// archives

Politics

This category contains 1679 posts

Of Plagues and Genocides

8 July 2020

Last Sunday in the city of Baltimore, they tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus and threw it into the harbour.

According to the Baltimore Sun, the protesters who yanked it down with ropes were
dedicated to removing statues “honoring white supremacists, owners of enslaved people, perpetrators of genocide, and colonizers.”

We could waste a lot of time discussing the many ways this was wrong. In terms of the goals of ‘Black Lives Matter” it was a pointless distraction that merely provided fresh material for Donald Trump’s campaign of racist incitement and slander – but it may have been a deliberate provocation: the ‘protesters’ were almost all white.

For Little Italy, the inner-city Italian neighbourhood whose second- and third-generation immigrants paid to erect the statue 36 years ago, it was just mean and contemptuous. All they wanted to do was put up a statue of a famous Italian, and they knew that Christopher Columbus was the only one most of their fellow-Americans would recognise.

It was wrong because Columbus was not a slave owner (no Europeans owned slaves in his time). He was not a ‘coloniser’ (his geography was mistaken, but he was just trying to find a direct trade route to Asia). And he was certainly not a ‘white supremacist’: 15th-century Europeans had virtually no contact with people of other colours, so the issue didn’t even arise.

But let’s get to the point. There is one item in this indictment that is worth talking about, not because it is historically correct but because it shines some light on our current predicament. It’s this business about ‘perpetrators of genocide’ – the alleged genocide that wiped out 90% of the people living in the Americas within a century after Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean.

In the course of conquering the civilisations of the New World during the 16th century – Aztecs, Incas, Mayas, etc. – the conquistadors undoubtedly killed tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. That’s what conquests do, and practically every human society has gone through that experience at one time or another.

A lot of other native Americans, perhaps hundreds of thousands in the course of the first century of Spanish rule, were worked to death, especially in the silver mines of Mexico and Bolivia. But there is no record or evidence of mass killing on the scale of the great conquerors of Eurasia like Genghis Khan and Tamurlane, nor is there any reason why the conquerors would have wanted to kill on that scale.

Yet 90% of the population of the Americas – let’s say 45 out of 50 million people – perished between 1500 and 1600. Most of them were farmers, of course, and as the forests grew back on their abandoned farms it drew so much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that the global temperature dropped, causing (or at least exacerbating) the Little Ice Age of the 1600s and 1700s.

What killed the great majority of those people was not violence but waves of quick-killer Eurasian diseases to which they had no immunity: influenza and pneumonic plagues, enteric fevers, smallpox, even measles. Just one wave of ‘cocoliztli’ (probably salmonella enterica, an enteric fever similar to typhoid) killed 80 percent of the Aztec population of Mexico in 1545-50.

Quick-killer diseases only thrive in species that live in dense herds, where the killer virus or bacteria has a good chance of being passed on before its current victim dies. The native American populations mostly lived in densely populated civilisations by Columbus’s time, but they hadn’t left the common hunter-gatherer past behind long enough to develop such diseases.

By 1500 Europeans and Asians had been farmers living in dense populations with lots of cities for almost 5,000 years: plenty of time for those diseases to make the jump from their herds of cattle, sheep, and pigs to new human hosts. With each new disease, millions died: the Antonine plague devastated the Roman empire in the 2nd century AD, and the Black Death killed about one-third of the populations of both Europe and Asia in the 13th century.

In the Americas, however, farming cultures with dense populations and cities were thousands of years more recent, and there were few herd animals. The populations had not yet developed quick-killer diseases of their own, and they had no defences against the Eurasian ones. They got hit by them all at once, and it almost wiped them out.

It wasn’t a genocide. In fact ‘first contact’ would have had the same devastating effect on New World civilisations if Aztec explorers with sea-going ships had ‘discovered’ Europe.

But the whole process has a serious message for us, because the current pandemic is just a later example of the same problem. New, highly infectious diseases are a chronic problem in mass societies like the current global civilisation. There will be more, and some will be more lethal.
__________________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (For Little…recognise”; and “It wasn’t…Europe”)

Hong Kong: The ‘British’ 3 Million

“We will grant BNOs five years’ limited leave to remain (in the United Kingdom), with the right to work or study,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the UK parliament on July 1. “After five years, they will be able to apply for settled status. After a further twelve month with settled status, they will be able to apply for citizenship.”

The stunning thing about this promise is that it applies to all three million people in Hong Kong – almost half the population – who have British National (Overseas) status by virtue of having been born there before the former British colony was handed back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.

They don’t even need to have an actual BNO passport (although 300,000 of them do). All three million of them qualify: “all those with BNO status will be eligible, as will their family dependants who are ordinarily resident in Hong Kong. The Home Office will put in place a simple, streamlined application process. There will be no quota on numbers.”

This is an unprecedented commitment, and it’s not even a legal requirement. Britain voluntarily gave asylum to 30,000 Ugandan Asians in 1972 when the bloody dictator Idi Amin confiscated their property and expelled them from the country, but we’re talking about potentially a hundred times as many people in Hong Kong.

