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Archive for May, 2017

Robot Take-Over?

Wittenberg is the German city where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door 500 years ago and launched the Protestant Reformation. To mark the anniversary, the local Protestant authorities have installed a robot called BlessU-2 to deliver blessings in 5 languages.

The robot priest has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. After you have chosen your language the robot raises its arms, recites a verse from the Bible, and says “God bless and protect you.” It also beams light from its hands.

Just what we needed – and it comes with the full support of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau. “We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” explained spokesman Stephan Krebs to the The Guardian’s religion correspondent, Harriet Sherwood. “The idea is to provoke debate.”

When pressed, Krebs admits that they are not planning to replace human pastors with machines: “We don’t want to robotise our church work, but see if we can bring a theological perspective to a machine.” Good luck with that, then – but most people will just see this as another, rather comical example of robots taking over what used to be human jobs.

There’s been much talk about the “robot revolution” in the media recently. Automation has already killed millions of jobs, we are warned, and cannot be stopped. To former assembly-line workers and bank tellers whose jobs were automated out of existence two decades ago, that has the ring of truth. Ten years from now, it will probably also ring true to millions of former taxi-, bus- and long-distance truck-drivers.

And automation may also be bringing us a political revolution. Many people suspect that shocking polical events like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and a 30 percent vote for the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen in France’s recent presidential election are linked to the growing numbers of angry, jobless people in the Western industrialised countries.

But wait a minute. What “growing number of jobless people”? The official unemployment rate in the United States is now down to 4.5 percent. That statistic, however, only counts those who are actively looking for work. It does not count those who have given up looking for work.

If you include all those who are not working and not just the job-seekers, then 17.5 percent of American men of prime working age (24-55) are, to use the old word, “unemployed”. The last time US unemployment was at that level was in 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression.

Moreover, this hidden reef of unemployed people is biggest in the former industrial heartland of the United States, now known as the Rust Belt, where a critical number of ex-Democratic voters were so angry that they switched to Trump and put him into the White House.

This new reality is partly hidden by the fact that so many of these unemployed people have managed to wangle their way into disability benefits: one American worker in sixteen is now certified as disabled, whereas in 1960 (when health and safety standards were far lower) only one worker in 134 was. But back then the official statistics on unemployment were pretty close to the truth.

Exactly the same applies to the United Kingdom, where unemployment is officially only 4.8 percent. But Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research reckons that almost one-third of the people on incapacity benefits in Britain would actually be working in a full-employment economy, and that the true jobless rate in some northern post-industrial areas reaches 17 percent.

The “angry men” (and angry women) who make up this hidden reef are the key group who voted for Trump (and Brexit, and the National Front). The Americans among them have been told by Trump that their jobs were stolen by foreigners, but both in the United States and elsewhere they were actually mostly taken by automation.

Not all the jobs will go, of course, but a study released in March by financial services firm PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) predicted 38 percent job losses to automation in the United States in the next fifteen years.

The risk is not just mass unemployment, but the political radicalisation that comes with it. We’re not going to stop the automation, so we will have to redistribute the remaining work. We also have to find ways of putting real money into the pockets of those who have no work, or else the whole capitalist business model will collapse. (Not enough customers.)

And we have to find ways of subsidising people without treating them like “losers”, because that’s what really drove the the anger that put Trump in office. Otherwise, the populist demagogues who get elected in twenty years’ time may make us look back fondly on the Trump years.

But cheer up. We won’t really have robot priests.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“When…jobs”; and “Exactly…percent”)

Islamist Terrorism: Who’s to Blame?

It happens after every major terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists in a Western country: the familiar debate about who is really to blame for this phenomenon. One side trots out the weary old trope that the terrorists simply “hate our values”, and other side claims that it’s really the fault of Western governments for sending their troops into Muslim countries.

There’s a national election campaign underway in Britain, so the ghastly Manchester bombing last week has revived this argument. It started when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (who voted against the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the seven-month bombing campaign that overthrew Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011) made a speech in London on Friday.

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home,” he said.

In a later clarification, Corbyn added: “A number of people since the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn attention to the links with foreign policy, including (British foreign secretary) Boris Johnson in 2005, two former heads of MI5 (the Security Service), and of course the (parliamentary) Foreign Affairs Select Committee.”

With Labour catching up with the Conservatives in the polls, Prime Minister Teresa May leapt at the chance to twist Corbyn’s words and all but accused him of treason. “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault….and I want to make something clear to Jeremy Corbyn and to you: there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”

Boris Johnson chimed in: “Whatever we do, we can’t follow the logic of the terrorists and start blaming ourselves or our society or our foreign policy. This has been caused not by us – as Jeremy Corbyn would have us believe – it’s been caused by a sick ideology, a perverted version of Islam that hates us and hates our way of life.” It’s the old political trick of deliberately mistaking explanation for justification.

