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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Politics, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 1,209
1. Democracy is about more than a vote: politics and brand management

With a General Election rapidly approaching in the UK, it’s easy to get locked into a set of perennial debates concerning electoral registration, voter turnout and candidate selection. In the contemporary climate these are clearly important issues given the shift to individual voter registration, evidence of high levels of electoral disengagement and the general decline in party memberships (a trend bucked by UKIP, the Greens, and the Scottish National Party in recent months).

The post Democracy is about more than a vote: politics and brand management appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. Questions about India’s environment and economic growth

Must economic growth be privileged over ecological security? Jairam Ramesh argues that this is the wrong question to ask; the two work in concert, not in opposition, and a bright economic and political future requires a safe, protected environment. As India grows as a global power, the nation has become a leader in progressive environmental policies.

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3. Surrogacy: how the law develops in response to social change

In its recent decision in Mennesson v. France (App no. 65192/11), the Fifth Section of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that surrogate children—in this case, born in the US and having US citizenship—should not be prevented from registering as French citizens, as this would be a violation of their right to respect for their private life. The Strasbourg court’s view, which is very understandable, is that nationality is an important part of a person’s identity.

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4. Why has France banned surrogate motherhood?

Shortly after it emerged in the 1980s, surrogate motherhood was dealt a severe blow in France by a decision of the Cour de Cassation, its highest civil court: in 1991, it ruled that an agreement entered into by a woman to conceive, bear a child, and relinquish it at birth, albeit for altruistic reasons, was contrary to the public policy principle of unavailability of both the human body and civil status. This prohibition was confirmed in the Bioethics Act of 1994 and enshrined in the Civil Code as a regulation which is “a matter of public policy,” i.e. belonging to a category of mandatory rules created by the state to protect fundamental values of society and from which citizens have no freedom to derogate.

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5. What Pakistan’s history means for its future

The story of Pakistan is the story of missed opportunity. As I began to write about the history of this land, I could not help feeling a sense of an intertwining of personal and national destiny in what was necessarily an account of my own missed opportunities [...]

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6. Trust in the aftermath of terror

In the days following the terrorist attack in Paris on 11 January, thousands of people took to the street in solidarity with the victims and in defense of free speech, and many declared ‘Je suis Charlie’ on social media around the world. The scene is familiar with what we have seen in several other countries in the aftermath of major terrorist attacks.

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7. International Studies Association Convention 2015: a conference and city guide

The International Studies Association Annual Convention will be held in New Orleans this week. The conference will be focusing on Global International Relations and Regional Worlds, A New Agenda for International Studies. If you’re attending, stop by booths 202, 204, and 206 to take advantage of our conference discount. Be sure to check out some of the panels and lectures our authors will be giving.

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8. Tweet of the Moment

I would.

We watched “The Iron Lady” this past weekend and WOW – Margaret Thatcher was one tough lady! (And I was super impressed with Meryl Streep’s performance).

But some of the things she said really resonated with me … for example:

One of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Now, thoughts and ideas, that interests me.

Watch your thoughts, for they become words.Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become your character. And watch your character, for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.

I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.

There are significant differences between the American and European version of capitalism. The American traditionally emphasizes the need for limited government, light regulations, low taxes and maximum labour-market flexibility. Its success has been shown above all in the ability to create new jobs, in which it is consistently more successful than Europe.

Sadly, not anymore. Our country is definitely not as successful as it used to be and I not only blame OBummer, but the government in general. America is no longer, “We the People,” it’s “We the People want the Government to Take Care of Us Because Being a Responsible Adult is Too Hard.” (Insert incessant whining here).

Yes, I’m bitter. I’m one of the 51% working stiffs supporting the other 50% of people who DON’T work. It’s disgusting the way this country kowtows to people who are physically, and mentally, capable of working but choose not to.

Filed under: Politics, Twitter Messages

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9. Strife over strategy: shaping American foreign policy

Last month on Capitol Hill, a tedious slur on Henry Kissinger (“war criminal”) provoked an irate reaction (“low-life scum”). The clash between Senator McCain and the protesters of Code Pink garnered media coverage and YouTube clicks. The Senate’s hearings on national strategy not so much. This is unfortunate. For world-weary superpowers, opportunities for sustained strategic reflection are rare. The transfer of power in the Senate affords such an occasion, and John McCain has seized it. His committee hearings nonetheless illustrate both the many challenges facing American foreign policy and the limits of strategy as a guide to foreign-policy choice.

Making strategy is intellectual work. The strategist seeks to explain the patterns of world events, hopeful that comprehension will guide policy and permit policymakers to shape global trends. Requiring interpretation, making strategy is akin to writing history, but what the strategist explains is the present and future. Henry Kissinger once put it thus: “I think of myself as a historian… I have tried to understand the forces that are at work in this period.”

During the Cold War, the forces at work were clear — or so it now appears. The world was divided, and the United States stood for freedom and against the Soviet Union. Washington did not push the USSR too hard, for doing so risked war. Instead, policymakers adhered to a strategy of containment, the logic of which presumed that the USSR would crumble upon its inner contradictions. History vindicated this theory, and many now yearn for the coherence that containment presumably imparted to US foreign policy. The Cold War was dangerous, General Brent Scowcroft told the McCain hearings, but at least “we knew what the strategy was.”

Americans should not yearn for such clarity. Containment nostalgia distorts the actual adaptability of US foreign policy in the Cold War. The search for strategic coherence is, moreover, inappropriate to the needs of US foreign policy today, which requires not intellectual cohesion but tolerance for complexity, improvisation, and even contradiction.

Henry Kissinger - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008. World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Henry Kissinger – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008. Photo by Remy Steinegger, World Economic Forum. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Consider Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski — two of the sages who addressed McCain’s committee. They rank among America’s clearest strategic thinkers, but neither was in his own time a strategic dogmatist. Henry Kissinger began as an adept practitioner of Cold War geopolitics, but as new challenges mounted, he pirouetted to champion cooperation on issues, like energy, that had little to do with the Cold War. From these efforts, the International Energy Agency and the G-7 were born.

Brzezinski, with President Carter, worked to build a “framework of international cooperation” for a world that the Cold War no longer defined and brought human rights into the foreign-policy mainstream. Only as US-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1970s did the Carter administration adopt an invigorated anti-Soviet policy. Pragmatic adaptation to events, not devotion to strategic coherence, enabled policymakers to lead the United States through one of the hardest phases in its superpower career, prefiguring the Cold War’s resolution on American terms.

America today faces complex and discordant challenges. For John McCain, a revanchist Russia, a rising China, a truculent Iran, an implacable Islamism, and a rash of failing states make the world more dangerous than ever. McCain might have included (as Scowcroft did) global climate change, an existential challenge for industrial civilization. It is seductive to presume that a singular strategy could enable the United States to transcend, resolve, and master the myriad challenges it faces.

The hope is forlorn. Containment during the Cold War provided no roadmap for policy. At most, containment enjoined acceptance of the world’s division and optimism in the West’s prospects. Within this loose outlook, policymakers improvised and adapted, pursuing diverse agendas. The most effective, like Kissinger, understood that even superpowers do not determine the course of world events; instead, their leaders must react and respond. Presuming the reverse risks the kind of strategic hubris that embroiled the United States in the quagmire that President Obama has struggled for six years to resolve.

What role then for strategy? Strategic thinking, which weighs costs and benefits and contemplates long-range consequences, is a prerequisite for responsible foreign policy. Yet Americans should beware the notion that world affairs can be comprehended within coherent, meta-historical frameworks: the Cold War, globalization, the clash of civilizations, and so on. To be creative, strategy must acknowledge both the provisionality of its own conclusions and the validity of alternative perspectives on the world. Like history, it must remain a work in continual progress.

Heading image: Ford Kissinger Rockefeller by David Hume Kennerly. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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10. An interview with the the Editors of Global Summitry

Global Summitry is a new journal published by Oxford University Press in association with University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Rotman School of Management. The journal features articles on the organization and execution of global politics and policy. The first issue is slated to publish in summer 2015. We sat down with editors Alan Alexandroff and Don Brean to discuss the changing global summitry field and their plans for the journal’s digital scope, including audio podcasts, and videos.

*     *     *     *     *

What new approaches will Global Summitry bring to its field?

