn’t right. It’s a lack of trust in one’s people.”

This project may or may not become law. Other deputies might oppose it, but the Duma set a powerful precedent last year by pushing Kremlin critic Gennady Gudkov out. Would supporters of Fedorov’s draft law follow this example, or threaten to? Anyway, the bill’s fate is really in Putin’s hands. He might want the constitution changed this way, or maybe he wants to scare people a little. In any event, the process of actually changing these parts of the constitution would be very complex.

In the meantime, the possibility is provoking some debate (with some of it written in verse—how Russian!). Among other things, critics are worried that removing the ban would lead to an official one-party system. It would be great to have several real, independent parties with competing ideologies, but Russians already know what can happen when there is only one party, one ideology.

In conclusion, I have some questions for Fedorov and his pals:

  • Why does ideology have to be “official” to exist or have influence?
  • Is “a lack of trust in one’s people” really the problem here?
  • Why do Russian citizens need their government to tell them what is right and wrong? Too bad they can’t simply observe their leaders to understand that.

 

UPDATE: The Kremlin said today (Dec. 4) that it doesn’t support the proposal to change the constitution.  According to Izvestiya, Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said Putin is more interested in the search for a “national idea” that could protect national identity and unity. Fedorov says he is not giving up on his project.

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Culture: A Shopping Cart With A Bad Wheel

Head In Hands

Head In Hands. When will the political posturing end?(Photo credit: craigmdennis)

I haven’t posted on this blog in a while. The aspects of US politics and political culture that have preoccupied me lately are frustrating, and I wanted a break from criticizing.

Plus, I was trying to spend less time thinking about politics as long as the theater of the absurd continued on Capitol Hill.

That continues still, but I read something this week about the US system of government that highlights some things I really love about this country.

Daniel Hannan’s “Saturday Essay” in the Nov. 16-17 Wall Street Journal looks at some values and institutions shared by the US and UK—and English-speaking countries in general. He says what sets them apart is an emphasis on “personal liberty, free contract, jury trials, uncensored newspapers, regular elections, habeas corpus, open competition, secure property, religious pluralism.”

Personal liberty is connected with an emphasis on the individual over the collective, which in my opinion is the root of some serious problems but also a source of great strength. Hannan makes some other interesting points, but the best part is about our legal system.

Talking about foreign observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannan says

Above all, liberty was tied up with something [they] could only marvel at: the miracle of the common law. Laws weren’t written down in the abstract and then applied to particular disputes; they built up, like a coral reef, case by case. They came not from the state but from the people. The common law wasn’t a tool of government but an ally of liberty.

This liberty, “freedom under the law,” is passed on not through blood ties but through shared institutions and culture. So anyone can become a part of it.

Here’s the big “however.”

There is, of course, a flip-side. If the U.S. abandons its political structures, it will lose its identity more thoroughly than states that define nationality by blood or territory. Power is shifting from the 50 states to Washington, D.C., from elected representatives to federal bureaucrats, from citizens to the government. As the U.S. moves toward European-style health care, day care, college education, carbon taxes, foreign policy and spending levels, so it becomes less prosperous, less confident and less free.

We sometimes talk of the English-speaking nations as having a culture of independence. But culture does not exist, numinously, alongside institutions; it is a product of institutions. People respond to incentives. Make enough people dependent on the state, and it won’t be long before Americans start behaving and voting like…well, like Greeks.

When I first read this, I thought “great, I’ve been ambushed by more rhetoric about how Obama and the Democrats are destroying America.” Then I read it again and noticed that Hannan is British, so he’s not running for office here, trying to appeal to voters.  (I put down the Benadryl.)

He has a point. Our political identity is based so much on belief. If our beliefs change, then our institutions, culture, and identity will too. This shift toward European-style institutions does seem to be happening, but this is hard to observe from inside the country. Like standing on a glacier and trying to detect movement. You know something’s happening because you know that glaciers move, but you can’t tell exactly what.

Is there any way to influence where the “glacier” is headed?

A shopping cart filled with bagged groceries l...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I imagine political culture as a giant shopping cart with a wheel that sticks. It’s hard to steer, and when you put a few hundred million people and their mental baggage in it, the cart becomes even harder to control. So you’re along for the ride.

This worries me, but I also think the (apparent) difficulty of steering our culture could be a good thing, because that makes it less susceptible to the influence of any person or group that isn’t looking out for the interests of the majority.

