Monthly Archives: August 2013

Should we call Assad a terrorist?

Authoritarian governments keen on attacking the opposition have found a new favorite swear word: terrorists! Egypt’s military rulers recently used the term to describe largely peaceful protesters, following in the linguistic footsteps of Gaddafi, Putin and many others. This trend shows how much our understanding of “terrorism” has changed over the centuries.

There is no universal definition of terrorism, but the U.N. General Assembly has repeatedly used the following: “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.” This definition leaves open the possibility that terrorism can be perpetrated by an army or government. Indeed, terrorism has historically had little to do with bearded outlaws.

Terror entered political language in the aftermath of the French Revolution as a state-led political program: Robespierre’s revolutionary dictatorship used excessive violence to strike fear in opponents and fight the counterrevolutionary movement. “The attribute of popular government in a revolution is at one and the same time virtue and terror”, Robespierre famously said in 1794. “Terror without virtue is fatal; virtue without terror is impotent.”

The Bolsheviks adopted this thinking during the so-called Red Terror of the Russian civil war, 1917-1921, that saw thousands of counterrevolutionaries murdered. When Austrian socialist Karl Kautsky criticized the “bloody terrorism carried out by Socialist governments”, Leon Trotsky, at the time head of the Red Army, responded: “terror can be very efficient against a reactionary class which does not want to leave the scene of operations. Intimidation is a powerful weapon of policy, both internationally and internally.” The concept of Red Terror was resurrected under Haile Mengistu Mariam in Ethiopia – whose regime murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the 1970s and 1980s.

To be sure, terrorism wasn’t always just a state affair. Left-wing radicals used bombs and assassinations to fight democratic governments and monarchies from the 19th century onwards. But the term terror always referred to a practice rather than a group of people.

Then came 9/11 and the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, a slogan that really referred to a certain group of Islamist radicals. Soon the term terror in common usage no longer described the practice of intimidating through violence, and instead became a name for an organized group of non-state actors attacking states by killing civilians.

This gradual change in meaning has given repressive regimes a publicity advantage. The Egyptian government’s massacre of protesters, clearly intended to sow panic among oppositionists and discourage further demonstrations, fits the classical definition of terrorism. The same goes for Assad’s use of poison gas against civilians, which has limited military value but creates terror among opponents. And yet hardly anyone brands them “bloody terrorists”, as Kautsky would have done in his time. On the contrary: they are the ones who can accuse the opposition of terrorism. Ever since “terrorists” became a term for non-state actors, repressive governments no longer have to worry about being branded as such.

In global politics, wording matters. The Egyptian government’s description of oppositionists as terrorists seems to work very well as a propaganda tool, winning over Egyptians fearful of chaos and violence. In the same vein, our unwillingness to call the military rulers terrorists arguably weakens the opposition’s case. Saying a regime uses violence or repression will never have the same impact as saying it employs systematic terror.

Winning over the hearts and minds of media consumers is crucial for the repressive regimes in Egypt and Syria. Our misuse of the term terror makes it easier for them.

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Filed under Global, Middle East

Russia’s New History Censorship

With all the attention media  (self) censorship in Russia is getting, it is easy to forget about a related practice: history censorship. Today the Moscow daily Kommersant reminded us that Putin’s ambition isn’t merely to control Russia’s present and future, but also its past. The ministry of culture, having denied funding to Alexandr Mindadze’s new film “Dear Hans, Dear Peter”, justified its step as follows:

“We have unanimously decided that, on the 70th anniversary of the victory over Germany, a film that does not conform to our ideas about the war shouldn’t be released. … This film may not express the view veterans of the Great Patriotic War expect. ”

I haven’t seen the screenplay, but according to Kommersant it tells the story of a German engineer who ended up in the Soviet Union in 1940. The film engages critically with some Russian war myths, which was apparently seen as reason enough to deny funding.

The incident shows that any non-heroic depiction of Russia’s past is unacceptable in Putin’s state. This isn’t just the President’s doing. Patriotism has been on the rise since the 1990s and prominent oppositionist Alexei Navalny, for all his virtues, is a worryingly xenophobic Nationalist. As long as the government encourages these sentiments instead of fighting them, Russia is on a dangerous trajectory.

