On self-immolation

Yesterday the 92nd Tibetan self-immolated in Tibet while calling for freedom since 2009, most in the last year. Think about that for a minute – 92 Tibetans have set themselves on fire while calling for an end to China’s occupation of Tibet.

In Foreign Policy, Michael Biggs has a piece on the differences between suicide bombers and self-immolators. The Chinese government has tried to depict Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists. But Biggs points out that self-immolators aren’t trying to scare people, but send a message about how deeply they hold their beliefs:

Suicide protest does not achieve these ends; its logic is communicative rather than sanguinary. To quote Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, “Martyrdom is as strong a signal of the strength of a belief as one can get: only those who hold their beliefs very dear can contemplate making the ultimate sacrifice of dying for a cause.” Choosing a painful means of death — burning, most obviously — amplifies that signal still more. The communication, moreover, can be directed toward various audiences. Sometimes it is a disinterested and faraway public, and the self-immolator hopes to attract the public’s attention and win its sympathy. At other times the self-immolator addresses his or her own group, hoping to enhance the group’s commitment to the cause.

Biggs sees this as a phenomenon which will continue, even in the face of more repression in Tibet:

So far, the recent wave of Tibetan immolations has not yielded any tangible political success. Repression has only increased in the Tibetan areas of China, and expressions of sympathy from the majority Han population within China are rare. Western public opinion, which already favored the Tibetan cause, has no means of exercising leverage over China. But it is too soon to assess the consequences of these immolations. Gauging their effect on Tibetans within China is effectively impossible given the degree of repression.

What we can predict is that suicide protest will continue. Its communicative logic is no less potent than the suicide attack’s sanguinary logic — and it is more readily carried out. A suicide bombing requires organization, coordination, and technical skills to prepare explosives. In conflict zones like Afghanistan, the attacker also needs assistance to reach what are often fortified targets. Suicide protest does not require organization. There is no defense against the practice, short of the total suppression of information. Where information about suicide protest can be suppressed completely, there is hardly any reason to perform it. In today’s world, the totalitarian control formerly exercised by the Soviet Union or Maoist China is no longer feasible, at least for a country participating in the global economy. For evidence, look no further than China’s inability to prevent us from reading about — and in some cases even watching — the immolations in Tibet.

Biggs is likely correct, though it’s hard to imagine this tragic epidemic is continued to be met by functional silence by the world’s governments. As long as China’s continued response is one of repression, Tibetans will continue to struggle to throw of the yolk of their occupation. More Tibetans will likely see self-immolation as their only option for impactful political organizing. It’s hard to comprehend the depths of despair felt by Tibetans inside of Tibet, but at the same time, these actions tell you how deep it must be, even if it is a depth beyond comprehension.


Can anyone blame American citizens who have been deported along with their immigrant parents for harboring anger towards our government in general and President Obama in particular?

Jeffrey’s situation is increasingly common. His father, Tomás Isidoro, 39, a carpenter, was one of the 46,486 immigrants deported in the first half of 2011 who said they had American children, according to a report by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Congress. That is eight times the half-year average for such removals from 1998 to 2007.

Mr. Isidoro, wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat in his parents’ kitchen, said he was still angry that his 25 years of work in the United States meant nothing; that being caught with a broken taillight on his vehicle and without immigration papers meant more than having two American sons — Jeffrey, 10, and his brother, Tommy Jefferson, 2, who was named after the family’s favorite president.

As for President Obama, Mr. Isidoro uttered an expletive. “There are all these drug addicts, drug dealers, people who do nothing in the United States, and you’re going to kick people like me out,” he said. “Why?”

President Obama’s executive order stopping deportations of DREAM-eligible Americans was a great and needed step. But it’s one small improvement on what has been a massively stupid and inhumane immigration policy that has deported even more people than President Bush. I can’t begin to imagine the amount of anger young Americans who’ve been deported under this President’s stupid policies will feel towards him and our country for years to come.

Obama on Same Sex Marriage

I’ve been traveling for work, so I haven’t had the opportunity to write about President Obama’s decision to evolve already and personally come out in support of marriage equality.

This is a tremendous step forward for equal rights in America. What the President of the United States thinks on an issue such as marriage equality has big impact on its progress in the political sphere. Already other Democratic elected officials have come out in favor of marriage equality since Obama’s announcement. As an issue position, it also will mean a lot to hundreds of thousands of gay Americans to know that this President now thinks they are deserving of equal rights as straight Americans.

Of course, while this is a hugely important step, it’s just one step, not the final destination of realized marriage equality in America. The President still needs to be pressured to take steps using executive power to further marriage equality – one example being the need to push forward an executive order banning contracting to companies which discriminate based on sexual identity. Additionally, the President needs to be pushed off of his bizarre and wrong stance that marriage equality should be determined in a state-by-state basis. Likewise, the administration should stop defending DOMA.