Some People Make It Too Easy

The Guardians

The Guardians (Photo credit: oefe)

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency has been requiring Verizon to turn over certain information about its customers’ phone calls. The paper said the Obama administration got the ok from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court in April to demand that the telecom provide on an “ongoing, daily basis” all “‘session identifying information’, such as ‘originating and terminating number’, the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and ‘comprehensive communication routing information.’”

The Guardian wrote that the collection of such “metadata” does not require a warrant under US law, and that the order does not allow the government to listen to the actual conversations (because, you know, that would be going too far).

As far as I know this hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s probably true.

What irritated me even more this morning was the reaction I heard from an NPR listener, who took the “if you don’t have anything to hide, then it shouldn’t bother you” position.

Oh, well, when you put it that way….

No. That doesn’t make it ok. We have to stop thinking like that.

It’s un-American. In our Bill of Rights, Amendment 4 says

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

What would the reaction be from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or someone else who risked everything to create this country: Disgust? Despair? Gape-mouthed shock that Americans would be ok with any government–Democratic or Republican–that holds itself above the Constitution? (after we explained “telephone” and “cell phone” to them, of course)

Could this kind of thinking lead anywhere good?

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a ...

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using the same argument, the police should be able to come into any home without probable cause. “Oh no, don’t mind us. Don’t let us interrupt your dinner. We’ll be out of your hair in a few hours.” And the people living there shouldn’t mind as long as they’re keeping out of trouble.

According to this mentality, those who object to warrantless searches must be people with something to hide. Not people who actually expect the government to obey the law. Yes, of course the government is run by imperfect, flawed humans, but being cynical about what we expect from those humans doesn’t get us anywhere.

P.S.

Just think about this: The people doing the domestic spying aren’t necessarily the kind of “straight arrows” one might expect to be working at the NSA. I used to know someone who worked there and still downloaded pirated movies at home. As if he couldn’t afford to pay for them. Those responsible for protecting national security should have more integrity than that.

Among the people carrying out this or other surveillance could be the same kind of government employees and public servants who have been caught cavorting with prostitutes while on duty, spending taxpayer money on private parties and dance instruction videos, or providing classified information to foreign governments.

Is that the kind of citizen you want spying on you?

Fear and Loathing in the Gun Control Debate

On my “About” page, I ask these questions: “What do people expect from their leaders? Do they trust them and accept their authority? Do the people feel protected from threats?”

When I wrote that, months ago, I was thinking about threats like terrorist attacks or cyber attacks.

If you’ve read about the American gun-control debate lately, it’s hard not to notice the fear of another kind of threat.

Among those who oppose further restrictions or more thorough background checks there is a group that considers the government itself to be the threat. And they believe they must have firearms to protect themselves from the government.

This isn’t a new development. For a long time, gun rights advocates have pointed to American history as proof of how important it is for people to have—or be able to have—weapons.  They say our freedom was won from our former British rulers at the end of a gun. That’s hard to argue with, but we’ll never know if the colonists could have managed to win their freedom some other way–eventually.

Emanuel Leutze's depiction of Washington's att...

Emanuel Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776 (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Augusta, Georgia City Council Member Grady Abrams puts this very well in an Augusta Chronicle opinion piece from earlier this year. Abrams acknowledges the difficulty of the guns problem, given that “the horses are out of the barn.” He also emphasizes this fear I’m talking about.

He says these gun-control opponents who view the government as a threat are not indifferent to the suffering caused by gun violence, but they fear something else more:

I DON’T BELIEVE at all that this group is callous about the shooting tragedies that have occurred recently, especially the killing of innocent children in Connecticut. To them, though, it is a matter of priority – what scares them most. Is it a person walking into a theater with an assault weapon and killing a bunch of people; a deranged individual going into a school and killing teachers and children; or a man shooting individuals from a campus tower in Texas?”

Although all of these events do shake the beliefs of this group of people, their overriding reason for fighting control, which very few want to discuss, is the hate some of them have for their government. It is not the enemy from without that they fear most. It is the enemy from within.”

Such a strongly felt need for the right to bear arms stems from the Declaration of Independence—the part where it reads people are obligated to abolish any government that becomes abusive or despotic:

THIS IS THE reason, I believe, that some will fight tooth and nail to keep their arms – assault weapons and all. It is not about hunting. Even a fool knows this. It is not about protecting homes from burglaries. It is not so much about protecting loved ones from violence. It is all about one day having to fight their government.”

Good example of what I'm talking about. From website http://forums.officer.com/t183729/

Good example of what I’m talking about. From website http://forums.officer.com/t183729/

It’s this attitude that stays on my mind.

Under what circumstances do members of this group imagine such a fight beginning?

How do they believe it would actually end?