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Why Measuring Productivity Differently Will Change the Way We Live

Can you imagine a world without 9-to-5 jobs? Adam Davidson suggests it’s not too far away. In the latest New York Times Magazine, the journalist urges us to change the way we measure productivity. Accountants and Lawyers bill by the hour, encouraging slow work. Paying people by what they produce, rather than by how long it takes them to produce it, would more accurately reflect productivity in the modern economy.

What’s really interesting about Davidson’s argument is his historical narrative. He claims that measuring productivity by hour of work, popularized among accountants in the 1950s, is a leftover of the industrial age. This way of measuring made sense for assembly-line manufacturing, where time units had a fixed correlation to output. But since the 1960s industrial production has become less and less important at the expense of services and the creative economy. Measuring productivity of the latter has little to do with hours worked.

Davidson writes: “Measuring productivity is central to economic policy — it’s especially crucial in the decisions made by the Federal Reserve — but we are increasingly flying blind. It’s relatively easy to figure out if steel companies can make a ton of steel more efficiently than in the past (they can, by a lot), but we have no idea how to measure the financial value of ideas and the people who come up with them. “Compared with the mid-1900s, goods production is not as important a part of our economy, but we continue to devote about 90 percent of our statistical resources to measuring it,” says Barry Bosworth, a Brookings Institution economist who is a leading thinker on productivity in the service sector.”

Davidson doesn’t address the consequences of measuring creative work by its value rather than by time worked, but they would certainly revolutionize our economy. On a microeconomic level, it might mean the end of the 8-hour work day. Measuring the value of ideas would let us work until we have achieved results, not until the clock hits five. How about working 2 hours on Tuesday and 13 on Wednesday? What’s already a reality in some creative professions could become the norm.

The possible macroeconomic effects are just as intriguing. Countries still tend to measure the productivity of their workforce by how many hours people work in a day. For example, business advocates have long lambasted unions for trying to shorten work days. During the Euro Crisis, some have urged Spain to scrap the Siesta, a lengthy lunch break, and stretch out work days to increase productivity. But what if a long break and shorter work days increase productivity in our modern service economy? A one-hour nap might make a good idea more likely than 20 hours of hard work. Perhaps the supposedly lazy Greeks are way ahead of the hard-working Americans.

The entire capitalist system revolves around the notion of productivity. If it turns out we’ve been measuring it incorrectly, sweeping changes are bound to follow.

Here’s a link to the article:

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Is 1942 the new 1984?

Newly released documents, analyzed in today’s Wall Street Journal, show the U.S. government struggling to deal with leaks as early as World War II. In 1942, Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston reported that the U.S. navy was informed of japanese battle plans, all but confirming the U.S. had cracked the Japanese navy’s code. The department of justice unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute Johnston for disclosing a military secret. Similarly to the current case against Bradley Manning, on trial for leaking classified government documents, the prosecutors weren’t able to prove Johnston intended to aid the enemy.

The  Johnston case shows that freedom of press is on much firmer footing today than in 1942. Back then, prosecutors were willing to not just go after those who leaked information, but also after a journalist who reported on them. Today, Glenn Greenwald – the Guardian journalist publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations –  is apparently still safe from prosecution. But there are enough pundits and politicians who want Greenwald put on trial as a traitor. Hopefully the unsuccessful case against Johnston serves as a discouragement to those who believe you can have a functioning democracy without a free press.

Here’s a link to the article:


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The Hiroshima Psychosis

68 years ago today, the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Here are some rare photos of the mushroom cloud:

The physical after-effects of radiation were certainly devastating, but the bomb also took its psychological toll, as Robert Jay Lifton’s excellent book “Death in Life” (1967) shows. Based on interviews with more than a hundred survivors, Lifton claims the bomb left survivors psychologically damaged in very unique ways. Beyond the trauma created by death and destruction, it led to what Lifton calls “A-Bomb Neurosis”. Since the after-effects of radiation could kick in years later and take various forms, survivors lived in constant fear and became preoccupied with bodily concerns. Another issue was the widespread sense of being tainted by radiation, leading many survivors to effectively remove themselves from society.

Lifton’s main point is this: The destructive power of the A-bomb can’t just be measured in physical terms. “Death in Life” was one of the first and arguably the most important work of psychological history. It reminds us that nuclear arsenals not only have the power to destroy the world several times over, but also to turn everyone of us into a paranoid maniac.


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