It is a debt of honour, however, as Britain negotiated an agreement with China that Hong Kong would keep the rule of law, free speech, and freedom of the press for 50 years after the hand-over in 1997. China has broken that ‘one country, two systems’ deal, and Hong Kongers can only expect a thinly disguised Communist dictatorship from now on.

It’s right there in the new ‘security’ laws imposed illegally last month by the regime’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress in Beijing. New crimes include separatism, subversion, terrorism and ‘collusion with foreign forces’, the same vague catch-all charges that the Communist regime uses to suppress dissent in the People’s Republic. (‘Terrorism’ includes damaging public transport.) Maximum sentence is life in prison.

These laws will be enforced by China’s ‘security’ (i.e. political) police, who will now operate in Hong Kong. The charges they bring may be tried in Hong Kong’s courts, but if there are ‘certain circumstances’ or ‘special situations’ the accused can be extradited to mainland courts, entirely under the regime’s thumb, where the conviction rate is well above 99%. In other words, it’s over.

It’s not just freedom that’s over. As Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, wrote recently: “If China destroys the rule of law in Hong Kong, it will ruin the city’s chances of continuing to be a great international financial hub that mediates about two-thirds of the direct investment in and out of China.”

The decision has been taken, and Hong Kong’s residents have two good reasons to leave: their freedoms are gone, and the economic future is grim. Many will decide to leave, but where can they go?

For the 300,000 Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, the 100,000 Australian citizens, the 100,000 British citizens and the 85,000 Americans, it’s easy. Most are ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong who knew that you could never trust the Communists, and took out an insurance policy long ago by emigrating to another country and acquiring citizenship.

Most of them even bought houses, but then they moved back to Hong Kong to be with their wider family and make better money. Many will go soon, because the Communist regime may start forbidding people to leave (it doesn’t recognise dual citizenship). Others will gamble on staying for the time being, in the hope that if it gets very bad they will still be able to get out later.

For the three million more who have BNO status, it’s a harder choice. They have much less money, and no houses, no contacts, no jobs waiting for them in Britain. But they’re ambitious, they’re well educated, and a lot of them are young. It would be surprising if at least half a million of them didn’t take up the British offer.

Just one little problem: the children of people with BNO status who were born after 1997 but are too old to qualify as dependants – the 18 to 23-year-olds – are not currently eligible for BNO status. That includes a majority of the young adults who were active in the protests and have most to fear. But the British government says it is considering their case.

And one little doubt. It is still hard to believe that an ultra-nationalist British government that won the Brexit referendum on a wave of anti-foreign rhetoric, and a Home Office that still stubbornly maintains a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, will really keep these promises.

It would be nice if they kept their word, but it would also be quite surprising.

Syrian Sanctions

Last week the United States imposed new sanctions on Syria: a “sustained campaign of economic and political pressure” to end the nine-year war by forcing President Bashar al-Assad to UN-brokered peace talks where he would negotiate his departure from power. Assad’s wife was already cross about not being able to shop at Harrod’s or Bergdorf Goodman, so he should crumble any day now.

Other things are crumbling already. Ordinary people’s incomes are collapsing (down by three-quarters since the beginning of the year). The price of food in Syria has doubled. Lebanon next-door, already in financial meltdown, is now seeing its large trade with Syria vanish as well.

Even those Syrians who support the regime – around a third of the people who have not fled the country – will have a much harder time, but they won’t desert the regime. The more prosperous ones depend on Assad’s regime for their income, and the poorer ones are mostly minorities who fear they will be slaughtered if the jihadis win.

The US decision to raise the pressure on Assad is probably a random by-product of Donald Trump’s obsessive campaign against Iran (which has been helping the Syrian regime to stay afloat). If Trump even knows that the remaining rebel groups in Syria are by now all led by fanatical Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, the group that organised the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he doesn’t care.

The Syrian tragedy is mainly due to endless foreign interventions. The Syrians who called for an end to Assad’s regime in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 were just like the young men and women who started demanding the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak at the same time. They were both genuinely popular movements, not fronts for jihadis.

The Egyptian protesters won, there was a free election – and then the army struck back in 2013, slaughtered several thousand people in the streets of Cairo, and put General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi in power, where he remains to this day. Egypt is at peace, although hundreds more people have probably died in Sisi’s prisons since then, and thousands have been tortured.

The Syrian protesters didn’t get that far. They were driven from the streets – but then various foreign powers started organising the rebels and giving them arms. The war has lasted another eight years, and somewhere between 400,000 and 700,000 Syrians have been killed. Five million Syrians have fled abroad, and another five million are displaced within Syria.

So here’s the question: would you prefer Egypt’s fate or Syria’s? Both countries are still tyrannies, but one is literally in ruins, with half the population out of their homes, and the other had a few thousand deaths. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

The Syrian power struggle would probably have ended in an Assad victory around the same time that General Sisi took over in Egypt if the US, Turkey and Saudi Arabia hadn’t begun sending the Syrian rebels arms and money. US motives were mixed, but the Turks and the Saudis, both led by different kinds of militant Muslims, just saw an opportunity to replace a secular regime with a hard-line Islamist one.