But both sides in this argument are wrong. The“Salafi” extremists who are called “Islamists” in the West (all of them Sunnis, and most of them Arabs) do hate Western values, but that’s not why they go to the trouble of making terrorist attacks on the West. And it’s not because of Western foreign policies either: there were no major Western attacks on the Arab world in the years before the 9/11 atrocity in 2001.

There had been plenty of attacks in the past: the Western conquest of almost all the Arab countries between 1830 and 1918, Western military support for carving a Zionist state out of the Arab world as the European imperial powers were pulling out after 1945, Western military backing for Arab dictators and absolute monarchs ever since.

The West turned against one of those dictators, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, after he invaded Kuwait, but it had the support of most Arab countries when it drove him out of Kuwait in the first Gulf War in 1990-91. And between then and 9/11 the West did nothing much to enrage the Arab world. Indeed, it was even backing the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process”, which looked quite promising at that time.

But there was violence in many Arab countries as Islamist revolutionaries, using terrorist tactics, tried to overthrow the local kings and dictators. Up to 200,000 Arabs were killed in these bloody struggles between 1979 and 2000, but not one of the repressive regimes was overthrown. By the turn of the century it was clear that terrorism against Arab regimes was not working. To win power, the Islamists needed a new strategy.

The man who supplied it was Osama bin Laden. He had missed out on the long terrorist war in the Arab countries because he went to Afghanistan to fight a Soviet invasion in 1979. But in Afghanistan he fought in a war that Islamists actually won: having lost 14,000 dead, the Russians gave up and went home in 1989. The Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) came to power as a result.

Bin Laden realised that this could be a route to power for the Islamists of the Arab world as well: provoke the West to invade Muslim countries, lead the struggle against the Western occupation forces – and when the Western armies finally give up and go home (as they always do in the end) the Islamists will come to power.

That was why he founded al-Qaeda, and 9/11 was intended to sucker the United States into playing the role of infidel invader. Western governments have never recognised this obvious fact because they are too arrogant ever to see themelves as simply the dupes in somebody else’s strategy. Their foreign policy error was to fall for bin Laden’s provocation hook, line and sinker – and they are still falling for it sixteen years later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs .

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Two Bombs

There were two bombs on Monday. The one in Britain killed at least 22 people and injured 120 as they came out of a concert at Manchester Arena. It was carried out by a suicide bomber named Salman Abedi and claimed by ISIS. The other was in Thailand, and injured 22 people at a military-linked hospital in Bangkok; nobody has claimed responsibility yet. But what happened afterwards was very different.

In Manchester they just kept calm and carried on. The Scottish band Simple Minds went ahead with their scheduled concert at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester on Tuesday night, and 80 percent of the people who had bought tickets showed up for the show. Lead singer Jim Kerr told the audience they would all have “felt cowardly” if they didn’t play, they had a minute’s silence for the victims, and then they rocked.

The response was similar all over the country. Flags were at half-mast everywhere, and they even temporarily halted the campaigning for the national election due on 8 June, but NOBODY suggested that the election should be cancelled. That would be not just be craven; it would be ridiculous.

It was different in Thailand. Nobody died in the Bangkok attack, and the bomb was clearly not intended to kill people. It was timed to mark the third anniversary of the most recent military coup, and the likeliest perpetrators were a sidelined faction in the army (although the authorities will probably blame it on pro-democracy activists).

But the leader of the military junta, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, went completely over the top. When he seized power in 2014, he promised elections in 2015. Using various pretexts, he has pushed them down to 2018, but he is now having second thoughts about the whole idea. “I want everyone to think,” Prayuth said. “If the country is still like this, with bombs, weapons, and conflicts among people … can we hold an election?”

OF COURSE they can hold elections. Why would the occasional bomb stop that? As for “conflicts among people”, those are inevitable in any society, and elections are the way you settle them (at least temporarily) without violence. Prayut is just nervous about holding an election because it might embolden all the supporters of democracy who have been frightened into silence.

He really shouldn’t be nervous, because he has rigged the game pretty thoroughly. The new constitution, ratified last month, makes it practically certain that the military will choose every government even if there are free elections.

Prayut is taking a somewhat subtler approach than the people who succeeded in provoking a military intervention by endless, often violent demonstrations in Bangkok. They thought the best way to ensure that the government stayed in the right hands would be simply to ban the poor from voting entirely, but Prayut realised that this was bound to offend contemporary sensibilities.

The new voting system makes it almost impossible for any single party to win a majority of seats in the lower house of the National Assembly. And the upper house (senate), all of whose 250 members are directly appointed by the military, will have a leading role in choosing who forms the new government unless there is a single clear winner in the lower house.

