Showing posts with label The Conversation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Conversation. Show all posts

1 September 2017

"Post-Truth’ Media Really Is Shifting The News Agenda – And More Subtly Than It Seems


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Proceed with caution. (Gil C via Shutterstock)
By Precious N Chatterje-Doody, University of Manchester

As stories of Russian “information warfare” in various Western countries continue to mount, governments, intelligence agencies and journalists are fretting over the influence of global media outlets funded by autocratic governments. But while these organisations are clearly meant to serve their sponsor governments’ agendas in various ways, is the West right to be so worried about them?

Information campaigning in various forms is as old as politics itself, and nor is it the sole province of political bogeymen. Research shows that democracies are better than autocracies at influencing foreign public opinion, and businesses, politicians and states all use the mass media strategically for their information campaigns.

Whether this is public relations, public diplomacy, or propaganda is a matter of perspective. But the names we give a particular information campaign not only reflect our inferences about its aims; they can in fact amplify its power and advance its goals.

A case in point is the Kremlin-funded international broadcaster RT, formerly Russia Today. The network has been sanctioned by media watchdogs for its “misleading” coverage, even as it gathered five Emmy nominations for its investigative reporting. It was even cited by Hillary Clinton in 2011 as an example of an “information war” she said the West was losing – unwittingly describing things to come in her own career.
The network’s PR strategy skilfully uses these criticisms to cater to the biases of an anti-establishment generation. Its motto encourages viewers to “Question More”, and its various advertising campaigns have successfully exhibited Western contempt and suspicion as a badge of honour.

Yet despite the concerns of high-ranking figures, the US State Department has claimed none of the US$80m recently allocated by Congress for informational countermeasures, and the bulk of the funds will expire if not claimed by the end of September 2017. Some fear that the US is reluctant to risk a Russian backlash by leading a counter-disinformation offensive, leaving the legwork to initiatives like the controversial new Hamilton 68 dashboard, which claims to track Russian-backed influence campaigns across the web and social media.

But just how much influence RT and similar outlets wield is very much open to question.

Flattering bias
While many in US intelligence and politics seem to take RT’s self-reported audience figures as read, the channel’s official data is optimistic compared to its externally verified viewing figures. And despite RT’s pride at being “the most watched news network on YouTube”, most of its views go to apolitical clickbait human interest stories and coverage of natural disasters.

Some argue that RT’s smaller political audience is self-selecting: those who mistrust the mainstream establishment and are partial to conspiracy theories. However, this is all guesswork: so far, there has been little scholarly attention to RT’s audience engagement, despite its social media advantage over its competitors during breaking news events. (The University of Manchester and Open University will soon address this knowledge gap with the Reframing Russia project, the first systematic examination of RT’s audiences, ethos and multiplatform output.)

While RT may have limited capacity to influence those not already sympathetic to its aims, its reach across social and traditional media, and freedom from any commitment to impartiality, equip it perfectly for an atmosphere of rumour and counter-rumour.

This brings us back to Donald Trump and his ongoing crusade against the mainstream media.

Trump echoes RT’s line that all news reporting is biased in some way, and his social media output clearly flatters the views of his followers and allies. Trump’s tweets are, intentionally or not, perfectly calibrated to exploit the same effect as RT: audiences seek out content that accords with their political beliefs, and ignore information that does not correspond to their biases.

This effect is even clearer where people have strong political beliefs and ideologically segregated social media networks, because algorithms lock our preferences into our social media experience. Counterintuitively, we’re most likely to enter into debate with people with similar views to our own, not those who we perceive as being different and who can offer an alternative world view.

Worst of all, if much of your social media following is made up of automated “bots” primed to repeat, circulate and amplify particular messages – as seems likely in Trump’s case – then the volume of echoes increases exponentially. The result? Political opinions are polarised, with completely fabricated stories more widely shared (and believed) than genuine news.

Playing the mainstream
These patterns are strongest among more ideologically motivated groups, especially those on the political “fringe”. While less partisan audiences still look to the mainstream media, the agenda of the mainstream media is nonetheless shifting in response to fringe groups’ online interactions. As mainstream outlets report on social media trends, they amplify stories that originated in fringe groups, particularly when the stories reflect their ideological stance.

But the effect is not uniform across the political spectrum. Research on the US media shows that conservative news websites are more likely than liberal ones to propagate fabricated stories, and conservative individuals are more likely to believe them – but that liberal media outlets are more likely to change their agenda in response.