They would probably have succeeded if Russia had not intervened to save Assad in 2015, and Syria would probably be divided today between al-Qaeda and Islamic State. The groups linked to al-Qaeda absorbed or destroyed all the others, and today they rule over a single province in northwest Syria under Turkish protection. But still the war drags on.

If any of these outside players had been willing to put its own troops in the ground, the war would at least have ended years ago (though it might have ended badly). But none of them were willing to risk their own soldiers’ lives – not even the Russians, who stick to air strikes. And now the US is hitting Syria with even bigger sanctions.

When governments impose sanctions they usually explain that they had to “do something”, but the new sanctions will hurt ordinary Syrians very badly. They might be justified if there were a reasonable chance that more sanctions could bring Assad’s regime down, but there’s no chance of that, and everybody knows it.

In a famous paper in 1997, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago showed that out of 116 cases of international sanctions being imposed during the 20th century, in only six cases did the target government yield to the demands of the country imposing the sanctions. The success rate has not improved since.

It’s 70 years since the United States imposed sanctions on North Korea, and the Kim family is still in power. It’s 60 years since it put sanctions on Cuba, and the Communists still rule. It’s 40 years since Washington slapped sanctions on Iran, and the ayatollahs still rule. Not to mention Zimbabwe (sanctions since 2003), or Venezuela (2006), or Russia (2014).

‘Doing something’ feels good, but it doesn’t usually do much good.
____________________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“Even…win”; and “If any…sanctions”)

Putin’s Plea

Donald Trump writes in tweets, with more exclamation marks than a thirteen-year-old girl’s diary. Nobody knows for sure whether his very limited vocabulary is due to concern for his intended target audience, or to his own gradual mental decline. (Look at interviews from 20 years ago, and he was still using long words and speaking in complete sentences.)

China’s president, as witness his philosophical masterpiece, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, is a fluent writer of the ‘langue de bois’, the ‘wooden language’ of abstractions, slogans, bad metaphors and cant used by sub-Marxist thinkers and other ideologues. The Chinese call it ‘konghua’ (empty speech), and Xi is a master of the art.

They speak a non-Marxist version of the langue de bois at the École nationale d’administration ( ÉNA – National School of Administration), the finishing school for most French politicians. It’s still stilted twaddle, and President Emmanuel Macron is an énarque, so he sometimes sounds out of touch – but he can also speak and write human.

So can Boris Johnson, part-time prime minister of the United Kingdom. He even wrote a whole book about how much Winston Churchill resembled him, and he can talk just like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, so he’s no slouch in the literary department either. But none of these world leaders can hold a candle to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The Russian president has just done something none of these other men would or even could do. He has written a 9,000-word essay on the risk to world peace to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and published it in the leading American foreign policy magazine The National Interest.

Putin called it ‘The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II’, which presumably refers to the end of the war in early May of 1945, but that was obviously last month. Instead, he scheduled publication for this week, because 22 June is the date when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He wanted to write this piece so badly that he deliberately mixed up the dates.

One of his objectives is to rectify the ignorant omission of any mention of Russia’s leading role in defeating Nazi Germany in the Anglo-American celebrations of the anniversary last month. Russians are sensitive on this subject, because, as Putin points out, one out of seven Russians was killed in the war (27 million people) compared to one in 127 British (less than half a million) and one in 320 Americans (the same).

He also spends some time defending the Nazi-Soviet pact to conquer and share out Poland, the three Baltic states and parts of Finland and Romania, which fired the starting gun for the Second World War in 1939. This is a futile, thankless task that every Russian leader is condemned to perform for at least another generation.

There were extenuating circumstances, certainly. Britain and France rejected repeated Soviet offers of an anti-Nazi alliance, hoping that Hitler would attack Russia instead, or at least playing for time while they raced to re-arm. There was still no excuse for what Stalin did, nor for the fact that he was taken by surprise when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union anyway less than two years later.

So far, so predictable, you might say, but the concluding third of Putin’s essay is quite different. It is an almost desperate plea for the preservation of the international order embodied in the rules of the United Nations and especially of the Security Council, which has kept the peace between the nuclear-armed great powers for such an astoundingly long time.

He writes: “The victorious powers…laid the foundation of a world that for 75 years had no global war, despite the sharpest contradictions….What is veto power in the UN Security Council? To put it bluntly, it is the only reasonable alternative to a direct confrontation between major countries.”

“(The veto) is a statement by one of the great powers that a decision is unacceptable to it and is contrary to its interests and its ideas about the right approach. And other countries, even if they do not agree, (accept this position), abandoning any attempts to realize their unilateral efforts. So, in one way or another, it is necessary to seek compromises.”

Putin is right: the United Nations is not a naively idealistic organisation, and the Security Council is brutally realistic about how to keep the peace between nuclear powers. It has done so successfully for 75 years, but it is now threatened by the rival, non-negotiable nationalisms of many countries and the growing isolationism of the United States.

Rather like the 1930s, in fact. Putin is not older or naturally wiser than the other leaders, but he is Russian and KGB-trained, so he remembers the history a lot better. He is actually scared, and he’s probably right to be.
____________________________________
To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“He also…later”)