President Obama’s decision to finally (again) support gay marriage is an historic step and should be celebrated, but it is only a transitional victory. The transformative change of actually having marriage equality in America has not been achieved. I hope that President Obama becomes an active participant in the fight for marriage equality now that he personally supports it.

Kony 2012

This is a pretty amazing video and campaign. It has 1.8 million views in two days, which must approach a record on YouTube. Moreover, it’s 30 minutes long, which makes the number of views absolutely astonishing and against all conventional wisdom relating to sharable web videos.

Oh and as if there was a need for there to political confluence around this campaign and anything else happening in the world, it turns out the Grade A Asshat Rush Limbaugh has defended Joseph Kony and the LRA and been harshly critical of President Obama for sending US troops into Uganda to help stop him. Baratunde Thurston writes:

It’s hard to be disappointed by a man who makes a living by being a disappointment to humanity. Yet still, knee-jerk support for the number one war criminal in the world based simply on the logic of opposition to President Obama is dangerous political opportunism at its worst. It’s also stupid. Having avoided the simplest possible research on the LRA, Limbaugh publicly assumed this was some sort of pro-Christian group. Because it fit neatly into the right’s post-fact view of the world, where a Christian American president is actually a secret Muslim who oppresses Christians, he felt comfortable blindly and ignorantly supporting Joseph Kony, who has abducted and brainwashed over 30,000 children, forcing them to kill their own parents and mutilate his enemies and rape with abandon. This is more than a case of a partisan talk radio host stretching for time. It’s the logical and dangerous consequence of a poisonous media culture which financially rewards people who willfully neglect the truth and the consequences of spreading falsehoods.

Separate from Limbaugh, this is an amazing campaign that is already at the level of cultural phenomenon. Hopefully it helps lead to the arrest of Kony.

There are a number of very smart, informed posts critiquing the content of Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” campaign. I think the are worth highlighting so people can assess the relative merits of the campaign itself, separate from it’s phenomenal online statistics. These posts each fundamentally question the strategic leadership, editorial style, inherent White Man’s Burden, fundraising, and over-simplification of the Kony 2012 campaign and the organizers behind it. Not the least in these critiques is that Kony 2012 is pushing for a military intervention and aid to the Ugandan military, which is not a particularly good actor.

Home Rule for DC

I’ve lived in Washington, DC for almost two and a half years, but only this past weekend, as Congress approved a budget which included a ban for the District to use its own funding to pay for abortion services for poor women, did the absurdity and cruelty of DC’s status become clear. The budget bill included a provision that makes a special application of the federal ban of money being used to fund abortion. DC’s budget, even with money raised from its own taxes and not from federal funds, must currently be approved by Congress. And this Congress has said that not only can no federal dollars go to pay for abortion in DC, but none of DC’s money can be used to pay for abortion services for poor District citizens.

License plates in DC carry the slogan, “Taxation without representation,” and clearly this is the system we live under. But the cruelty of the structure is not merely about the quid pro quo the rest of America makes with our government (taxes in exchange for how those taxes are spent). DC is, at the end of the day, a colony of the United States, and we live at the whims of a Congress in our own back yard.

There’s been talk in recent years of giving DC a representative with full voting rights in the House of Representatives, often pairing this addition with a new congressional district in reliably Republican Utah. But even this would be to treat DC like a colony, with sub-standard rights when it comes to representation. Either DC needs to be given full statehood – and the accompanying representation in the Senate – or DC should be merged into Maryland, our contiguous geographic neighbor.  While full statehood for DC is probably the most appealing and straightforward solution, at the end of the day, the necessity for a particular cure of the current colonial system is more important than the particular solution which is used to treat it. If Maryland will take us, fine. If statehood is achievable as the state of Columbia, great. But what we currently have must end and fast.

For what it’s worth, a while back Matt Yglesias mocked up a simple map of how you could give DC statehood, while still carving out the constitutionally required federal district around the White House, Capitol, the Mall and most federal buildings. It would include essentially no residential areas and certainly end the current situation where DC has a larger population than the state of Wyoming. Ygelias’ rough map:

dc statehood

My hope is that the absurdity and the cruelty of the recent budget bill – an outright attack on the rights of poor women in DC – is enough to engender wide support in Democratic circles for DC statehood.  The current situation is a blight on our national conscience and an affront to our Founding Fathers’ memory as patriots who fought against unfair taxation and non-representative colonialism.