Global Summitry is concerned with examining today’s international governance in all of its dimensions. The Journal, it is hoped, will describe, analyse, and evaluate the evolution, the contemporary setting, and the future of collaboration of the global order. Global Summitry has emerged to capture contemporary global policy-making in all its complexity.

Global Summitry is dedicated to raising public knowledge of the global order and its policy outcomes. The Journal seeks informed commentary and analysis to the process and more particularly, the outcomes of global summitry. Global Summitry will feature articles on the organization and execution of global politics and policy from a variety of perspectives — political, historical, economic, and legal — from academics, policy experts, and media personnel, as well as from distinguished officials and professionals in the field.

How has the field changed in the last 25 years?

There has been dramatic change in the global order and its actors. The ending of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union left the United States as the last superpower. The end of the Cold War saw the rise of global governance and the primary leadership of the United States. Increasingly, the problems of the international system focused on growing economic and political interdependence questions. Alongside the formal institutions of international organization — the UN and Bretton Woods systems — new informal institutions — the G7/8, APEC, EAS, NSS, and the G20 — emerged to meet the growing challenges — climate change, development, human rights and justice, nuclear material security, global poverty and development, and global security. And, with the traditional great powers, we saw the emergence of the new large emerging market states, like Brazil and India, but most spectacularly, China.

Palais des Nations
Palais des Nations by Eferrante. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Today global governance involves a variety of actors — international organizations, both formal, and informal, states, transgovernmental networks, and select non-state entities. All of these actors are involved in the organization and execution of global politics and policy today. Global summitry today is concerned with the architecture, the institutions and, most critically, the political behavior and outcomes in coordinated global initiatives. We will reach out to scholars from all across the globe from the traditional academic centers, to the new centers in the BRICS and the New Frontier states for commentary and insights into the global order.

What do you hope to see in the coming years from both the field and the journal?

The global summitry field will chronicle, we hope, how international governance meets the challenges of economic and political interdependence. But attention will also be directed to understanding how we meet the growing geopolitical tensions that have appeared — conflict with Russia in Europe, the new tensions in East Asia, the growing disorder in the Middle East that have created consequences well beyond that region. Global Summitry will bring expert description, analysis, and evaluation to a field that until now has not been a stand-alone focus of inquiry by researchers, policy analysts, media and officials from across the globe.

What are your plans to innovate and engage with your audience?

We see a multi-platform world evolving for all academic publishing. As a result, from the commencement of Global Summitry, we intend to present information through all contemporary digital means. The Journal intends to provide a steady stream of academic and policy articles of course but we are determined to offer video interviews with our experts, policy makers, and media guests. We also intend to provide podcast presentations and discussions. As various digital platforms evolve, we anticipate evolving as well.

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11. Unemployment Drops Despite Obama’s Attempts to Keep it High

The authors compared neighboring counties in adjacent states, and found that states that had the shortest duration of unemployment benefits experienced the strongest labor market recovery. “A 1% drop in benefit duration leads to a statistically significant increase of employment. 1.8 million jobs were created in 2014 due to the benefit cut.” Those 1.8 million jobs represent 1.2% of the U.S. labor force: correlating quite closely to the drop in unemployment over the past year.

What can we learn from all this? Nothing we shouldn’t have already known. If you pay people to stay unemployed, more people will stay unemployed.

Annnnnnd *snap – 2016 can’t get here fast enough.

Filed under: Politics

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12. Choosing a president in a new democracy: lessons from Eastern and Central Europe

In his famous statement about the perils of presidentialism, Juan Linz argued that newly emerging democracies ought to avoid adopting a presidential form of government. One of Linz’s reasons had to do with the winner-take-all-nature of presidential elections. By definition, such elections are zero-sum games where the losing candidates have little to no prospect of sharing in executive power. By having a single indivisible and powerful executive office, presidential elections amplify the gap between winning and losing, and can contribute to creating and deepening political divisions, which is precisely what a new democracy ought to minimize.

At the same time, having the people elect the head of their state directly can strengthen the legitimacy of the democratic foundations of the new constitutional order. When conducted in a fair, free, and transparent manner observing the highest standards of electoral integrity, direct presidential elections can play an important role in aiding the development of civic and political values such as electoral participation, competitiveness, and accountability. If the population is not imbued by such values, the new democratic system may soon hollow out and become a procedural mechanism with no substantive values informing and guiding it.

An intermediate constitutional solution is the adoption of a semi-presidential system of government, which, according to scholars like Maurice Duverger and Robert Elgie, is characterized by a presidency that is elected directly by the people but that is also considerably weaker in power and authority than the chief executive of a presidential system of government. The relative weakness of the semi-presidential head of state is underscored by the fact that the office shares executive power with the prime minister who, as the head of government, is responsible to the legislature. Semi-presidentialism often becomes an attractive constitutional choice in new democracies precisely because it has the advantage of encouraging popular participation in the political system without concentrating too much power in a single executive office.

Budapest Parliament by Mike Gabelmann. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

The experience of the ten post-communist democracies in Eastern and Central Europe is an excellent case in point. At the time of their transition to democracy in the early 1990s, only half of the ten states had a semi-presidential executive: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia, and Romania. The remaining five states (the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, and Slovakia) remained parliamentary systems with both the prime minister and the president elected by the legislature. By 2015 Hungary, Estonia, and Latvia have remained the only three cases with indirectly elected heads of state. At first Slovakia, in 1998, and then the Czech Republic, in 2012, enacted constitutional changes to move from indirect to direct presidential elections. In both of these cases, the adoption of direct presidential elections was the result of repeated failures by parliament to ensure a smooth and efficient process. In Slovakia, the National Council was unable to elect a president after several unsuccessful rounds of balloting in 1998, whereas in the Czech Republic both the 2003 and the 2008 elections were characterized by legislative tumult leading to renewed calls for delegating the choice of president to the people.

What can constitutional designers and engineers learn from the history of presidential elections in the post-communist region? Insofar as political stability and legitimacy are concerned, there are three important lessons:

  1. The semi-presidential model is a reliable and good constitutional choice as long as the formal powers of the head of state are kept modest. Some of the most serious constitutional battles between a directly elected president and the legislature took place in the three states where the head of state had the greatest formal powers (Lithuania, Poland, and Romania). However, while subsequent constitutional changes in these states modified the term or the powers of the president, none of them did away with the directly elective nature of the office.
  2. Indirect presidential elections can be a major source of political instability, and loss of public trust in the legislature, unless the rules of the game are kept efficient. The examples of Slovakia and the Czech Republic showed that inclusive and consensus-oriented rules do not work in the long run. In both cases, the constitution required that the winning candidate obtain a highly qualified majority of votes, which proved to be extremely difficult, or even impossible, in an already fragmented multi-party parliament.
  3. Efficient rules for indirect presidential elections ought to combine a simple majority threshold for winning with a fixed number of rounds in which the election must be completed. As the cases of Hungary and Estonia show, efficient rules will typically favor the candidate of the incumbent governing coalition and as such will further concentrate executive power in its hands. However, this may be a small price to pay relative to the instability that can be caused by the failure of consensus-oriented inclusive rules.

In short, the post-communist cases suggest that the ideal form of choosing the president of a new democracy may be either direct election by the people or indirect election by parliament using efficient, result-oriented rules and procedures. While presidentialism as a constitutional system may be perilous for the stability of a new democracy, as Juan Linz argued, there is also a great danger in adopting parliamentary processes of presidential election which can themselves become the source of political instability.

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13. Why green growth?

There is universal acknowledgment of the fact that India needs to come back on the path of high economic growth quickly. Although GDP grew at an unprecedented annual average rate of growth of almost 7.7% during the past decade (the highest for any democracy in the world), the last two years have been disappointing. High economic growth rates fuelled by high rates of investment are essential because they generate huge revenues for the government, which can then be utilised for social welfare and infrastructure expansion programmes. Of course, it goes without saying that rapid growth alone is not enough. It must be of a nature that creates increasing productive employment opportunities and it must be inclusive as well so that more and more sections of society benefit visibly and tangibly from it.

There is a yet another dimension to economic growth, in addition to its being rapid and inclusive. And this is that economic growth has to be ecologically sustainable as well. India simply cannot afford the “grow now, pay later” model that has been adopted by most other countries, including China and Brazil. This is for at least four pressing reasons.

