Hiatus

To those who are regular readers and newcomers alike: Thank you for taking the time to read my blog, whether it’s regularly or just once. Your interest and viewership is appreciated.

That said, for an indeterminate period of time, I will be hanging up my hat as a blogger. Between law school, trying to start a family, freelance writing, and my recent job at a law firm, I simply have too much going on to give this blog proper attention, especially with views remaining sparse and sporadic. Hopefully as things let up, I can get back to posting more regularly and substantively.

In the meantime, if you are so inclined, feel free to follow or add me on Facebook, where I still manage to get in some thoughts, news, and other topics of interest.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Be well.

The German Workers’ Party

On this day 1919, the German Workers’ Party, the forerunner to the Nazi Party, was founded in Munich by Anton Drexler.

Contrary to its name, the DAP (to use its German acronym) was far from leftist: It was officially anti-communist—many members were drawn from the paramilitary “Freikorps” that fought communist uprisings in the east—but also anti-capitalist, reflecting fascism’s pretensions as a political “third way. However, German nationalism and Antisemitism were the cornerstone of the party, just as they would be for its successor.

While an otherwise obscure figure at the time, let alone today, Drexler played a pivotal role in Hitler’s rise: It was he who approached Hitler and encouraged him to join the DAP, supposedly seeing potential in the man’s oratory. (Hitler claimed the party’s platform reflected his existing ideas.) Hitler was only the 55th member to join, yet his ability to draw a crowd with his speeches quickly grew the party’s numbers—and his reputation and influence.

As his stature grew, so too did the DAP, which managed to organize its biggest meeting yet in 1920 in a Munich brewery. It was here, before a crowd of 2,000 people, that Hitler articulated the party’s 25-point manifesto, which he had authored with Drexler and Gottfried Feder, another key founder whose speech is what first drew Hitler into Drexler’s orbit. The platform gave the DAP a bolder vision: abandon the Treaty of Versailles, recapture and reunite former German territories, expand into Eastern Europe, and exclude Jews from German citizenship. It also included otherwise unobjectionable ideas, such as expanding social security, establishing universal education, banning child labor, enshrining equal rights for all citizens, and defending freedom of religion.

It goes to show that fascism, then and now, always had ideas that, in isolation, were good or nonpartisan, but in practice was intended to win over desperate recruits and limit the benefits only to the “right” ethnicity, race, religion, tribe, or other identity group.

Indeed, on the very same day, the German Worker’s Party was renamed the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazi Party”. Along with the 25-point manifesto, this was done with the explicit purpose of broadening the party’s appeal: It opposed socialism and communism—which were officially internationalist—so instead proposed a nationalist version. At the same time, the term socialism denoted a dislike of capitalism, except of course the big businesses that could serve Nazi interests.

Drexler was eventually pushed out of the newly minted party as Hitler’s falling into obscurity before his death in 1942–living just long enough to see the monster he helped create.

The Saudi Military Officer Who Became a Dogged Human Rights Activist

Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Courtesy of Middle East Eye

Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.

Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.

At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.

Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?

As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.

Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.

“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”

The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)

Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.

“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”

Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).

Read more about him in this 2015 article (there was not much else out there that I could find).

Ushering in the New Year With Immense Gratitude

I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.

This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)

Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.

The Groundbreaking Haitian Revolution

Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.

Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.

It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.

Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.

(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)

Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.

Swearing an Oath

In light of the fact that some incoming Muslim congresswomen may be sworn in on a Quran (by Mike Pence no less), it is worth remembering that the U.S. Constitution does not require an oath of office to be sworn on a Bible, or on any religious text for that matter.

Article VI, Clause 3, which covers oaths of office, states that while elected officials in both state and federal governments, as well executive and judicial officers throughout the country, are bound “by oath or affirmation” to support the Constitution, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Of course, we have already had Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim representatives and officials, both in Congress and throughout various other state and federal offices, swear on their respective religious texts (Fun fact: In 2007, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim congressperson, was sworn in on a Quran formerly owned and cherished by Thomas Jefferson.)

But many other officials, both religious and secular, have sworn on nonreligious texts, or nothing at all. John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce swore on a book of law; Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in on a Roman Catholic missal; and Teddy Roosevelt, who had to take the oath in a hurry after William McKinley’s assassination, did without anything, since there was no Bible on hand.

Moreover, many Christians are forbidden by their teachings to swear on anything; both Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, who as Quakers could technically not swear on anything, could have “affirmed” rather than “sworn” during their oaths, though it appears they did not do so.

The Offenses Clause and America’s Commitment to International Law

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution contains the obscure but significant “Offenses Clause“, which empowers Congress to “define and punish … Offenses against the Law of Nations.” The law of nations was the 18th century term for what we now call international law.

As the time, these “offenses” would have included “attacks on foreign nations, their citizens, or shipping;” failing to honor “the flag of truce, peace treaties, and boundary treaties” (including unauthorized entry across national borders); and mistreating prisoners of war. The law of nations also obliged states to prosecute pirates, protect wrecked ships and their crew (regardless of their nationality); and protect foreign dignitaries and merchants in their territory.

Thus, the Framers clearly sought to convey to the world that the U.S. would be a responsible actor among the global community, enshrining in its highest legal instrument a commitment to safeguarding foreign nationals, property, and interests, even if it means ostensibly prosecuting American perpetrators.

Some jurists have argued that this provision, in theory, permits Congress to criminalize private conduct in the U.S. that violates international law.