Solnit on Revolutions & Tipping Points

At TomDispatch.com, Rebecca Solnit has an incredibly thoughtful essay on the nature of tipping points and revolutions, specifically through the change movements we’ve seen around the world in the last three months, as well as historical looks at revolutionary movements going back two hundred years in history. Along the way she connects movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Wisconsin to Wikileaks, the French Revolution, the civil rights movement, Charter 77  and the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. Solnit’s analysis is encouraging in a way that the technophobic rants of Malcolm Gladwell are not; actual realism involves taking a holistic view of what is happening and understanding individual pieces in concert, not looking at one piece of technology and blaming it for not being things it cannot be.

That the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can shape the weather in Texas is a summation of chaos theory that is now an oft-repeated cliché. But there are billions of butterflies on earth, all flapping their wings. Why does one gesture matter more than another? Why this Facebook post, this girl with a drum?

Even to try to answer this you’d have to say that the butterfly is born aloft by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of, say, a sparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents are other small agents, inspirations, and role models, as well as outrages to react against. The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-old rapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendous power, enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.

It is remarkable how, in other countries, people will one day simply stop believing in the regime that had, until then, ruled them, as African-Americans did in the South here 50 years ago.  Stopping believing means no longer regarding those who rule you as legitimate, and so no longer fearing them. Or respecting them. And then, miraculously, they begin to crumble.

Revolution is also the action of people pushed to the brink. Rather than fall over, they push back. When he decided to push public employees hard and strip them of their collective bargaining rights, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker took a gamble. In response, union members, public employees, and then the public of Wisconsin began to gather on February 11th.  By February 15th, they had taken over the state’s capitol building as the revolution in Egypt was still at full boil. They are still gathering.  Last weekend, the biggest demonstration in Madison’s history was held, led by a “tractorcade” of farmers. The Wisconsin firefighters have revolted too.  And the librarians.  And the broad response has given encouragement to citizens in other states fighting similar cutbacks on essential services and rights.

Republicans like to charge the rest of us with “class war” when we talk about economic injustice, and that’s supposed to be a smear one should try to wriggle out of. But what’s going on in Wisconsin is a class war, in which billionaire-backed Walker is serving the interests of corporations and the super-rich, and this time no one seems afraid of the epithet. Jokes and newspaper political cartoons, as well as essays and talks, remark on the reality of our anti-trickle-down economy, where wealth is being pumped uphill to the palaces at a frantic rate, and on the reality that we’re not poor or broke, just crazy in how we distribute our resources.

What’s scary about the situation is that it is a test case for whether the party best serving big corporations can strip the rest of us of our rights and return us to a state of poverty and powerlessness. If the people who gathered in Madison don’t win, the war will continue and we’ll all lose.

Oppression often works — for a while. And then it backfires. Sometimes immediately, sometimes after several decades. Walker has been nicknamed the Mubarak of the Midwest. Much of the insurrection and the rage in the Middle East isn’t just about tyranny; it’s about economic injustice, about young people who can’t find work, can’t afford to get married or leave their parents’ homes, can’t start their lives. This is increasingly the story for young Americans as well, and here it’s clearly a response to the misallocation of resources, not absolute scarcity. It could just be tragic, or it could get interesting when the young realize they are being shafted, and that life could be different. Even that it could change, quite suddenly, and for the better. [Emphasis added]

Solnit’s whole piece is great, as well as inspiring.

Gene Sharp Profile in NYT

The New York Times has a profile on Gene Sharp, arguably one of the most important advocates for freedom of the last hundred years. Sharp’s writing on non-violent strategic campaigning, specifically on the overthrow of dictatorships, has been instrumental to the thinking of activists in places like Serbia and Egypt, and remains instructive for countless other freedom movements. From the Times article:

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said that some activists translated excerpts of Mr. Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of “attacking weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.

Peter Ackerman, a onetime student of Mr. Sharp who founded the nonviolence center and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that “ideas have power.”

Mr. Sharp, hard-nosed yet exceedingly shy, is careful not to take credit. He is more thinker than revolutionary, though as a young man he participated in lunch-counter sit-ins and spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector during the Korean War. He has had no contact with the Egyptian protesters, he said, although he recently learned that the Muslim Brotherhood had “From Dictatorship to Democracy” posted on its Web site.

While seeing the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak as a sign of “encouragement,” Mr. Sharp said, “The people of Egypt did that — not me.”

A line from the preface of From Dictatorship to Democracy is worth highlighting following the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and ongoing uprisings in Bahrain, Algeria, and Iran.

The fall of one regime does not bring in a utopia. Rather, it opens the way for hard work and long efforts to build more just social, economic, and political relationships and the eradication of other forms of injustices and oppression.