Crucially, fact-checking disputed stories does not help. Fact-check articles are less influential than the stories they attack, and can actually help disseminate falsehoods to audiences who are prone to misremember them as fact. More than that, merely fact-checking articles on fringe topics only makes those topics objects of mainstream discussion.

Fears about particular outlets’ “propaganda” stories are misplaced, since those stories generally only influence self-selecting “fringe” groups. What’s really concerning is how these groups repeat and amplify their preferred messages, and how their efforts influence media agendas and shift the parameters of political debate. With trust in the media declining fast, people are increasingly consulting partisan alternatives.

The ConversationThat not only opens the field for players like RT, but polarises social discussion to the point of outright conflict. And as recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia prove, that conflict is not confined to the online world.

About Today's Contributor:
Precious N Chatterje-Doody, Post-doctoral Research Associate, Reframing Russia for the Global Mediasphere, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Bonus Picture:
There is nothing like a war to divert media attention  So Mr Trump started a war with the media
Image via Trumpton Facebook Page

22 August 2017

How Should We Protest Neo-Nazis? Lessons From German History


A supporter of President Donald Trump, center, argues with a counter protester at a rally in Boston
A supporter of President Donald Trump, center, argues with a counter protester at a rally in Boston on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
By Laurie Marhoefer, University of Washington

After the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, many people are asking themselves what they should do if Nazis rally in their city. Should they put their bodies on the line in counterdemonstrations? Some say yes.

History says no. Take it from me: I study the original Nazis.

We have an ethical obligation to stand against fascism and racism. But we also have an ethical obligation to do so in a way that doesn’t help the fascists and racists more than it hurts them.

History repeats itself
Charlottesville was right out of the Nazi playbook. In the 1920s, the Nazi Party was just one political party among many in a democratic system, running for seats in Germany’s Parliament. For most of that time, it was a small, marginal group. In 1933, riding a wave of popular support, it seized power and set up a dictatorship. The rest is well-known.

It was in 1927, while still on the political fringes, that the Nazi Party scheduled a rally in a decidedly hostile location – the Berlin district of Wedding. Wedding was so left-of-center that the neighborhood had the nickname “Red Wedding,” red being the color of the Communist Party. The Nazis often held rallies right where their enemies lived, to provoke them.

The people of Wedding were determined to fight back against fascism in their neighborhood. On the day of the rally, hundreds of Nazis descended on Wedding. Hundreds of their opponents showed up too, organized by the local Communist Party. The antifascists tried to disrupt the rally, heckling the speakers. Nazi thugs retaliated. There was a massive brawl. Almost 100 people were injured.

I imagine the people of Wedding felt they had won that day. They had courageously sent a message: Fascism was not welcome.

But historians believe events like the rally in Wedding helped the Nazis build a dictatorship. Yes, the brawl got them media attention. But what was far, far more important was how it fed an escalating spiral of street violence. That violence helped the fascists enormously.

Violent confrontations with antifascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.

It worked. We know now that many Germans supported the fascists because they were terrified of leftist violence in the streets. Germans opened their morning newspapers and saw reports of clashes like the one in Wedding. It looked like a bloody tide of civil war was rising in their cities. Voters and opposition politicians alike came to believe the government needed special police powers to stop violent leftists. Dictatorship grew attractive. The fact that the Nazis themselves were fomenting the violence didn’t seem to matter.

One of Hitler’s biggest steps to dictatorial power was to gain emergency police powers, which he claimed he needed to suppress leftist violence.

Thousands of Nazi storm troops demonstrate in a Communist neighborhood in Berlin on Jan. 22, 1933
Thousands of Nazi storm troops demonstrate in a Communist neighborhood in Berlin on Jan. 22, 1933. Thirty-five Nazis, Communists and police were injured during clashes. (AP Photo)

The left takes the heat
In the court of public opinion, accusations of mayhem and chaos in the streets will, as a rule, tend to stick against the left, not the right.

This was true in Germany in the 1920s. It was true even when opponents of fascism acted in self-defense or tried to use relatively mild tactics, such as heckling. It is true in the United States today, where even peaceful rallies against racist violence are branded riots in the making.

Today, right extremists are going around the country staging rallies just like the one in 1927 in Wedding. According to the civil rights advocacy organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, they pick places where they know antifascists are present, like university campuses. They come spoiling for physical confrontation. Then they and their allies spin it to their advantage.