Poorer Countries Continue to Improve

With all that is going wrong in the world, it is crucial to keep in mind the bigger picture: although there is far too much needless misery and suffering, glimmers of progress and hope persistent nonetheless — even in the most beleaguered regions in the world.

As the above date from the the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows, literally every part of the world has seen a marked improvement in their “Human Development Index” (HDI), a metric devised in the 1990s in attempt to better capture a country’s standard of living (in a way that GDP cannot). 

The Economist provides a great breakdown of how it works:

The index combines four simple measures: life-expectancy at birth; gross national income per person; average years of education; and expected years of school. First, each variable is normalised on a scale of zero to one; next, the two education variables are averaged; and finally, the index is calculated as the geometric mean of its three components. This ensures that a 1% decline in the index for life-expectancy has the same impact as a decline of the same magnitude in education. By incorporating health and schooling, the HDI seeks to provide a more comprehensive measure of quality of life than the simply material prosperity measured by GDP.

Though far from perfect, HDI is a pretty good barometer for how well a society is doing. And from the looks of it, a lot more places are doing a lot better despite ongoing issues of inequality, climate change, corruption, and other barriers to optimal growth.

In 1990 a child born in sub-Saharan Africa could expect to live just 50 years. Today, assuming current mortality trends persist, newborns can expect to live for 61 years. As a result, the gap in life-expectancy between the world’s poorest region and the global average has narrowed by four years. Similar gains have been registered in educational outcomes and income, meaning that all 189 countries with HDI scores have improved their marks since 1990, by an average of 0.5% a year. Just seven countries have seen a reduction in their HDI score since 2010, often as a result of war or famine.

Encouragingly, the HDI data demonstrate that inequality of life outcomes is declining both across and within countries. As developing countries have closed the gap with their developed-country peers, the coefficient of variation—a measure of the spread of the data across countries—of the HDI has fallen by six percentage points since 1990. Because the “raw” HDI is based on nationwide averages, it can provide a misleading picture of overall living standards in highly unequal countries, where a handful of people enjoy long, wealthy lives and advanced schooling, but the masses do not. \

However, the UNDP also publishes an “inequality-adjusted” version of the HDI, which attempts to account for the distribution of health, education and prosperity. The gap between this metric and the unadjusted HDI was slightly smaller in 2017 than it was the year before, suggesting that well-being is being shared more broadly inside countries as well as between them.

While there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, and these gains remain tenuous in the face of a future global recession, the march of progress across the world is a hopeful sign that more political will and resources can take us further along the moral arc of prosperity and well being for more humans.

For the full ranking of countries by HDI, click here.

U.S. Healthcare Stands Out

American exceptionalism certainly has its merits: when it comes to healthcare, the U.S. is most definitely exceptional, albeit not in a good way.

Virtually no country comes close to spending so much on healthcare with so little payoff: a little over twenty years ago, the U.S. spent about 13 percent of GDP on healthcare compared to a developed-world average of about 9.5 percent; by 2016, our spending hit 17.5 percent of GDP–or $3 trillion

As Foreign Policy explained:

As you can see, Americans are spending more money – but they are not receiving results using the most basic metric of life expectancy. The divergence starts just before 1980, and it widens all the way to 2014.

It’s worth noting that the 2015 statistics are not plotted on this chart. However, given that healthcare spend was 17.5% of GDP in 2015, the divergence is likely to continue to widen. U.S. spending is now closing in on $10,000 per person.

Perhaps the most concerning revelation from this data?

Not only is U.S. healthcare spending wildly inefficient, but it’s also relatively ineffective. It would be one thing to spend more money and get the same results, but according to the above data that is not true. In fact, Americans on average will have shorter lives people in other high income countries.

Life expectancy in the U.S. has nearly flatlined, and it hasn’t yet crossed the 80 year threshold. Meanwhile, Chileans, Greeks, and Israelis are all outliving their American counterparts for a fraction of the associated costs.

I am not sure how much more data we need to prove that our healthcare system is broken. So many other countries with fewer resources have managed to extend average life expectancy without breaking the bank. Yet for all our innovation and wealth, we are breaking the bank by a wide a margin and still having little to show for it.

Globalism and American Interests

With respect to Jim Mattis’ resignation letter (transcribed here): It is noteworthy that he devotes his longest paragraph, and the first one of substance, to a “globalist” vision of America’s relationship with the world:

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances. NATO’s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9/11 attack on America. The Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof.

Setting aside the usual idealism about America’s role as a guarantor of freedom, the pragmatism underpinning this argument is unsurprising to anyone that knows U.S. history.

Even before this country was born, its foreign policy proved pivotal to its success and survival. It was the alliance with France—the first country to recognize our independence, and the only one that could challenge Great Britain—that was most decisive in securing victory in the Revolutionary War. Nearly all the Founders recognized the importance of international trade, commerce, and recognition, which provided economic growth as well as legitimacy. Hence the Constitution places great importance on international agreements (the Treaty Clause), elevates ratified treaties to the same binding force as domestic law (the Supremacy Clause), and has language apparently obligating America to enforce the “law of nations” (the Offenses Clause).

Contrary to popular belief, the top brass has always recognized this: Far from being jingoistic, many of them are well versed in international relations and world history. Some of the most noteworthy military leaders today—Mattis himself, David Petraeus, James Stavridis—studied international affairs, foreign policy, and other internationalist “soft” sciences.

Like it or not, our highly globalized world does not permit us to disregard alliances and cooperation. The people most involved in our national security recognize that.