Do they think it would benefit the common good, the economy, the country they presumably love enough to die for?

I’m not against gun ownership, but the last thing this country needs is more bad-asses with guns.

Wouldn’t it be better—and more patriotic—to take political action and try to solve the problems that bother them so deeply? Couldn’t they try to make the government look more like the one they wish they had? Easier said than done, but better than living in fear of it, no?

Do-It-Yourself Civilization

After almost two years of civil war, some Syrians have taken the law into their own hands—in a good way.

The city of Aleppo has been ruined by the civi...

The city of Aleppo has been ruined by the civil war. (Photo credit: FreedomHouse)

According to CNN, a “self-appointed council of judges, lawyers and clerics” in rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo formed the United Courts Council last fall, in “a desperate strategy…aimed at preventing Syria from descending further into chaos.”

One former government judge told journalists, “We came to work to stop people like the Free Syrian Army or others from taking advantage of the weak and to maintain law and order inside liberated areas.”

CNN said the values the rebel court is trying to uphold come from the Arab League’s unified criminal code, which is based on sharia. The court issues official documents, settles disputes, and even runs a makeshift jail, and council members have plans to set up similar courts in other parts of the country.

It’s impressive that local residents consider the “rebel court” at least somewhat legitimate, too. That must be because the alternative is anarchy.

In Leviathan, that’s what Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature, or “the war of all against all,” when there is no higher power to rule over a people. “Higher power” brings problems of its own, but it’s got to be better than a Lord of the Flies kind of existence. Hobbes could see this after his experience with the English civil wars.

We’re not likely to see civil war in the US, but if a prepper nightmare came true here, what would we do? (Feel free to leave a comment.)

28 Days Later: The Aftermath

28 Days Later: The Aftermath (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I imagine there would be a period when at least some people reverted to a state of nature, applying the brute-force method to get what they needed to survive. Some opponents of gun-control say they need to be able to protect themselves from a tyrannical government, but we should also ask ourselves if we want our neighbors to have guns in the event they go feral.

In such a crisis, others would prefer to continue living by their (political, social, religious) values and would probably form small-scale makeshift governments based on the Constitution or a religious text.

I hope never to experience this, but the Syrian story is an impressive example of how people can maintain some aspects of civilized life when their government can’t, or won’t, do it for them.

Ride the Chimp in the Direction It’s Going

Chimp in Thought

Chimp in Thought (Photo credit: Jim Epler)

Human nature, aggression, and violence have become the subject of an interesting conversation between animal behavior expert Marc Bekoff and primatologist Jane Goodall and her two co-authors.

After the school shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., Bekoff said on HuffPost that most “humans are really much nicer than we ever give them credit for.” It’s the 0.01 percent who kill and destroy that make the news, and the same misconception applies to animals. The “misleading sensationalist media” often portray animals as more violent than they are, “regardless of mounting scientific evidence that nonhumans are predominantly cooperative, peaceful and fair, and on occasion display social justice.” In his opinion, studying other animals could help us “harness our own innate goodness to make the world a better place for all beings.” (more…)

Biting Our Collective Nails

Our leaders are being irrational. Once again Americans are approaching a “fiscal cliff” and we’re waiting to see if Congress and the White House will reach a compromise that prevents another recession. I’m not sure if this irrationality is “unintentional” or if it’s being used as a strategy in the game of chicken between Democrats and Republicans. In one version of that game, two drivers speed toward each other and certain mutual destruction, and the one who swerves to avoid collision at the last minute is considered a coward. It can be smart (even rational) for one player to signal that he is “crazy” enough not to change direction, so that the other player will. But in our case these drivers have millions of people in the cars with them, so-called fiscal hostages.

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterl...

English: Two Knights Jousting Deutsch: Ritterlicher Turnier-Zweikampf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Political scientists have used this game to explain nuclear “brinkmanship” during the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it also applies to the neglected and disparaged art of political compromise–especially when a serious deadline looms. (more…)

American Hyper-Partisanship

Dishing it out

Dishing it out (Photo credit: ArtBrom)

Last night, President Obama and Governor Romney made news by being civil to each other. At the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York, they laughed at themselves and each other and praised each other’s families. This stood out because, the rest of the time, the gloves are off. We have no reason to think that will change after election day. The negative campaign ads will end, but the accusations, meanness, and hyper-partisanship won’t.

With plenty of exceptions, Democrats and Republicans will probably continue to paint the other side as liars or fools—especially as we approach the “fiscal cliff.” But instead of working to find common ground and solve our serious problems through compromise, I suspect that too many people on each side will go on attacking anyone who thinks differently. (more…)