A demonstration on the University of Washington campus where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech
A demonstration on the University of Washington campus where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

I watched this very thing happen steps from my office on the University of Washington campus. Last year, a right extremist speaker came. He was met by a counterprotest. One of his supporters shot a counterprotester. On stage, in the moments after the shooting, the right extremist speaker claimed that his opponents had sought to stop him from speaking “by killing people.” The fact that it was one of the speaker’s supporters, a right extremist and Trump backer, who engaged in what prosecutors now claim was an unprovoked and premeditated act of violence, has never made national news.

We saw this play out after Charlottesville, too. President Donald Trump said there was violence “on both sides.” It was an incredible claim. Heyer, a peaceful protester, and 19 other people were intentionally hit by a neo-Nazi driving a car. He seemed to portray Charlottesville as another example of what he has referred to elsewhere as “violence in our streets and chaos in our communities,” including, it seems, Black Lives Matter, which is a nonviolent movement against violence. He stirred up fear. Trump recently said that police are too constrained by existing law.

President Trump tried it again during the largely peaceful protests in Boston – he called the tens of thousands who gathered there to protest racism and Nazism “anti-police agitators,” though later, in a characteristic about-face, he praised them.

President Trump’s claims are hitting their mark. A CBS News poll found that a majority of Republicans thought his description of who was to blame for the violence in Charlottesville was “accurate.”

This violence, and the rhetoric about it coming from the administration, are echoes – faint but nevertheless frightening echoes – of a well-documented pattern, a pathway by which democracies devolve into dictatorships.

The Antifa
There’s an additional wrinkle: the antifa. When Nazis and white supremacists rally, the antifa are likely to show up, too.

Antifa” is short for antifascists, though the name by no means includes everyone who opposes fascism. The antifa is a relatively small movement of the far left, with ties to anarchism. It arose in Europe’s punk scene in the 1980s to fight neo-Nazism.

The antifa says that because Nazism and white supremacy are violent, we must use any means necessary to stop them. This includes physical means, like what they did on my campus: forming a crowd to block ticket-holders from entering a venue to hear a right extremist speak.

The antifa’s tactics often backfire, just like those of Germany’s communist opposition to Nazism did in the 1920s. Confrontations escalate. Public opinion often blames the left no matter the circumstances.

What to do?
One solution: Hold a counterevent that doesn’t involve physical proximity to the right extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a helpful guide. Among its recommendations: If the alt-right rallies, “organize a joyful protest” well away from them. Ask people they have targeted to speak. But “as hard as it may be to resist yelling at alt-right speakers, do not confront them.”

This does not mean ignoring Nazis. It means standing up to them in a way that denies them a chance for bloodshed.

The ConversationThe cause Heather Heyer died for is best defended by avoiding the physical confrontation that the people who are responsible for her death want.

About Today's Contributor:
Laurie Marhoefer, Assistant Professor of History, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation

14 August 2017

Charlottesville, Donald Trump, And The Dark Side Of American Populism

Citizen militia march in Charlotttesville, August 12
Citizen militia march in Charlotttesville, August 12. EPA/Virginia State Police
By Todd Landman, University of Nottingham

Charlottesville, Virginia is home to the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson; he was a slave owner, but today stands as a symbol of the US’s egalitarian ethos and political myth. But on August 12, some seven months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Charlottesville saw a far uglier side of the US on display: a Unite the Right rally bringing together people and organisations who resented the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Civil War general, Robert E Lee.

On the eve of the rally, the university’s Charlottesville campus became the site of a march of torch-bearing white supremacists, evoking the Klan rallies seen throughout the 20th century. Tense clashes between marchers and counter-protesters ensued, and the next day, the rally itself turned violent.

Radical right marchers turned up along with citizen militia groups (their guns on full display thanks to open carry legislation) and clashed with anti-fascist and other groups who stood up to them. Then 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr ploughed his car into a group of protesters, and has now been charged with the second degree murder of Heather Heyer, who died after he ran into her.
The context for these events is as old as the US itself. The country was borne of violence: a revolution that overthrew British rule, violent suppression of the Native American population, a violent Civil War that took over 600,000 lives, and a philosophy of “manifest destiny” that expanded the American nation across a continent.

Much of this violence was social and political. The Civil War has been seen as the true American revolution; it pitted a social and political order based on rugged individualistic capitalism against one of plantation economics and strong social hierarchy, including the system of slavery. The southern model was defeated, the slaves emancipated, and Confederate leaders and sympathisers left to mourn their project as a “lost cause”. But the culture of white supremacy was far from defeated, and radical right-wing social movements and organisations have troubled the US ever since.