Thailand has been trapped in a cycle of civil unrest and military intervention since the first left-wing, populist government was elected in 2001 under the leadership of Thaksin Shinawatra. The elite and the urban middle class were appalled by his diversion of government resources from their own interests to those of the rural majority and the urban poor, and they sought military help.

The first military coup came in 2006, but when the soldiers tried to legitimise the government by holding elections under a new military-written constitution, Thaksin’s party won again. He went into voluntary exile after that, but his party, under various names and various leaders, just kept on winning the elections.

The party, now called Pheu Thai and led by Thaksin’s younger sister, was driven from power again by the military coup of 2014. Now Prayut Chan-o-cha and his fellow generals are trying once again to devise a constitution that would keep the “wrong” people from winning elections. In theory it looks pretty Thaksin-proof, but Prayut is clearly getting cold feet about testing it in practice.

The problem is that if the pro-Thaksin voters are disciplined enough – and they probably are – then they could beat the new voting system by splitting into several parties but running only one of them in each constituency that they have a chance of winning. Then reunite those parties in a coalition when the National Assembly meets, and you have an instant majority government and no call for intervention by the military-run senate.

Monday’s bomb in Bangkok may indicate increasing divisions in the army. Even some of the soldiers must be having doubts about the military’s ability to keep permanent control of the country’s politics, and also about the autocratic ways of the new (and widely unpopular) king. The next turn in the long saga of Thailand’s quest for a genuine democracy may not be far off.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Prayut…sensibilities”: and “The problem…senate”)

Principled Realism

The media mostly missed it (or chose to ignore it as a piece of meaningless rhetoric), but Donald Trump proclaimed a new doctrine in his speech to the assembled leaders of the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. It goes by the name of Principled Realism, although it didn’t offer much by way of either principles or realism. In practice, it mostly boiled down to a declaration of (proxy) war against Iran.

After rambling on for twenty minutes about the wonders of Islam and the evils of “extremism” and “terrorism”, Trump finally got to the point: “No discussion of stamping out this (terrorist) threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists…safe harbour, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment….I am speaking, of course, of Iran.”

No mention of the fact that every single terrorist attack in the West from 9/11 down to the bomb in Manchester Arena on Monday night was carried out by Sunni fanatics, most of them of Arab origin, whereas Iran’s population is overwhelmingly Shia and not Arab at all.

No mention either of the fact that it was Sunni-majority allies of the United States, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, that enabled the two most powerful Sunni extremist groups, Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to seize large amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar gave the extremists direct and indirect financial aid, and Turkey kept its border open so that weapons, money and recruits could reach them in Syria.

And no mention of the fact that the only approved form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, is almost identical to the version of Islam espoused by the terrorists. Bringing up such awkward subjects would have upset his audience, and the last thing Trump wants to do is hurt people’s feelings.

Iran, to hear Trump tell it, is the source of all the region’s problems. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region….It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many nations and leaders in this room….”

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a parter for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

Trump delivered this remarkable farrago of lies and half-truths two days after Iran, the only Middle Eastern state apart from Israel and Turkey to hold relatively free elections, re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, who has worked hard to reduce the influence of his hard-line opponents. He also signed the deal freezing Iranian work on nuclear weapons for ten years, and he clearly has popular support for his policies.

The “militias” Iran trains and supports include those in Iraq that are fighting to free the city of Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State (they also have tacit American support), and the Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon, which has been part of the Lebanese government since 2005. There is no evidence that Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite frequent allegations to that effect by Arab and American sources.

The Iranian goverment does not “speak openly about mass murder”, and the one Iranian leader who spoke about the eventual destruction of Israel (although he did not promise to do it personally) was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was defeated by Rouhani in the 2013 election, and was banned from running again in the one just past. “Death to America!” was a nationalist slogan popular in the 1980s.

Iran, like most large countries, has many conflicting political trends, and with careful selection and enough ill-will you can find enough extreme and ignorant comments to demonise the country. (You could certainly do it with Trump’s America.) But the Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded anybody, and it certainly does not support terrorist attacks against either the West or the Arab world.

Trump has drunk the Kool-Aid. He has bought into a partisan Arab narrative whose theme is an inevitable (and ultimately military) conflict between Iran and the Arab world, and has all but promised that the United States would fight on the Arab side in that putative war.

This is probably the stupidest foreign policy commitment any American administration has made since the decision 60 years ago to take France’s place in fighting the “Communist menace” in Vietnam. Iran has almost as many people as Vietnam, it’s five times as big, and it’s mostly mountains and deserts – plus some very big cities.

Maybe it is inevitable that Sunni Arab leaders will see Shia Iran through the lens of their own fears and stereotypes, and start making self-fulfilling prophecies of apocalyptic conflict. Trump has no such excuse – and ‘Principled Realism’ really is the wrong slogan. How about ‘Reckless Complicity’?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“No mention either …feelings”)