First, no country is going to add another 40-50 crore to its current population of about 124 crore by the middle of this century as India is destined to do. (By contrast, China will add just about 2.5 crore over the same period to its current population of about 150 crore.) We cannot compromise the prospects for our coming generations by our impatience and greed today.

Second, there is no country that faces the type of multiple vulnerabilities to climate change, both current and future as India does. This is because of its dependence on the monsoon, its very large population living in coastal areas who are vulnerable to increase in mean sea levels, its reliance on the health of the Himalayan glaciers for water security, and its preponderance of extractable natural resources like coal and iron ore in dense forest areas (more extraction means more deforestation that aggravates climate change).

Third, environment is increasingly becoming a public health concern. From unprecedented industrial and vehicular pollution to the dumping of chemical waste and municipal sewage in rivers and water-bodies, the build up to a public health catastrophe is already visible. People are already suffering in a variety of ways and environmental deterioration has emerged as a major cause of illness.

Darjeeling, 29 April 2007. photo by  Shreyans Bhansali. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via thebigdurian Flickr.
Darjeeling, 29 April 2007. photo by Shreyans Bhansali. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via thebigdurian Flickr.

Fourth, most of what is called environmentalism in India is not middle class “lifestyle environmentalism” but actually “livelihood environmentalism” linked to daily issues of land productivity, water availability, access to non-timber forest produce, protection of water-bodies, protection of grazing lands and pastures, preservation of sacred places, etc.

Environmental concerns are, therefore, not part of some foreign plot or conspiracy by some NGOs to keep India in a state of perpetual poverty. It is an imperative we ignore at our own peril. It is not just a matter of increasing the contribution of renewables to our energy supply. Much more important are investment and technology choices in industry, agriculture, energy, transport, construction, and other sectors of the economy. In April 2014, the Planning Commission’s expert on low carbon strategies for inclusive growth submitted its final report. In the debate on the future of the Planning Commission, this report vital to our future has unfortunately been ignored. The report concludes on the basis of its detailed sectoral analysis that low carbon inclusive growth is not just desirable but is also eminently feasible even though it will require additional investments.

The Modi government, like its predecessors, has stressed its resolve to integrate environmental concerns into the mainstream of the process of economic growth. This is admirable but we must recognise that at times there will be trade-offs between growth and environment, occasions when tough choices will necessarily have to be made — choices that may well involve saying “no”. It is when you work the integration in practice, that you confront contradictions, complexities, and conflicts that cannot be brushed aside. They have to be recognised and managed sensitively as part of the democratic process.

The debate is really not one of environment versus development but really be one of adhering to rules, regulations, and laws versus taking the rules, regulations ,and laws for granted? When public hearings means having hearings without the public and having the public without hearings, it is not a environment versus development issue at all. When an alumina refinery starts construction to expand its capacity from one million tons per year to six million tons per year without bothering to seek any environmental clearance as mandated by law, it is not a “environment versus development” question, but simply one of whether laws enacted by Parliament will be respected or not. When closure notices are issued to distilleries or paper mills or sugar factories illegally discharging toxic wastes into India’s most holy Ganga river, it is not a question of “environment versus development” but again one of whether standards mandated by law are to be enforced effectively or not. When a power plant wants to draw water from a protected area or when a coal mine wants to undertake mining in the buffer zone of a tiger sanctuary, both in contravention of existing laws, it is not a “environment versus development” question but simply one of whether laws will be adhered to or not.

By all means we must make laws pragmatic. By all means we must have market-friendly means of implementing regulations. By all means, we must accelerate the rate of investment in labour-intensive manufacturing especially. But mockery should not be made of regulations and laws. Indian civilisation has always shown the highest respect for biodiversity. Therefore, it should not be difficult for us to become world leaders in green growth. This is an area of strategic leadership where India can show the way to the world. Both the champions of “growth at all costs” and the crusaders for ecological causes must work together to enable India to attain this position.

Headline image credit: Between Sissu and Keylong, Manali-Leh Highway, Himachal Pradesh, Indian Himalayas. Photo by Henrik Johansson. CC BY-NC 2.0 via henrikj Flickr.

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14. Behind the Scenes at the White House: A Q&A with Nonfiction Author Katherine L. House

Just in time for Presidents' Day, I chatted with nonfiction author Katherine L. House about her recent book, White House for Kids. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a copy of her book.

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15. Jonathan Nagler: writing good code

Introduction, by R. Michael Alvarez

Today’s data scientist must know how to write good code. Regardless of whether they are working with a commercial off-the-shelf statistical software package, R, python, or perl, all require the use of good coding practices. Large and complex datasets need lots of manipulation to wrangle them into shape for analytics, statistical estimation often is complex, and presentation of complicated results sometimes requires writing lots of code. To make sure that code is understandable to the author and others, good coding practices are essential.

Many who teach methodology, statistics, and data science, are increasingly teaching their students how to write good computer code. As a practical matter, if a professor requires that students turn in their code for a problem set, that code needs to be well-crafted to be legible to the instructor. But as increasing numbers of our students are writing and distributing their code and software tools to the public, professionally we need to do more to train students how to write good code. Finally, good code is critical for research replication and transparency — if you can’t understand someone’s code, it might be difficult or impossible to be able to reproduce their analysis.

When I first started teaching methods to graduate students, there was little in the methodological literature that I found useful for teaching graduate students good coding practices. But in 1995, my colleague Jonathan Nagler wrote out some great guidance on good methodological practices, in particular guidelines for good coding style. His piece is available online (“Coding Style and Good Computing Practices”), and his advice from 1995 is as relevant today as it was then. I use Jonathan’s guidelines in my graduate teaching.

Over the past few years, as Political Analysis has focused resources on research replication and transparency, it’s become clear that we need to develop better guidance for researchers and authors regarding how to write good code. One of the biggest issues that we run into when we review replication materials that are submitted to the journal is poor documentation and unclear code; and if we can’t figure out how the code works, I’m sure that our readers will have the same problem.

We’ve been thinking of developing some guidelines for documentation of replication materials, and standards for coding practices. As part of that research, I asked Jonathan if he would write an update of his 1995 essay, and for him to reflect some on how things might have evolved in terms of good computing practices since 1995. His thoughts are below, and I encourage readers to also read Jonathan’s original 1995 essay.

*     *     *     *     *

Coding style and good computing practices: it is easy to get the style right, harder to get good practice, by Jonathan Nagler, NYU

Many years ago I was prompted to write Coding Style and Good Computing Practices, an article laying out guidelines for coding style for political scientists. The article was reprinted in a symposium on replication in PS (September 1995, Vol. 28, No. 3, 488-492). According to Google Scholar, it has rarely been cited, but I’m convinced it has been read quite often because I’ve seem some idiosyncratic suggestions made in it in the code of other political scientists. Though re-reading the article I am reminded how many people have not read it, or just ignored it.

Ladies coding event by Jon Lim. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here is a list of basic points reproduced from that article:

  • Labbooks: essential.
  • Command files: they should be kept.
  • Data-manipulation vs. data-analysis: these should be in distinct files.
  • Keep tasks compartmentalized (‘modularity’).
  • Know what the code is supposed to do before you start.
  • Don’t be too clever.
  • Variable names should mean something.
  • Use parentheses and white-space to make code readable.
  • Documentation: all code should include comments meaningful to others.

And I concluded with a list of rules:

  • Maintain a labbook from the beginning of a project to the end.
  • Code each variable so that it corresponds as closely as possible to a verbal description of the substantive hypothesis the variable will be used to test.
  • Errors in code should be corrected where they occur and the code re-run.
  • Separate tasks related to data-manipulation vs data-analysis into separate files.
  • Each program should perform only one task.
  • Do not try to be as clever as possible when coding. Try to write code that is as simple as possible.
  • Each section of a program should perform only one task.
  • Use a consistent style regarding lower and upper case letters.
  • Use variable names that have substantive meaning.
  • Use variable names that indicate direction where possible.
  • Use appropriate white-space in your programs, and do so in a consistent fashion to make them easy to read.
  • Include comments before each block of code describing the purpose of the code.
  • Include comments for any line of code if the meaning of the line will not be unambiguous to someone other than yourself.
  • Rewrite any code that is not clear.
  • Verify that missing data is handled correctly on any recode or creation of a new variable.
  • After creating each new variable or recoding any variable, produce frequencies or descriptive statistics of the new variable and examine them to be sure that you achieved what you intended.
  • When possible, automate things and avoid placing hard-wired values (those computed ‘by-hand’) in code.