The most notorious group, the Ku Klux Klan, was borne of Southern Democrats’ resentment of emancipation; over the years, it has been invigorated by other radical right groups founded on a powerful ideology of “Christian Identity”, a commitment to the racial superiority of white people and a mission to secure white power and dominance. (The Southern Poverty Law Centre has spent decades documenting and mapping their prevalence, discourses and actions across the US.)

To this day, there are strong social elements in the south and elsewhere that resent the the outcome of the Civil War and the consequences of reconstruction. To them, those consequences include the enfranchisement of women, the Civil Rights movement, Supreme Court rulings such as Brown v Board of Education (which desegregated schools in 1954) and Roe v Wade (which legalised abortion in 1973), and the overall advance of a progressive social agenda – one that to them culminated in the election and presidency of Barack Obama.

This politics of resentment gathered steam during the Trump campaign, and as the events in Charlottesville demonstrate, it’s now flourishing under his presidency.

Fanning the flames
During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s rhetoric was caustic and divisive. He described differences between groups as if they were essential and irreduceable; he named Mexicans and Muslims as having special attributes, lesser qualities, and who were in need of special measures, such as a “complete shutdown” on Muslims entering the US and a 2,000-mile border wall to keep out Mexican “rapists and murderers”.

His rhetoric also legitimised interpersonal violence more generally. He boasted that he could shoot someone and not lose votes, and encouraged participants at his rallies to use physical force against dissenters.
Now he’s president, Trump is trying to follow through on this rhetoric with executive orders and new legislation. This essentially gives licence to the US’s radical right elements to pursue their ends more zealously – and tellingly, Trump’s initial response to the events in Charlottesville was muted and non-specific.

Trump failed to name the right-wing violence as white supremacy, or to specifically condemn it; instead, he lamented the violence on all sides. The job of denouncing white supremacist racism was left to his daughter Ivanka and his vice-president, Mike Pence, who used much stronger language. After something of an outcry at his vague words, he finally took to Twitter to rail against “all that hate stands for”.

Many asked why Trump did not unequivocally condemn the events. But to explicitly condemn these groups would alienate a significant portion of his electoral base – something specifically pointed out to him by former Klan leader David Duke.

The protesters in Virginia, who came from across the US, closely resemble many who attended Trump rallies during the campaign – and much as he did post-Charlottesville, when asked by a journalist to specifically condemn the violence at those events, Trump declined.
The Conversation

While many of grievances Trump issued during the campaign are legitimate – the decline of the manufacturing, steel, and coal industries, decaying infrastructure, and so on – the rhetorical framing of the campaign galvanised a right-wing populism that had been in abeyance for much of the 1990s and early 2000s. In mid-2017, this dark side of populism is clearly very much awake.

About Today's Contributor:
Todd Landman, Professor of Political Science, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Social Sciences, University of Nottingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation

9 August 2017

China Is The Key To Avoiding Nuclear 'Fire And Fury' In North Korea


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The news of an exchange of threats between the U.S. and North Korea is reported in Tokyo on Aug. 9, 2017. AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi
By Greg Wright, University of California, Merced

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

North Korea got the world’s attention – and Trump’s – when it successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time on July 4. In response, the United Nations approved new economic sanctions against North Korea which, predictably, inspired a bellicose response from the rogue regime.

Trump threatened that further provocations will be met with “fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

In response, North Korea issued a threat of its own – missile strikes on the U.S. territory of Guam.

With tensions escalating, it is important to be realistic about how we can get out of this mess.

In short, any nonmilitary solution will rely on China choosing to apply its massive economic leverage over the North Korean regime. This is a point that Trump clearly recognizes. In July, he tweeted that Chinese trade with North Korea “rose 40 percent in the first quarter,” highlighting China’s reluctance to punish North Korea for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

While the poor quality of the data hinders a detailed analysis, Trump’s overall sentiment is correct. China has increased its trade with North Korea in recent years and done little to forestall North Korea’s nuclear ambitions besides backing the most recent round of U.N. sanctions. China’s foremost objective seems to be promoting greater stability from its volatile neighbor.

Yet a quick look at the data, however murky, shows just how much leverage China has, if it wishes to use it.

North Korea’s primary patron
In general, exports from one country to another can be mostly explained by the distance between them and the sizes of their markets, a pattern that holds for China and North Korea.

Geographically, they share a long border, which makes China a natural, though not inevitable, partner for trade. As a case in point, North Korea also shares a long border with South Korea, but these countries have almost no trade between them. In addition, North Korea shares a small border with Russia, with whom it has little, though ever-increasing, trade, as I discuss below.

