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Assange Hearing

The cost of being a whistle-blower is going up. When Daniel Ellberg stole and published the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, revealing the monstrous lies that the US government was telling the American public about the Vietnam war, he was arrested and tried, but the court set him free.

When Edward Snowden released a vast trove of documents in 2013 about the global electronic surveillance activities of US intelligence agencies, he was already abroad, knowing that civil liberties had taken a turn for the worse in the US since 1971. Snowden is still abroad seven years later, living in Moscow, because hardly anywhere else would be safe.

And Julian Assange, whose court hearing on a US extradition request began on Monday at Woolwich crown court in east London, is facing 175 years in jail if Britain delivers him into American hands. The American authorities are really cross about his WikiLeaks dump of confidential material in 2010 that detailed US misbehaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Everybody knew or at least suspected that terrible things were happening there, but without documentation there was really nothing they could do about it. What Assange did was give them the evidence.

The most striking piece of evidence was a video and audio clip from an Apache helicopter gunship attacking civilians in Baghdad in 2007. The crew spray their targets with machine-gun fire, making comments like “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle” and “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” They even target people in a vehicle that stops to help the wounded.

As for the claims of the US authorities that Assange has “blood on his hands” – that his 2010 data dump endangered the lives of some of those who were mentioned in the documents – there is not a shred of evidence that this is so. If anyone had come to harm over the past nine years as a result of his actions, don’t you think that the US government would have trumpeted it to the skies?

The whistle-blowers are among our last remaining checks on the contemptuous ease with which those who control the information seek to manipulate the rest of us. We don’t always respond to the whistle-blowers’ revelations as fast and as strongly as they would hope, but they are indispensable to keep the level of lying down. They should be praised, not punished.

So what are the chances that Julian Assange will escape extradition to the United States and a lifetime in prison? His lawyers will doubtless argue that nobody was harmed as a result of his revelations (except perhaps in their reputations for truthfulness) and that nobody profited by them. A British court might look unfavourably on an extradition request that is brought out of sheer vindictiveness.

The story that Donald Trump contacted Assange through an intermediary, former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, might also help. Trump was allegedly offering to pardon Assange if the Australian would confirm that it wasn’t the Russians who gave him the Hilary Clinton campaign emails he released during the 2016 election campaign.

This has all been denied by both Rohrabacher and the Trump White House, but in carefully phrased ways that leave room for suspicion. Trump’s recent denial that he doesn’t know Rohrabacher and never spoke to him is especially suspect, since he invited the man to the White House for a one-on-one in April, 2017. British courts will not extradite if the request is politically motivated.

But Assange’s best chance probably lies elsewhere. During the seven years when he lived in Ecuador’s embassy in London as a political asylum-seeker, a Spanish security company called UC Global installed cameras in every corner of Assange’s space in the embassy and live-streamed every contact and conversation he had, including with his lawyers, directly to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

I don’t know how a British court will respond to that information, but I think I know how an American court would respond. That’s how Ellsberg got off in 1971: the government tapped his phone conversations (and sent burglars to break into his psychiatrist’s office and steal his file), so the judge dismissed the case because the government’s behaviour was outrageous and no fair trial was possible.

There will be many appeals, both in the UK and maybe later in the US, and Assange will not draw a free breath for a long time, if ever. But in the meantime, here’s one happy ending.

Edward Snowden couldn’t tell his girlfriend his plans before he left the US and released his documents, because that would have made her his accomplice. She was angry at first, but she forgave him, married him in 2017, and lives with him in Russia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The whistle-blowers…punished”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Morsi: A Death Foretold

Egypt’s first and last democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, died on Monday, lying on the floor of the courtroom where they were trying him on yet more charges. (He was already serving several life sentences.) It was probably a heart attack, but according to witnesses they left him lying there for twenty minutes before medical help arrived.

He was only 67, but he was not in good health: he had both diabetes and liver disease. But he was not getting proper treatment for those illnesses: a British parliamentary group that investigated his situation at his family’s request last year concluded that without urgent medical assistance the damage to his health could be “permanent and possibly terminal.” Well, it was.

Morsi was held in solitary confinement for six years, and saw his family just three times. His living conditions were such that the United Nations Human rights office has called for a “prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into his death. Fair enough, but he is only one of thousands of Egyptians who have been murdered or tortured by the military regime that overthrew him in 2013.

Morsi was not a very good president: he was a narrow, stubborn man who governed solely in the interests of his own Muslim Brotherhood party and its Islamic priorities. He behaved like this even though he had barely scraped into the presidency with the votes of many who, though secular in their views and values, feared that otherwise the candidate of the old regime would win.

They fully shared his desire to uproot the secular ‘deep state’ that had ruled Egypt through three military dictators and six decades, but they had not signed up for an Islamist constitution instead. So they started demonstrating against Morsi, and only a year after he was elected they cheered when the military stepped in and overthrew him, like so many turkeys voting for Christmas.