Those are still very good rules, I would not change any of them. I would add one, and that is to put comments in any paper citing the piece of code that produced the figures or tables in the paper. In 20 years a lot of things have changed about how we do computing. It has gotten much easier to follow good computing practices. Github has made it easy to share code, maintain revision history, and publish code. And the set of people who seamlessly collaborate by sharing files over Dropbox or one of its competitors probably dwarfs the number of political scientists using Github. But to paraphrase a common computing aphorism (GIGO), sharing or publishing badly written code won’t make it easy for people to replicate or build on your work.

I was motivated to write that article because as I stated then, most political scientists aren’t trained as computer programmers. Nor were most political scientists trained to work in a laboratory. So the article covered both style of code, and computing practice to make sure that an entire research project could be reproduced by someone else. That means keeping track of where you got your data, how it was processed, etc.

Any computer code is a set of instructions that produces results when read by a machine, and we can evaluate the code based on the results it produces. But when we share code we expect it to be read by humans. Two pieces of code be functionally equivalent — they could produce identical results when read by a machine — even though one is easy to read and understand by a human; while the other is pretty much unintelligible to a human. If you expect people to use your code, you need to make the code easy to read. I try to ask every graduate student I am going to work with to read several chapters from Brian W. Kernighan and Rob Pike’s, The Practice of Programming (1999), especially the Preface, Chapters 1, 3, 5, 6, and the Epilogue.

It has turned out to be easier to write clean code than to maintain good computing practices overall that would lead to easy reproducibility of an entire research project. It is fairly easy to post a ‘replication’ dataset, and the code used to produce the figures and tables in a paper. But that doesn’t really tell someone everything they need to know to try to reproduce your work, or extend it to other data. They need to know how your data was generated. And those steps occur in the production of the replication dataset, not in the use of it.

Most research projects in political science pull in data from many sources. And many, many coding decisions are made along the way to a finished product. All of those decisions may be visible in the code; but keeping coherent lab-books is essential for sifting through all the lines of code of any large project. And ‘projects’ rarely stand-alone anymore. Work on one dataset is linked to many projects, often with over-lapping sets of co-authors.

At the beginning of a research project it’s important for everyone to agree where the code is, where the data is, and what the overall structure of the documentation is. That means decisions about whether documentation is grouped by project (which could mean by individual paper), or by dataset. And it means reaching some agreement on whether there is a master document that points to many smaller documents describing individual tasks, or whether the whole project description sits in a single document. None of this is exciting to work out, certainly not as exciting as doing the research. But it is essential. A good goal of doing all this is to make it as easy as possible to make the whole bundle of documentation and code public as soon as it is time to do so. It both saves time when it is time to release documentation, and imposes some good habits and structure along the way.

Heading image: Typing computer screen reflection by Almonroth. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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16. Don’t blame Sykes-Picot

What do Glenn Beck, Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State, and Noam Chomsky have in common? They all place much of the blame for the current crisis in the Middle East on the so-called “Sykes-Picot Agreement,” a plan for the postwar partition of Ottoman territories drawn up during World War I.

Named after the two diplomats who negotiated the secret deal in 1915-16—Sir Mark Sykes of the British war office and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut—the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided up the Asiatic provinces of the Ottoman Empire into zones of direct and indirect British and French control. It also “internationalized” Jerusalem—a bone thrown to the Russian Empire, a British and French ally, which worried that Orthodox Christians might be put at a disadvantage if the Catholic French had final say about the future of the holy city. Although Russia never officially signed the agreement, it acquiesced to it in return for its allies’ reaffirmation of postwar Russian control over Istanbul and the Turkish Straits and direct Russian control over parts of eastern Anatolia.

“I know I read about [the Sykes-Picot Agreement] years ago when we were at Fox,” Glenn Beck reported in September 2014, “and I put it up on the chalkboard….But it didn’t all fall into place until I learned about ISIS and ISIL…Now it all makes sense to me, and now you’ll be able to figure out what is really going on.”

Bashar al-Assad concurs: “What is taking place in Syria is part of what has been planned for the region for tens of years, as the dream of partition is still haunting the grandchildren of Sykes–Picot.”

So does al-Assad’s sometime enemy, the Islamic State, which wrote in its glossy magazine, Dabiq, “After demolishing the Syrian/Iraqi border set up by the crusaders to divide and disunite the Muslims, and carve up their lands in order to consolidate their control of the region, the mujāhidīn of the Khilāfah delivered yet another blow to nationalism and the Sykes-Picot-inspired borders that define it.”

Even Noam Chomsky got into the act, opining, “I think the Sykes-Picot agreement is falling apart.”

The fact is, however, that it’s way too late for that. By the end of World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was already a dead letter.

Arab Uprisings 2nd ed_blog image
“MPK1-426 Sykes Picot Agreement Map signed 8 May 1916.” Photo by Royal Geographical Society (Map), Mark Sykes & François Georges-Picot (Annotations). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
"Political Middle East" CIA World Factbook" by Central Intelligence Agency - https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/docs/refmaps.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“‘Political Middle East’ map from the CIA World Factbook Website.” Photo by Central Intelligence Agency. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Compare a map of the contemporary Middle East (right) with the map proposed by the Sykes-Picot Agreement (above). Is any area of the region under direct British, French, or Russian administration? How do the horizontally delineated zones of indirect control and the vertically delineated zones of direct control compare to the crazy quilt map of the Middle East today? Is Jerusalem (and the adjoining region) under international control? Do France and Russia directly control parts of Anatolia, and does Britain directly control parts of Iraq and the Arabian peninsula?

For the most part, the current boundaries in the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia came about as the result of two factors. The first is the establishment of the mandates system by the League of Nations, which not only allotted Britain and France temporary control over territory in the region, but enabled the two powers to combine or divide territories into proto-states in accordance with their imperial interests. Thus, Britain created Iraq and Trans-Jordan after the war (Israel and Palestine would come even later); France did the same for Lebanon and Syria. Second, Anatolia remained undivided because Turkish nationalists fought a grueling four year anti-imperialist campaign that drove foreigners out of the peninsula.

Why, then, have so many placed the blame for today’s instability on an agreement that was all but ignored once the Great Powers got down to business in Versailles in 1919? Certainly it is not because it was the first of the secret agreements that set the precedent for dividing Ottoman lands among the allies after the war. That honor belongs to the Constantinople Agreement of 1915. Nor was it the last: the Treaty of St. Jeanne de Maurienne, which gave Italy control over territory in western Anatolia, was signed in 1917.

Perhaps the reason people speak of the “Sykes-Picot boundaries” is that it assigns culpability to individuals rather than complicated historical events or faceless apparatchiks meeting behind closed doors. For Middle Easterners, “Sykes-Picot” became code long ago for imperialist arrogance and the illegitimacy of the contemporary state system, whatever the agreement’s actual historical significance. Once the phrase struck roots in the region, it spread globally, particularly after Al-Qaeda made it a focal point of its polemics.

Poor Sykes, poor Georges-Picot. Just as Arthur Balfour has, for more than ninety years, borne responsibility for an eponymous declaration written by others and approved by the British prime minister and cabinet, Sykes and Georges-Picot have become the obligatory villains in narratives that give pride of place to the imperialist perfidy that has frustrated Arab or Islamic unity and is responsible for the multiple failures of the contemporary Middle Eastern state.

Image Credit: “Yemeni Protests 4-Apr-2011 P01.” Photo by Email4mobile. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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17. Using religious repression to preserve nondemocratic rule

Religious repression—the nonviolent suppression of civil and political rights associated with religion—is a growing and global phenomenon. Though it is most often practiced in authoritarian countries, it nevertheless varies greatly across nondemocratic regimes. In my work, I’ve collected data from more than 100 nondemocratic states to explore the varieties of repression that they impose on religious expression, association, and political activities, describing the obstacles these actions present for democratization, pluralism, and the development of an independent civil society.

The nondemocratic countries of the world can be divided into four categories based on the number of religious groups they target with religious repression (All, All But One, Some, and None). Knowing how many and which groups states target helps us to understand how rulers in countries with different levels of political competition and religious divisions use regulations on religion to repress, co-opt, and prevent potential political opposition from challenging their rule.

The color-coded map below shows the degree to which nondemocratic countries repress religions. Click on the larger markers with a symbol for more detail on that particular country.