China’s large market, proximity and – most importantly – willingness to trade with North Korea has led to a situation in which North Korea has become highly dependent on trade with what has become its primary patron. About half of North Korean exports and imports go directly to and from China and most of the rest of its trade is handled indirectly by Chinese middlemen.

North Korea’s dependence on its neighbor has grown hand-in-hand with China’s increasing economic dominance of East Asia, which gained momentum 15 years ago when China joined the World Trade Organization. Since then, both Chinese gross domestic product as well as its annual trade with North Korea have increased nearly tenfold, to around US$11 trillion and $6 billion, respectively.

North Korea imports nearly everything from China, from rubber tires to refined petroleum to pears, with no single category dominating. Meanwhile, coal constitutes about 40 percent of North Korean exports to China, followed by “non-knit men’s coats.”

Time to use that leverage?
However, recent events – such as the use of front companies by Chinese firms to evade sanctions imposed on North Korea and China’s reluctance to cut off energy supplies to the country – have led to some uncertainty about the extent to which China is willing to use this economic leverage to rein in North Korea’s military ambitions.

On one hand, China claims that coal imports from North Korea have recently been stopped as part of an effort to punish the regime for recent missile tests and the suspected assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. If true, this would be an important signal of China’s willingness to support U.S. concerns about the missile program as it would represent a loss of about a third ($930 million) of North Korea’s import revenue.

However, there is evidence that coal shipments in fact never ceased. And, in any case, China may have dramatically increased its imports of iron ore from North Korea to offset the lost coal revenues.

This is consistent with the idea that China carefully considers the resources and revenue that are available to the North Korean regime at any moment, and uses trade as a lever to control them. In this way, China walks a fine line between providing too many resources, and thus allowing the regime to prosper, and not enough resources, such that North Korea is in danger of collapsing. Ultimately, trade may be used as a lever to do some light scolding, but China’s overwhelming concern is preventing North Korea’s collapse.

Further evidence that China has tight control over the North Korean economy comes from a recent report from C4ADS. The research group found close, and often common, ownership ties between most of the major Chinese companies who do business with North Korea. This suggests that trade with North Korea is highly centralized and thus easily controlled.
Trucks cross Friendship Bridge from China’s Dandong, Liaoning province, to North Korea’s Sinuiju. Reuters/Thomas Peter
Russia: North Korea’s other ‘friend’
China is not the only country that North Korea trades with, though the others currently pale in comparison. Other top export destinations include India ($97.8 million), Pakistan ($43.1 million) and Burkina Faso ($32.8 million). In terms of imports, India ($108 million), Russia ($78.3 million) and Thailand ($73.8 million) currently sell the most to North Korea.

Russia in particular may soon complicate U.S. efforts to isolate the regime. While still small, Russian trade with North Korea increased 73 percent over the first two months of 2017 compared with the same period of the previous year.

But whereas China is legitimately worried that an economic crisis in North Korea could lead to a flood of refugees or all-out war, Russia likely sees engagement with North Korea in much simpler terms, namely as an additional way to gain geopolitical advantage relative to the U.S.

A way out?
Nearly all experts agree that there is no easy way to “solve” the North Korea problem. However, one plausible approach is to encourage South Korea and Japan to begin to develop nuclear weapons programs of their own, and to only discontinue these programs if China takes meaningful steps to use its trade with North Korea to reign in the regime.

Threatening to introduce new nuclear powers to the world is clearly risky, however stable and peaceful South Korea and Japan currently are. But China is highly averse to having these economic and political rivals acquire nuclear capabilities, as it would threaten China’s ongoing pursuit of regional control. In short, this is a sensitive pressure point that could be used to sway the Chinese leadership.

One way or another, China must become convinced that the costs of propping up the North Korean regime through trade are higher than the costs of an increased probability that the regime will collapse.

The Conversation[This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 6, 2017.]

About Today's Contributor:
Greg Wright, Assistant Professor of Economics, University of California, Merced

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Bonus Picture:
Image via Trumpton FB Page

18 July 2017

'Chinks In The World-Machine' – On The Casting Of The 13th Doctor Who

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The Whovian Life via Twitter
By Una McCormack, Anglia Ruskin University

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who dreamed of going into space. She would sit on the floor in the library, cross-legged on the carpet before a big shelf of books and read about a machine that could travel in time and space. She would put on the television, and see the Doctor and the TARDIS, and wish that she could be there too. She wanted to be on the Enterprise, and the Liberator and the Millennium Falcon – and she imagined great adventures, in which she saved the world, the galaxy, and (why not) the universe.