Morsi and his party behaved badly, the secular pro-democracy activists were no wiser, and they have both paid a high price in blood and misery for their mistakes. So is there any particular reason to highlight the fact and manner of Morsi’s passing?

Yes, because it creates an opportunity to consider what might have happened if he had not been overthrown.

He would probably still be alive, because he would have been getting good medical care, but he would no longer be in power. His four-year presidential term would have expired in 2016, and he would not have won a second term.

Whoever won the first election after long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 was winning a poisoned chalice, for the Egyptian economy was already on the rocks when the protests began. In fact, that’s why they started, and the long period of protesting and politicking that followed meant that nobody even started thinking about the economy again until early 2013.

The whole of Morsi’s first presidential term, had he served it out, would have been spent struggling to pull the economy out of the ditch. In the course of that, he would have had to impose all sorts of austerity measures that would have hurt exactly the people who were his core voters: the pious poor. And half of them wouldn’t have voted for him next time.

The whole tragedy of 2013, which ended up with General al-Sisi’s snipers killing more than a thousand unarmed protesters in Rabaa and Nahda Squares in Cairo and wounding at least 4,000 others – a massacre perhaps as bad as Tienanmen Square – was completely unnecessary. People more experienced with democracy would have known that Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule would both be rejected in the 2016 elections.

All they had to do was wait it out, and let the voters sort it out next time. That’s what Americans who deplore Donald Trump are doing right now, but they have more than two centuries of democratic government under their belt.

The voters may choose to make the same ‘mistake’ again, of course, being only human, but mostly they don’t. And even if they do, there will be another chance to fix things the next time around. As long as the decisions are not completely irrevocable, they can eventually be reversed – and you get to keep your democracy.

If Morsi had not been overthrown, the biggest Arab country, with one-third of the world’s Arabic-speaking people, would still be a democracy. Other Arab countries like Algeria and Sudan, where they are trying to make democracy happen today, would have a powerful supporter in Egypt, not a sworn enemy.

Syria would probably still have suffered a civil war, and so might Yemen, but the ultra-conservative monarchies of the Gulf would no longer dominate the Arab world with their money. Nobody can question the courage of the young men and women who overthrew the Egyptian dictatorship in 2011, but they were too ready to dispense with democracy at the first sign of trouble.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Morsi…2013″; and “Whoever…2013″)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Trump, Tariffs and How to Start a War

The best way to deal with Donald Trump, especially if you are a foreign government negotiating trade issues, is to give him a little win. It doesn’t have to be big and important; he’s mainly interested in declaring a triumph, and he’ll supply the hot air to inflate your little concession into an allegedly major defeat free of charge. Just remember to look crest-fallen, and you’re home and dry.

Thus, for example, Trump’s recent ‘triumph’ over Mexico. He threatens escalating tariffs against Mexico, the Mexicans cave in after ten days, and the border problem is solved (until the next time he needs it). Only the nerds notice that the Mexican ‘concessions’ are almost all actions that Mexico had already promised to take in quiet, orderly discussions with the United States between December and March.

The Canadians did even better when renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Trump called it the “the worst deal ever signed,” but several clauses in the old treaty that Ottawa disliked were dropped. The only Canadian concession was to give U.S. dairy producers access to 10% of the Canadian milk market (that’s just 3 million people) – if they can persuade those Canadians to buy their bovine growth hormone-treated milk.

A very small price to pay, but nobody in Canada was so foolish as to crow out loud that they had seen the Americans off. The Canadian negotiators looked suitably hangdog and defeated, and Trump claimed the credit for a “great deal” and a “historic transaction”. Game, set and match to Ottawa.

And so to the grand drama of Trump’s tariff war with China. This one ought to be a no-brainer, because China is in an extremely vulnerable position. Its exports to America are worth almost three times as much as US exports to China, so it really cannot afford to lose the U.S. market. Chinese President Xi Jinping should just give Trump enough to make him happy – he’s easily pleased – and move on to the next problem.

To the extent that Donald Trump calculates his moves beforehand, this would have been his calculation, and it is logically correct. But it didn’t work out that way: after a year of escalation and counter-escalation, the two countries are nearing the point where they will have imposed 25% tariffs on all of each other’s exports. What went wrong?

Trump issued his usual threats and was the first to escalate at every step of the dance, but if the Mexicans and the Canadians can work around his histrionics, why can’t the Chinese?

Maybe it’s just pride: Xi simply can’t abide the vision of Trump capering with joy as he celebrates his victory over the Chinese. Or maybe it’s fear: letting Trump have a victory (and a real one, this time) would so humiliate Xi in the eyes of his own colleagues and rivals that his own position would be in danger.

It’s probably the latter. The negotiations seemed to be going well, with Trump predicting an “epic” deal and praising his dear friend Xi. Then suddenly in early May the White House complained that China was trying to re-negotiate points previously agreed, and the whole thing fell apart. It feels like Xi lost an argument at home – which would imply that he is considerably less secure in power than everybody assumed.