Featured image credit: Photo by Saint-Petersburg Orthodox Theological Academy. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

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18. Pussy Riot’s real crime was feminism

In February 2012 a group of young women wearing balaclavas went into Moscow’s most grandiose Russian Orthodox cathedral and sang about 40 seconds of an anti-Putin song they’d written, before being bodily removed from the premises. Pussy Riot quickly became a household name. The chorus of their “Punk Prayer” prevailed upon the Virgin Mary to kick Putin out of power, and included the line: “Shit, shit, holy shit.” That night, they mixed the footage into a longer version of the song and put it up on the web, where it went viral. Three of the group were caught and jailed a few weeks later. Ekaterina Samutsevich appealed her sentence successfully and was released on probation in October of that year, while Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina remained imprisoned. Having become an international cause celebre for freedom of speech, the two were released two months ahead of schedule in December 2013, in advance of the Sochi Olympics.

The Russian judge in Pussy Riot’s trial had condemned them to jail for two years for committing the crime of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred“. In short, they were sentenced for an ostensible hate crime against Russian Orthodoxy. What is not well known, however, is that in her sentence Judge Marina Syrova claimed that Pussy Riot’s belief in “feminism” was at the heart of their anti-religious beliefs, and thus was the motivator for their crime. As Syrova elaborated:

Pussy Riot by Denis Bochkarev. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Facebook.

“Affiliation with feminism in the Russian Federation is not a violation of the law or a crime. A series of religions, such as [Russian] orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam, have a religious-dogmatic basis that is incompatible with the ideas of feminism. And while feminism is not a religious teaching, its representatives are invading such spheres of social relations as ethics, norms of decorum, relations in the family, [and] sexual relations, including nontraditional [sexual relations], that were historically built on the basis of a religious worldview. In the modern world, relations between nations and peoples, between various [religious] confessions, should be built on principles of mutual respect and equality. The idea of the superiority of one [belief], and, accordingly, the inferiority and unacceptability (nepriemlemosti) of another ideology, social group, [or] religion, gives grounds for mutual animosity and hatred, for interpersonal conflictual relations.”

In essence, the women of Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison for being feminists.

After their release, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina, now the “faces” of Pussy Riot, became the most sought-after female duo on the liberal speaker circuit. While in the United States, they gave a talk at Harvard University’s Kennedy School Forum in September 2014. I attended the event and asked a question: What had they thought of that particular part of the sentence, so little reported in the Western press? Tolokonnikova responded, “That was the most interesting part of the judge’s sentence for me, too.” She then told a story about how, during the trial — during which the prosecution complained that Pussy Riot had used swear words while inside the Church — she had asked Liubov Sokologorskaia, one of the witnesses for the prosecution (whose job was to mind the candleholders, icons, and blessed relics in the cathedral), whether “feminism” was a “dirty word” (brannoe slovo). “In the cathedral — yes,” was the response.

The Harvard Forum attendees laughed loudly at this story, but it captured an insidious theme at the trial. A week in, Larisa Pavlova, lawyer for the prosecution, had informed the court that feminism was a “mortal sin, like all unnatural manifestations associated with human life,” while outside the courthouse young people associated with the pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, chanted slogans including, “The women’s revolt won’t be allowed,” and “Pussy should sit in a cell.” Apparently, Pussy Riot’s “crime” was not only to have spoken publicly against Putin, but to have embraced feminism and its dangerous defiance of traditional gender relations — a threat to the Russian church and state alike, as both depend on patriarchy for their legitimacy.

Heading image: Pussy Riot by Denis Bochkarev. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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19. Replication redux and Facebook data

Introduction, from Michael Alvarez, co-editor of Political Analysis

Recently I asked Nathaniel Beck to write about his experiences with research replication. His essay, published on 24 August 2014 on the OUPblog, concluded with a brief discussion of a recent experience of his when he tried to obtain replication data from the authors of a recent study published in PNAS, on an experiment run on Facebook regarding social contagion. Since then the story of Neal’s efforts to obtain this replication material have taken a few interesting twists and turns, so I asked Neal to provide an update — because the lessons from his efforts to get the replication data from this PNAS study are useful for the continued discussion of research transparency in the social sciences.

Replication redux, by Nathaniel Beck

When I last wrote about replication for the OUPblog in August (“Research Replication in Social Science”), there was one smallish open question (about my own work) and one biggish question (on whether I would ever see the Kramer et al., “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks”, replication file, which was “in the mail”). The Facebook story is interesting, so I start with that.

After not hearing from Adam Kramer of Facebook, even after contacting PNAS, I persisted with both the editor of PNAS (Inder Verma, who was most kind) and with the NAS through “well connected” friends. (Getting replication data should not depend on knowing NAS members!). I was finally contacted by Adam Kramer, who offered that I could come out to Palo Alto to look at the replication data. Since Facebook did not offer to fly me out, I said no. I was then offered a chance to look at the replication files in the Facebook office 4 blocks from NYU, so I accepted. Let me stress that all dealings with Adam Kramer were highly cordial, and I assume that delays were due to Facebook higher ups who were dealing with the human subjects firestorm related to the Kramer piece.

When I got to the Facebook office I was asked to sign a standard non-disclosure agreement, which I dec. To my surprise this was not a problem, with the only consequence being that a security officer would have had to escort me to the bathroom. I then was put in a room with a Facebook secure notebook with the data and R-studio loaded; Adam Kramer was there to answer questions, and I was also joined by a security person and an external relations person. All were quite pleasant, and the security person and I could even discuss the disastrous season being suffered by Liverpool.

I was given a replication file which was a data frame which had approximately 700,000 rows (one for each respondent) and 7 columns containing the number of positive and negative words used by each respondent as well as the total word count of each respondent, percentages based on these numbers, experimental condition. and a variable which omitted some respondents for producing the tables. This is exactly the data frame that would have been put in an archive since it contained all the data needed to replicate the article. I also was given the R-code that produced every item in the article. I was allowed to do anything I wanted with that data, and I could copy the results into a file. That file was then checked by Facebook people and about two weeks later I received the entire file I created. All good, or at least as good as it is going to get.

Intel team inside Facebook data center. Intel Free Press. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Intel team inside Facebook data center. Intel Free Press. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The data frame I played with was based on aggregating user posts so each user had one row of data, regardless of the number of posts (and the data frame did not contain anything more than the total number of words posted). I can understand why Facebook did not want to give me the data frame, innocuous as it seemed; those who specialize in de-de-identifying private data and reverse engineering code are quite good these days, and I can surely understand Facebook’s reluctance to have this raw data out there. And I understand why they could not give me all the actual raw data, which included how feeds were changed and so forth; this is the secret sauce that they would not like reverse engineered.

I got what I wanted. I could see their code, could play with density plots to get a sense of words used, I could change the number of extreme points dropped, and I could have moved to a negative binomial instead of a Poisson. Satisfied, I left after about an hour; there are only so many things one can do with one experiment on two outcomes. I felt bad that Adam Kramer had to fly to New York, but I guess this is not so horrible. Had the data been more complicated I might have felt that I could not do everything I wanted, and running a replication with 3 other people in a room is not ideal (especially given my typing!).

My belief is that that PNAS and the authors could simply have had a different replication footnote. This would have said that the code used (about 5 lines of R, basically a call to a Poisson regression using GLM) is available at a dataverse. In addition, they could have noted that the GLM called used the data frame I described, with the summary statistics for that data frame. Readers could then see what was done, and I can see no reason for such a procedure to bother Facebook (though I do not speak for them). I also note a clear statement on a dataverse would have obviated the need for some discussion. Since bytes are cheap, the dataverse could also contain whatever policy statement Facebook has on replication data. This (IMHO) is much better than the “contact the authors for replication data” footnote that was published. It is obviously up to individual editors as to whether this is enough to satisfy replication standards, but at least it is better than the status quo.

What if I didn’t work four blocks from Astor Place? Fortunately I did not have to confront this horror. How many other offices does Facebook have? Would Adam Kramer have flown to Peoria? I batted this around, but I did most of the batting and the Facebook people mostly did no comment. So someone else will have to test this issue. But for me, the procedure worked. Obviously I am analyzing lots more proprietary data, and (IMHO) this is a good thing. So Facebook, et al., and journal editors and societies have many details to work out. But, based on this one experience, this can be done. So I close this with thanks to Adam Kramer (but do remind him that I have had auto-responders to email for quite while now).