Unfortunately, a Catholic girls’ school in the 1980s was not a great place to harbour such ambitions – and there weren’t many kindred spirits dreaming these particular dreams. They became private stories, told to myself at odd moments, just before falling asleep – but not to be shared. After all, what kind of girl likes Doctor Who? What kind of girl wants to jaunt around time and space?

Doctor Who - The 13th Doctor
At long last! BBC/Colin Hutton

To say that I am delighted at the news that Jodie Whittaker has been chosen to play the 13th Doctor is a huge understatement. I enjoyed the whole media build up immensely. I was greatly entertained watching good friends rapidly bring themselves up to speed on the rules of tennis in order to predict how long a Wimbledon final might be – so that they could make sure they were on hand when the announcement was made. I watched the trailer with refreshed wonder and a whoop of glee at the reveal.

I remembered how happy friends had been when Christopher Eccleston was cast as the ninth Doctor back in 2004, how glad they were that now there was a Doctor who seemed like them. I hoped that they would be glad now that there was a Doctor who was like me.

Remaking the world
For me, science fiction – speculative fiction – is a genre that asks us to think about possibility. All good fiction, of course, asks us to expand our horizons by sympathetically imagining the experience of others. But the apparatus of speculative fiction provides us with particular, useful tools to re-imagine what that “other” might be – and to imagine the kinds of worlds that would be needed in order to make radically different kinds of being possible.

Alien life, yes; but also the kinds of human life and organisation that might be brought about by technological or scientific advance – or the radical re-imagining of how power, authority and resources might be e distributed among us. Its best writers, such as Ursula Le Guin, seem to have the power to remake the world.

Science fiction grows up
Science fiction has not, historically, been generous to women. Mothered by Mary Shelley (in Frankenstein and The Last Man), the genre, throughout the first half of the 20th century, becomes predominantly a form of heroic literature, steeped in fantasies of mastery and conquest.

Women were rarely present in this literature, except as trophies or temptations. We survived, in the arresting phrase coined by the great science fiction writer James Tiptree Jr (aka Alice Bradley Sheldon and Raccoona Sheldon): “by ones and two, in the chinks of the world-machine”. A surge of feminist Utopian writing in the 1980s marks the beginning of a shake-up of the genre, which can now delight and surprise in many ways.

Casting a woman as the Doctor seems like something that should have happened years ago. Television is expensive, success is not assured, and risks with a flagship property can be difficult to justify. The incoming production team should be commended for this decision, choosing in Whittaker an actor of great talent whose presence will surely revitalise this ever-changing, fascinating, British institution.

Having a woman as the Doctor will not solve the conditions of vast and cruel inequality under which millions of women live today. It will not alter the grotesquery of the most qualified woman in history being passed over for the job of US president in favour of an overgrown child who wanted a toy and now doesn’t know what to do with it.

But representation and visibility do matter. What I have enjoyed most about this casting news is thinking about how this Doctor – a woman Doctor – was going to be the one that my little girl would grow up seeing. She will be her Doctor. The hero, the adventurer, the person to whom the text turns for moral and intellectual authority – that is a woman now.

The ConversationA little more of the glass ceiling has cracked. A spanner has been thrown into the workings of the world machine. We are reminded that something different is possible.

About Today's Contributor:
Una McCormack, Lecturer, Creative Writing Faculty, Department of English and Media, Anglia Ruskin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation

7 June 2017

Tearing Up Human Rights Law Won't Protect Us From Terrorism

Theresa May - seeking a carte blanche?
Seeking a carte blanche? PA/Stefan Rousseau
By Fiona de Londras, University of Birmingham

Prime minister Theresa May has announced her resolve to tear up human rights law if it prevents her, and her government, from tackling extremism and countering terrorism.

This rhetoric is hardly new. It echoes Tony Blair’s post 9/11 claim that the rules of the game are changing. It’s also a continuation of May’s approach as home secretary. Over her term in that role, she systematically sought to dismantle legal barriers to desired government action. Indeed, it chimes well with longstanding concerns on the part of many Conservatives that human rights law is nothing more than an obstacle to security.

May’s proposal raises questions about what exactly the perceived shortfall in counter-terrorism powers is, why and how human rights law is said to prevent its resolution, and what the evidence for these claims is.

Nobody denies that we need laws to counter terrorism and prevent radicalisation. That includes having powers to investigate potential involvement in terrorist activity and criminal offences that try to ensure the state can intervene to prevent terrorist attacks.