In either case, Xi is making a big mistake. The Chinese economy is not doing well. Factory output is declining, and new car sales fell last year for the first time since 1990. China’s total debt, even on untrustworthy official figures, is nearing three times annual GDP, which is the level where panic usually sets in. In fact, it’s the level at which Japan’s three-decade economic depression began in 1991.

Strip out all the unproductive investment and creative accountancy, and Chinese GDP grew last year by less than 2%. Employment is stagnant, retail sales are falling, the stock market dropped by a quarter last year. This is not an economy in good shape to withstand a prolonged trade war.

The great fear of the Chinese Communist Party is that people will turn against the regime if the economy stalls and living standards stop rising. They certainly don’t love the regime. Why else would they obey it? This theory may be tested to destruction in the next few years.

So if Xi is not free to do a trade deal with the US and the Chinese economy tanks, what must he do to save Communist rule and his own power? He will need a foreign war, or at least the threat of one, in order to get nationalism on his side. Not war with the United States, of course. That would be crazy. But Taiwan would do nicely.

And this is one that you really can’t blame on Trump.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The Canadians…Ottawa”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Great Dying, the Little Ice Age, and Us

The Black Death killed about 30% of the European population in a few years in the middle of the 14th century. A century and a half later the native people of the Americas were hit by half a dozen plagues as bad as the Black Death, one after another, and 95% of them died. The plagues of the ‘Great Dying’ had much less terrifying names like measles, influenza, diphtheria and smallpox, but they were just as efficient at killing.

When the tens of millions of native Americans died, the forests grew back on the land they used to farm. All those forests absorbed so much carbon dioxide that the average global temperature dropped, and what would otherwise have been a minor cyclical cooling became the Little Ice Age. It got so cold that lots of Europeans starved to death – so maybe there is such a thing as ‘climate justice’ after all.

The lead researcher of the team at University College London who joined up all these dots is doctoral candidate Alexander Koch. (He hasn’t even got his PhD yet.) He borrowed the phrase ‘The Great Dying’ from the paleontologists, who use it to describe the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian era 252 million years ago, the worst of them all. It works just as well for human beings.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, there were about 60 million people living in the Americas, and 99% of them were already farmers. Eurasian civilisations had a bit of a head-start on them – iron tools, ocean-going ships, even gunpowder – but their numbers and their economies were very similar: there were 70 or 80 million Europeans, and most of them were farmers too.

A century later there were only 6 million native Americans left: a 90% fatality rate. Yet at that time, there were still only about a quarter-million Europeans in the Americas. They clearly couldn’t have killed the other 54 million natives – but their diseases did.

Even now journalists reporting on this story go on referring to the European ‘genocide’ of the native peoples, but that’s nonsense. The Europeans killed some tens of thousands of Incas, Aztecs and others in various battles, and they took slaves to work their mines and grow their sugar, but why would they cause a genocide?

The problem was that the native Americans had absolutely no inherited resistance to the quick-killer Eurasian diseases that the Europeans brought with them. Those diseases had emerged in the densely populated countries of Europe and East Asia one at a time over thousands of years, passing from the herds and flocks of domesticated animals to their human owners, who now also lived in herd-like conditions.

Each one of these new diseases killed millions before the survivors developed some resistance, but the Asian, European and African populations had time to recover before the next one emerged. The native Americans got all the plagues at once, and they had no comparable plagues of their own to give back to the invaders because they didn’t keep large herds of animals.

The tragedy was inevitable from first contact. If the only Eurasians to reach the Americas had been peace-loving Spanish nuns – or peace-loving Chinese monks, for that matter – the Great Dying would have happened anyway. And the farms of those who died would still have been abandoned.

What really interests Alexander Koch and his colleagues is that this caused the largest abandonment of farmland in all history. The six million survivors didn’t need all those farms, so the forests came back quickly. As they grew they absorbed huge amounts of carbon dioxide, cutting the amount in the global atmosphere by about ten parts per million (10 ppm).

That dropped the average global temperature, which was already a little lower than usual because of cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit. The Little Ice Age lasted for more than two hundred years and probably caused a couple of million extra deaths in local famines in Eurasia, so at least a little bit of the misery travelled the other way.

But our impact on the environment has now grown so large that a ten ppm cut in our emissions is almost meaningless. We are currently adding around ten ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every four years.

On the other hand, if we were to reforest all the land that was cleared around the world in the past 150 years but is not prime agricultural land, we could sequester 50 ppm of carbon dioxide. That might win us the time we need to get our carbon emissions down without triggering runaway warming.

Instead, the Brazilians elect Jair Bolsonaro to clear-cut the Amazon, and the United States elects Donald Trump to outsource US climate policy to the fossil fuel industry. We know a great deal more than the native Americans did about the elements that would decide their fate, but we may be no better than they were at avoiding it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“Even…genocide”; and “The tragedy…abandoned”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.