On the more trivial issue of my own dataverse, I am happy to report that almost everything that was once on an a private ftp site is now on my Harvard dataverse. Some of this was already up because of various co-authors who always cared about replication. And on stuff that was not up, I was lucky to have a co-author like Jonathan Katz, who has many skills I do not possess (and is a bug on RCS and the like, which beats my “I have a few TB and the stuff is probably hidden there somewhere”). So everything is now on the dataverse, except for one data set that we were given for our 1995 APSR piece (and which Katz never had). Interestingly, I checked the original authors’ web sites (one no longer exists, one did not go back nearly that far) and failed to make contact with either author. Twenty years is a long time! So everyone should do both themselves and all of us a favor, and build the appropriate dataverse files contemporaneously with the work. Editors will demand this, but even with this coercion, this is just good practice. I was shocked (shocked) at how bad my own practice was.

Heading image: Wikimedia Foundation Servers-8055 24 by Victorgrigas. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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20. Immigration in the American west

The headline reads: “Border State Governor Issues Dire Warning about Flood of Undocumented Immigrants.” And here’s the gist of the story: In a letter to national officials, the governor of a border state sounded another alarm about unchecked immigration across a porous boundary with a neighboring country. In the message, one of several from border state officials, the governor acknowledged that his/her nation had once welcomed immigrants from its neighbor, but recent events taught how unwise that policy was. He/she insisted that many of the newcomers to his/her state were armed and dangerous criminals. Even those who came to work threatened to overwhelm the state’s resources and destabilize the social order.

Indeed, unlike earlier immigrants from the neighboring nation who had adapted to their new homeland and its traditions, more recent arrivals resisted assimilation. Instead, they continued to speak in their native tongue and maintain attachments to their former nation, sometimes carrying their old flag in public demonstrations. Worse still, the governor admitted that his/her nation seemed unwilling to “arrest” the flow of these undocumented aliens. Yet, unless the “incursions” were halted, the “daring strangers,” who are “gradually outnumbering and displacing us,” would turn us into “strangers in our own land.”

Today’s headline? It could be. The governor’s fears certainly ring familiar. Indeed, the warning sounds a lot like ones issued by Governor Rick Perry of Texas or Jan Brewer of Arizona. But this particular alarm emanated from California. That might make Pete Wilson the author of this message. Back in the 1990s, he was very vocal about the dangers that illegal immigration posed to his state and the United States. As governor, Wilson championed the “Save Our State” ballot initiative that cut illegal aliens from access to state benefits such as subsidized health care and public education. He campaigned on behalf of the initiative (Proposition 187) and made it a centerpiece of his 1994 re-election campaign.

Wilson, however, was not the source of the letter cited above. In fact, this warning dates back to 1845, almost 150 years before Proposition 187 appeared on the scene. Its author was Pio Pico, governor of the still Mexican state of California.

The unsanctioned immigrants about whom Pico worried were from the United States. Pico had reason to be concerned, especially as he reflected on events in Texas. There, the Mexican government had opted to encourage immigration from the United States. Beginning in the 1820s and continuing into the 1830s, Americans, primarily from the southern United States, poured into Texas.

Map of  CA, NV, UT and western AZ when they were part of Mexico"California1838" by DigbyDalton - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Map of CA, NV, UT and western AZ when they were part of Mexico, “California1838″, by DigbyDalton. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

By the mid-1830s, they outnumbered Tejanos (people with Mexican roots) by almost ten to one. Demanding provincial autonomy, the Americans clashed with Mexican authorities determined to enforce the rule of the national government. In 1836, a rebellion commenced, and Texans won their war of secession. Nine years later, the United States annexed Texas. And now, claimed Pico, many officials of the United States government openly coveted California, their expansionist designs abetted by American immigrants to California.

In retrospect, the policy of promoting American immigration into northern Mexico looks as dangerous as Pico deemed it and as counterintuitive as it has seemed to subsequent generations. Why invite Americans in if a chief goal was to keep the United States out? Still, the policy did not appear so paradoxical at the time. There were, in fact, encouraging precedents. Spain had attempted something similar in the Louisiana Territory in the 1790s, though the territory’s transfer back to France and then to the United States had aborted that experiment. More enduring was what the British had done in Upper Canada (now Ontario). Americans who crossed that border proved themselves amenable to a shift in loyalties, which showed how tenuous national attachments remained in these years. From this, others could draw lessons: the keys to gaining and holding the affection of American transplants was to protect them from Indians, provide them with land on generous terms, require little from them in the way of taxes, and interfere minimally in their private pursuits.

For a variety of reasons, Mexico had trouble abiding by these guidelines, and, in response, Americans did not abide by Mexican rules. In Texas, American immigrants destabilized Mexican rule. In California, as Pico feared, the “daring strangers” overwhelmed the Mexican population, though the brunt of the American rush did not commence until after the discovery of gold in 1848. By then, Mexico had already lost its war with the United States and ceded California. Very soon, men like Pio Pico found themselves strangers in their own land.

Featured image credit: “Map of USA highlighting West”. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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21. Four reasons for ISIS’s success

The editors of Oxford Islamic Studies Online asked several experts the following question:

The world has watched as ISIS (ISIL, the “Islamic State”) has moved from being a small but extreme section of the Syrian opposition to a powerful organization in control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria. Even President Obama recently admitted that the US was surprised by the success of ISIS in that region. Why have they been so successful, and why now?

Political Scientist Robert A. Pape and undergraduate research associate Sarah Morell, both from the University of Chicago, share their thoughts.

ISIS has been successful for four primary reasons. First, the group has tapped into the marginalization of the Sunni population in Iraq to gain territory and local support. Second, ISIS fighters are battle-hardened strategists fighting against an unmotivated Iraqi army. Third, the group exploits natural resources to fund their operations. And fourth, ISIS has utilized a brilliant social media strategy to recruit fighters and increase their international recognition. One of the important aspects cutting across these four elements is the unification of anti-American populations across Iraq and Syria — remnants of the Saddam regime, Iraqi civilians driven to militant behavior during the US occupation, transnational jihadists, and the tribes who were hung out to dry following the withdrawal of US forces in 2011.

The Sunni population’s hatred of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad has allowed ISIS to quickly overtake huge swaths of Iraqi Sunni territory. The Iraq parliamentary elections in 2010 were a critical moment in this story. The Iraqiyya coalition, led by Ayad Allawi, won support of the Sunni population to win the plurality of seats in Iraq’s parliament. Maliki’s party came second by a slim two-seat margin. Despite Allawi’s electoral victory, Maliki and his Shia coalition — backed by the United States — succeeded in forming a government with Maliki as Prime Minister.

Inside of the Baghdad Convention Center, where the Council of Representatives of Iraq meets. By James (Jim) Gordon. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Inside of the Baghdad Convention Center, where the Council of Representatives of Iraq meets. By James (Jim) Gordon. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the months following the election, Maliki targeted Sunni leaders in an effort to consolidate Shia domination of Baghdad. Many of these were the same Sunni leaders successfully mobilized by US forces during the occupation — in an operation that became known as the Anbar Awakening — to cripple al-Qa’ida in Iraq strongholds within the Sunni population. When the US withdrew, they directed the aid to the Maliki government with the expectation that Maliki would distribute it fairly. Instead, the day after the US forces withdrew in December 2011, Iraq’s Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for Iraqi Vice President Hashimi, a key Sunni leader. Arrests of Sunni leaders and their staffs continued, sparking widespread Sunni protests in Anbar province. When ISIS — a Sunni extremist group — rolled into Iraq, many in the Sunni population cooperated, viewing the group as the lesser of two evils.

The second element in the ISIS success story is their military strategy. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent four years as a prisoner in the Bucca Camp before assuming control of AQI (ISIS’s predecessor) in 2010. He seized upon the opportunity of the Syrian civil war to fuel a resurgence of the group. As a result, today’s ISIS militants are battle-hardened through their Syrian experience fighting moderate rebels. The Washington Post has described Baghdadi as “a shrewd strategist, a prolific fundraiser, and a ruthless killer.”