However, one can hardly imagine a legal power that would effectively prevent people from launching low-tech attacks such as those at Westminster and London Bridge. Nor can one seriously claim that the arsenal of counter-terrorism powers is under-stocked. UK law contains extensive provisions to prevent and criminalise all forms of engagement with terrorism, including powers relating to data surveillance, disruption of terrorist financing, criminalisation of travelling for terrorist purposes, and the criminalisation of all forms of support for terrorist activities.

Human rights law has not prevented the UK from developing and implementing these laws. To be sure, there may be some things that the government would wish to do which human rights law has prevented, forcing the state to find other, human rights compliant, ways to achieve the same ends. However, that is hardly a basis for criticising the law – it is, in fact, precisely what human rights law (and all law) is supposed to do.

The whole idea of law is that it restrains not only what we can do as citizens and residents of the state, but also what the state can require us to do, prevent us from doing, and punish us for. If human rights law has forced the state to rethink or restrain some of its activities, that simply means the law is working.

This is the key point here. Human rights law doesn’t prevent the state from countering terrorism, but it does prevent the state from doing so in whatever way it pleases and without limitation.

Who do we want to be?
There is ample space within human rights law for the state to take muscular steps in the name of security. It can prevent people from travelling, adjust normal criminal procedures to protect intelligence, and restrict what people can say publicly in order to prevent the glorification of terrorism. It can limit how people associate and organise to prevent the emergence of terrorist groups, and restrict people’s ability to engage in certain behaviours online.
Shazad Butt and Rachid Redouane, two of the three London Bridge attackers
Shazad Butt and Rachid Redouane, two of the three London Bridge attackers. PA
If a situation is truly grave – to the extent that it “threatens the life of the nation” as it says in article 15 of the ECHR – the state can even derogate from some rights. This means that, for a period of time and in order to restore “normalcy”, the state can limit the extent to which certain rights can be enjoyed. It can take actions that are ordinarily not permitted, provided those actions are limited to what is “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation”.

If, then, the government is arguing that human rights law is preventing it from countering terrorism it needs to identify what it is that it considers needs to be done. It must state how human rights law is preventing them from doing that. And it must first consider how the desired ends might be achieved through means that are compliant with human rights.

It may be that there are some things the state wants to do that human rights law will not permit – mass internment, expulsion of all non-citizens without distinction, the total shut down of the internet, retention and surveillance of the content of all communications, for example, would all likely fall foul of human rights law. If the government proposed such actions and was, indeed, obstructed by human rights, would we really say human rights law is getting in the way of our security? Or would we acknowledge that it is protecting us from government overreach?

This, of course, leads to the most difficult and fundamental question of all: what kind of society do we want to be? If it’s one where we strive for total security, then of course human rights law might rightly be identified as an obstacle. Total security cannot be achieved in a society where the rule of law, human rights, and democracy are respected and upheld as fundamental principles.

Thanks to these principles we are free to flourish and live in a vibrant, diverse, rights-respecting society. But even without these principles, total security is a myth; no amount of law can protect us from all threats all of the time.

Does this mean the state shouldn’t take steps to prevent terrorism? Of course not. But it does mean that the state should not be able to take whatever steps it considers necessary to prevent terrorism, regardless of the impact on rights.

The ConversationIt is the legal protection of human rights, together with a vibrant civil society and healthy democratic system, that sets the boundaries of permitted action and best equips us to build a resilient society in which terrorism can effectively be countered. Tearing up human rights law would put all of that in jeopardy.

About Today's Countributor:
Fiona de Londras, Professor of Global Legal Studies, Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation

26 May 2017

When Trump Met NATO: Blunt Talk And Meaningful Silences


World leaders met in Brussels for the NATO Summit 2017
World leaders met in Brussels for the NATO Summit 2017. AP Photo/Matt Dunham, Poo
By Simon Reich, Rutgers University Newark

Donald Trump’s electoral campaign was notable for his abrasive statements and blunt assessments about a variety of issues. Among his more unforgettable claims was his suggestion that NATO was “obsolete. The Conversation

This comment was largely founded, it seems, on a lack of understanding about what NATO does or how it functions. Since 1949, NATO has been a bedrock of American foreign policy, first in Europe against the Soviet Union and its allies, and then in Afghanistan. Trump’s desire to build bridges with the Russians, and his plain ignorance about NATO’s contribution in the war against the Taliban, largely explains his startling claim.

But what interests me as a keen observer of NATO politics is what Trump’s encounter with the other NATO leaders reveals about their relationship. And what will he claim about that meeting on his return?

A reeducation
As in many other policy areas, some quick tutoring led Trump to completely reverse his position. Key to that education was undoubtedly Defense Secretary James Mattis, who reportedly told the German defense minister soon after Trump’s inauguration that NATO remained the “central pillar” of transatlantic security and commented in congressional testimony that Russia remained America’s number one security threat.

So Mattis himself, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson all traveled to Europe in the first 100 days of the Trump administration to reassure NATO allies about the organization’s continued importance. This sentiment was reinforced by General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the current supreme allied commander Europe.

By April, Trump had issued a predictably blunt edict in which he reversed course: “I said it was obsolete. It is no longer obsolete.”

Still, for many of us, a subsequent visit to see those we’d publicly criticized would be awkward. But just like his meeting with Pope Francis, Trump again demonstrated an amazing capacity to shrug off his earlier statements without any outward sign of embarrassment – while simultaneously asserting an authoritative tone.

The discussions in Brussels may have been more symbolic than substantial. But Trump’s ability to assume a claim of leadership – and success – was helped by two developments.

Claiming a victory on NATO financing
Donald Trump delivered a speech at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels at the beginning of the summit
Donald Trump delivered a speech at NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels at the beginning of the summit.Reuters/Johnathan Ernst
First, Trump chastised other NATO members, reiterating his demand that they contribute more to NATO’s common defense.

Since the end of the Cold War, the size of the U.S. defense budget has varied, but expenditures always stayed above 2 percent of GDP. At the same time, however, most European budget expenditures haven’t. At NATO’s 2014 summit, NATO members agreed to target spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense.

Of the 27 other NATO members, only four currently meet the threshold. And of those, only Britain has a substantial military capability. Most pointedly, Germany has significantly underspent on defense. The fact that the 2 percent threshold doesn’t formally have to be met until 2024 is one of those minor facts that Trump conveniently ignores.

But this issue has been a longstanding squabble. In a rare example of bilateral consensus, Trump echoed the sentiment of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in demanding that they pay more. And, he added,
This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States and many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years and [from] not paying in those past years.
Trump will surely characterize just bluntly voicing his concerns as a victory. And the vague promises of NATO members, particularly Germany, to increase their contributions to the common defense will reinforce that claim. The outcome, he will insist, is consistent with his campaign pledge – that he is getting a good deal for Americans.

Claiming a victory on terror
The second development in Brussels is an agreement that NATO would focus more on the fight against Islamic terrorism. This was formally reflected in the statement, calling terrorism “a challenge that the international community must tackle together.”

I imagine that Trump will undoubtedly again claim credit.

The Germans and French called this move “symbolic.” And, in some ways, they are right. The British and French are already deeply involved in the fight against terrorism, from Mali to the Middle East. And they have paid a heavy price for that involvement, as events in Paris, Nice, London and Manchester have made abundantly clear. But the assessment of the declaration as being purely symbolic may prove to be wrong in the long term – if a larger-scale Islamic State attack in the U.S. leads to Trump demanding that NATO provide a full-scale combat force to fight in Iraq or even Syria.

What wasn’t said
British Prime Minister Theresa May planned to discuss leaked intelligence about the Manchester attack with Donald Trump at the NATO Summit
British Prime Minister Theresa May planned to discuss leaked intelligence about the Manchester attack with Donald Trump at the NATO Summit. Reuters/Pool
Three major issues were, however, ignored in Brussels.

The first was Russia. Trump’s ambiguous views about Russia contrast with the universal concern of Europeans. But NATO’s coming together around a common condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine allowed them all to smooth over their differences.

Second, disturbingly, Trump publicly declined to endorse the key security guarantee that is the foundation of NATO: a commitment that the U.S. would defend any NATO member attacked. In practice that means an attack by Russia.

And finally, little was made of the leaking of critical intelligence about the terrorist attack in Manchester by American sources. Information sharing is at the heart of the fight against terrorism. But British Prime Minister Theresa May’s very vocal complaints were not addressed in Trump’s statement, although he did separately respond by authorizing an investigation into who and how it happened. Still, you can’t coordinate a fight against terrorism if your own services are leaking like a sieve.

The aftermath of Trump’s visit
In stark contrast to recent meetings with Obama, European leaders therefore were left unhappy by Trump’s lack of commitment to the core ideals that have traditionally bound NATO together: an explicit distrust of Russia’s intent and an explicit commitment to the values of democracy, human rights, free trade and free speech.

The fact that he ignored them all highlights the fact that the President Trump we see abroad is very similar to the President Trump we see at home.

About Today's Contributor: 
Simon Reich, Professor in The Division of Global Affairs and The Department of Political Science, Rutgers University Newark

This article was originally published on The Conversation

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