In Iraq, ISIS has adopted “an operational form that allows decentralized commanders to use their experienced fighters against the weakest points of its foes,” writes Robert Farley in The National Interest. “At the same time, the center retains enough operational control to conduct medium-to-long term planning on how to allocate forces, logistics, and reinforcements.” Their strategy — hitting their adversaries at their weakest points while avoiding fights they cannot win — has created a narrative of momentum that increases the group’s morale and prestige.

ISIS has also carved out a territory in Iraq that Shia and Kurdish forces will not fight and die to retake, an argument articulated by Kenneth Pollack at Brookings. ISIS has not tried to take Baghdad because they know they would lose; Shia forces would be motivated to expend blood and treasure to defeat ISIS on their home turf. Some experts believe the Kurds, likewise, are unlikely to commit forces to retake Sunni territory. This mentality also plays into the catastrophic performance of the Iraqi Security Forces at Mosul, forces composed disproportionately of Kurds and Sunni Arabs; when confronted with Sunni militants, these soldiers “were never going to fight to the death for Maliki and against Sunni militants looking to stop him,” writes Pollack.

Third, ISIS has also been able to seize key natural resources in Syria to fund their operations, probably making them one of the wealthiest terror groups in history. ISIS is in control of 60% of Syria’s oil assets, including the Al Omar, Tanak, and Shadadi oil fields. According to the US Treasury, the group’s oil sales are pulling in about $1 million a day. This enables ISIS to increasingly become “a hybrid organization, on the model of Hezbollah,” writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker — “part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state.”

Finally, ISIS has developed a sophisticated social media campaign to “recruit, radicalize, and raise funds,” according to J. M. Berger in The Atlantic. The piece details ISIS’s Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, advertised as a way to keep up on the latest news about the group. On the day ISIS marched into Mosul, the app sent almost 40,000 tweets. The group has displayed a lighter side to the militants, such as videos showing young children breaking their Ramadan fast with ISIS fighters. These strategies “project strength and promote engagement online” while also romanticizing their fight, attracting new recruits from around the world and inspiring lone wolf attacks.

Since June 2014, the United Sates has pursued a policy of offshore balancing — over-the-horizon air and naval power, Special Forces, and empowerment of local allies — to contain and undermine ISIS. The crucial local groups are the Sunni tribes. These leaders were responsible for the near-collapse of AQI during the Anbar Awakening, and could well be able to defeat ISIS in the future.

This is part two of a series of articles discussing ISIS. Part one is by Hanin Ghaddar, Lebanese journalist and editor. Part two is by Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brookings Institution. Part three is by Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Headline image credit: Coalition airstrike on ISIL position in Kobane on 22 October 2014. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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22. Have we become what we hate?

In 1971, William Irvin Thompson, a professor at York University in Toronto, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “We Become What We Hate,” describing the way in which “thoughts can become inverted when they are reflected in actions.”

He cited several scientific, sociocultural, economic, and political situations where the maxim appeared to be true. The physician who believed he was inventing a pill to help women become pregnant had actually invented the oral contraceptive. Germany and Japan, having lost World War II, had become peaceful consumer societies. The People’s Republic of China had become, at least back in 1971, a puritanical nation.

Today, many of the values that we, as a nation, profess — protection of civil rights and human rights, assistance for the needy, support for international cooperation, and promotion of peace — have become inverted in our actions. As a nation, we say one thing, but often do the opposite.

As a nation, we profess protection of civil rights. But our criminal justice system and our systems for federal, state, and local elections discriminate against people of color and other minorities.

As a nation, we profess protection of human rights. But we have imprisoned “enemy combatants” without charges, stripped them of their rights as prisoners of war, and tortured many of them in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

As a nation, we profess adherence to the late Senator Hubert H. Humphrey’s dictum that the true measure of a government is how it cares for the young, the old, the sick, and the needy. But we set the minimum wage at a level at which working people cannot survive. We inadequately fund human services for those who need them most. And, even after implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, we continue to be the only industrialized country that does not ensure health care for all its citizens.

As a nation, we profess support for international cooperation. But we fail to sign treaties to ban antipersonnel landmines and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And we, as a nation, contribute much less than our fair share of foreign assistance to low-income countries.

As a nation, we profess commitment to world peace. But we lead all other countries, by far, in both arms sales and military expenditures.

In many ways, we, as a nation, have become what we hate.

Image Credit: Dispersed, Occupy Oakland Move In Day. Photo by Glenn Halog. CC by NC 2.0 via Flickr.

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23. Their blood cries out to God

Not long after the beginning, Genesis tells us that there were two brothers. One killed the other. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10). This is the Lord’s response when the murderer denies knowing where his brother is and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We humans are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; and yet we have been disowning and killing each other since the beginning.

On this day seventy years ago, the last prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz. On this day today, we commit to remembering the more than six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others who were rejected and murdered by their fellow humans. Their blood still cries out to God from the ground.

When we remember the Shoah, always but especially on this day, we must focus our energies on remembering those who we have lost. Those who murdered them dehumanized them. Let us defy that curse and celebrate their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and experiences – the fullness of their humanity.

Let us sit in the memory of those who we have lost. Those of us without memories of our own must humbly seek welcome in the memories of others, to the extent that they are knowable. When we cannot know what the people who perished were like, let us grow in our awareness of our ignorance. We can never fully understand what we have lost. Let us mourn both what we know and what we know we cannot know.

The words of the victims themselves offer the clearest hope of seeing and remembering through their eyes, of knowing what the Shoah was and what it destroyed, even as it defies human comprehension. In 1947, writing from Sweden, poet, refugee, and future Nobel laureate Nelly Sachs offered words of caution to her fellow humans: “We the rescued beg you: Show us your sun slowly. Lead us step by step from star to star. Let us quietly learn to live again. Otherwise the song of a bird or the filling of a bucket at a well could unleash our ill-sealed ache and wash us away.”

There is beauty in the world. There is hope. There is joy to be found in the midst of the ordinary. But there is also great darkness within those around us and even, at times, within ourselves. We have killed our brothers and sisters since the beginning of humanity, it seems. We are each other’s keepers. We learn to keep each other in the present, in part, by keeping the memories alive of  those who have gone before, especially of those who were the victims of immeasurable evil.

This remembering can be no mere intellectual exercise of memorizing facts and figures. As heirs of the memories of the victims, we must take their legacy personally. Some felt anger and indignation, a few even hate, but for many the overwhelming response was one of sorrow. Entire communities, villages, towns, families, clans, cultures, and sub-cultures that once thrived are now gone.

The Talmud teaches that “anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9). In the Shoah, more than six million worlds were wiped out. Let us mourn their loss. Let us seek to remember. Their blood still cries out to God. Let us listen.

Image Credit: Holocaust Remembrance Day. Photo by Brittney Bush Bollay. CC by NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

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24. Judicial resistance? War crime trials after World War I

There was a great change in peace settlements after World War I. Not only were the Central Powers supposed to pay reparations, cede territory, and submit to new rules concerning the citizenship of their former subjects, but they were also required to deliver nationals accused of violations of the laws and customs of war (or violations of the laws of humanity, in the case of the Ottoman Empire) to the Allies to stand trial.

This was the first time in European history that victor powers imposed such a demand following an international war. This was also the first time that regulations specified by the Geneva and Hague Conventions were enforced after a war ended. Previously, states used their own military tribunals to enforce the laws and customs of war (as well as regulations concerning espionage), but they typically granted amnesty for foreigners after a peace treaty was signed.

The Allies intended to create special combined military tribunals to prosecute individuals whose violations had affected persons from multiple countries. They demanded post-war trials for many reasons. Legal representatives to the Paris Peace Conference believed that “might makes right” should not supplant international law; therefore, the rules governing the treatment of civilians and prisoners-of-war must be enforced. They declared the war had created a modern sensibility that demanded legal innovations, such as prosecuting heads of state and holding officers responsible for the actions of subordinates. British and French leaders wanted to mollify domestic feelings of injury as well as propel an interpretation that the war had been a fight for “justice over barbarism,” rather than a colossal blood-letting. They also sought to use trials to exert pressure on post-war governments to pursue territorial and financial objectives.

The German, Ottoman, and Bulgarian governments resisted extradition demands and foreign trials, yet staged their own prosecutions. Each fulfilled a variety of goals by doing so. The Weimar government in Germany was initially forced to sign the Versailles Treaty with its extradition demands, then negotiated to hold its own trials before its Supreme Court in Leipzig because the German military, plus right-wing political parties, refused the extradition of German officers. The Weimar government, led by the Social Democratic party, needed the military’s support to suppress communist revolutions. The Leipzig trials, held 1921-27, only covered a small number of cases, serving to deflect responsibility for the most serious German violations, such as the massacre of approximately 6,500 civilians in Belgium and deportation of civilians to work in Germany. The limited scope of the trials did not purge the German military as the Allies had hoped. Yet the trials presented an opportunity for German prosecutors to take international charges and frame them in German law. Although the Allies were disturbed by the small number of convictions, this was the first time that a European country had agreed to try its own after a major war.

General Stenger. Public domain via the French National Archive. http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53063910x.r=Stenger.langEN
General Stenger. Public domain via the French National Archive.

The Ottoman imperial government first destroyed the archives of the “Special Organization,” a secret group of Turkish nationalists who deported Greeks from the Aegean region in 1914 and planned and executed the massacre of Armenians in 1915. But in late 1918, a new Ottoman imperial government formed a commission to investigate parliamentary deputies and former government ministers from the Turkish nationalist party, the Committee of Union and Progress, which had planned the attacks. It also sought to prosecute Committee members who had been responsible for the Ottoman Empire’s entrance into the war. The government then held a series of military trials of its own accord in 1919 to prosecute actual perpetrators of the massacres, as well as purge the government of Committee members, as these were opponents of the imperial system. It also wanted to quash the British government’s efforts to prosecute Turks with British military tribunals. Yet after the British occupied Istanbul, the nationalist movement under Mustafa Kemal retaliated by arresting British officers. Ultimately, the Kemalists gained control of the country, ended all Turkish military prosecutions for the massacres, and nullified guilty verdicts.

Like the German and Ottoman situations, Bulgaria began a rocky governmental and social transformation after the war. The initial post-war government signed an armistice with the Allies to avoid the occupation of the capital, Sofia. It then passed a law granting amnesty for persons accused of violating the laws and customs of war. However, a new government came to power in 1919, representing a coalition of the Agrarian Union, a pro-peasant party, and right-wing parties. The government arrested former ministers and generals and prosecuted them with special civilian courts in order to purge them; they were blamed for Bulgaria’s entrance into the war. Some were prosecuted because they lead groups of refugees from Macedonia in a terrorist organization, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. Suppressing Macedonian terrorism was an important condition for Bulgaria to improve its relationship with its neighbor, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1923, however, Aleksandar Stambuliski, the leader of the Agrarian Union, was assassinated in a military coup, leading to new problems in Bulgaria.

We could ask a counter-factual question: What if the Allies had managed to hold mixed military tribunals for war-time violations instead of allowing the defeated states to stage their own trials? If an Allied tribunal for Germany was run fairly and political posturing was suppressed, it might have established important legal precedents, such as establishing individual criminal liability for violations of the laws of war and the responsibility of officers and political leaders for ordering violations. On the other hand, guilty verdicts might have given Germany’s nationalist parties new heroes in their quest to overturn the Versailles order.

An Allied tribunal for the Armenian massacres would have established the concept that a sovereign government’s ministers and police apparatus could be held criminally responsible under international law for actions undertaken against their fellow nationals. It might also have created a new historical source about this highly contested episode in Ottoman and Turkish history. Yet it is speculative whether the Allies would have been able to compel the post-war Turkish government to pay reparations to Armenian survivors and return stolen property.

Finally, an Allied tribunal for alleged Bulgarian war criminals, if constructed impartially, might have resolved the intense feelings of recrimination that several of the Balkan nations harbored toward each other after World War I. It might also have helped the Agrarian Union survive against its military and terrorist enemies. However, a trial concentrating only on Bulgarian crimes would not have dealt with crimes committed by Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian forces and paramilitaries during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, so a selective tribunal after World War I may not have healed all wounds.


Image Credit: Château de Versailles Hall of Mirrors Ceiling. Photo by Dennis JarvisCC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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25. Freedom of the press and global jihad

Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo on 7 January, the saying (wrongly attributed to Voltaire), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” has become a motto against radicalism. Unfortunately, this virtuous defense of freedom of speech is not only inefficient but is backfiring, as demonstrated by protests in Muslim countries against the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which was released in the aftermath of the attacks.

The challenge of global jihad in Europe is broader and is the result of the lack of symbolic integration of Islam within liberal democracies, as well as the preeminence of a global theology of intolerance which Al Qaida and ISIS have used to build their political ideology.

First, symbolic integration of Islam is different from socio-political integration of Muslims. European politicians have addressed the former through different educational and socio-economic policies, without paying attention to the latter, which refers to the recognition of Islam as part of the respective national culture and history of European countries. This lack of symbolic integration has translated into increasing discriminatory policies vis-à-vis a number of religious practices, from the use of the hijab and the building of mosque minarets, to circumcision and halal food, all deemed “illiberal” and “uncivic.” This discrimination leads a lot of Muslims, even the secular ones, to think that they are not accepted as full members of European societies. This amplifies anti-Islamic discourse, which is no longer the monopoly of extreme right wing movements, but comes to be shared by all political actors from the right to the left.

Islam is presented as an external religion that threatens the core liberties of European democracies and therefore needs to be limited or circumvented. At the same time, since World War II, most European democracies have limited freedom of speech and press when it propagates racial hatred and negation of the Holocaust. That is why, since the Danish cartoons controversy of 2006, some Muslims have argued they should be protected by these same laws, drawing a line between legitimate critique and insult.

Pilgrimage site, Masjidul Haraam, Makkah. Photo by Menj. CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Although the distinction can be blurry, Charlie Hebdo satires have not always been funny critiques but blatant insults to the basic creeds of Muslims. This incapacity to differentiate between critique and insult has been played out by radical groups like Al Qaida and ISIS, both of whom seek to recruit members from Western democracies. Both justify global jihad for the sake of Islam, which must be saved from the decadent western enemy. Because this “us versus them” mentality is very accessible to young Muslims everywhere, through the internet and other social media, it is no surprise that this rhetoric resonates with their daily experience in European societies and therefore make some of them easy recruits for global jihad.

In this regard, the preeminence of Salafi-jihadi discourses, which have monopolized the debate on “true” Islam, not only among Muslims but also in the eyes of the general population across Europe, reinforces the antinomy between the West and Islam. This discourse operates on the conceptualization of the “West” as a threat to Islam, not only through military means, but most importantly through attacks on Islamic creeds and practices.

As an inverted image, “Islam” in the eyes of most Europeans is perceived exactly in the same terms: a religion that is a threat to western values. In this sense, the clash is not between civilizations but between negative, inverted perceptions of Islam and Muslims. It will require courage on the part of European politicians, media, and public intellectuals to address Islam as a legitimate part of national communities in order to diminish the sense of alienation that can make some Muslims more vulnerable to the strategy of Al Qaida or ISIS.

The second reason why freedom of the press is irrelevant in the fight against global jihad is the powerful presence of the Salafi version of Islam in the religious market of ideas. This is problematic because, even as most Muslims in the West are not Salafis and the majority of Salafis are not jihadists, groups like Al Qaida and ISIS have a Salafi background. It means that their theological view comes from a particular interpretation of Islam rooted in Wahhabism, an eighteenth-century doctrine adopted by the Saudi kingdom.

“The clash is not between civilizations, but between negative, inverted perceptions of Islam and Muslims.”

In the West, Salafis incite people to withdraw from mainstream society, which is depicted as impure, in order to live by strict rules. These reactionary interpretations do contain similarities with jihadist discourse. So even if Salafism is, in itself, no root cause of radicalization into violence, it serves as the religious framework of radical groups such as ISIS. While there is no doubt that the majority of Muslims do not follow this radical strategy, it is difficult to demystify this theology of intolerance from a traditional Islamic perspective.

In other words, there is an urgent need for Muslim clerics everywhere to systematically overpower the influence of politicized interpretations of Islam, whether through employing the Internet, social media, or other educational tools.

Addressing the need for the symbolic integration of Islam, as well as the global revival of the Islamic tradition, requires Muslim leaders, secular politicians, and lay citizens to share responsibility and common action to overcome the “us versus them” mentality which is at the foundation of all extremism.

Regretfully, the political and religious consensus that dominated the demonstrations against terror in France could have been a symbolic first step in this direction, but is rapidly dissipating.

Image Credit: “Islam.” Photo by Firas. CC by NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

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