The 1956 Hungarian Revolution

On this day in 1956, the Hungarian Revolution began as a peaceful student demonstration that drew thousands while it marched through central Budapest to the parliament building. It soon erupted into a nearly two-week violent uprising against one of the world’s superpowers, laying the seeds of its demise for decades to come.

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A symbol of the revolution: The Hungarian flag with its communist emblem cut out.
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The revolutionary flag being placed on the former pedestal of a dismantled Stalin statue.

The student marchers, who began calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers, sent a delegation into a radio building to try to broadcast their demands to the country. They included the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the reinstatement of democracy, and the end of Stalinist oppression.

Hungary, which had aligned with Nazi Germany in WWII, was “liberated” by the Soviets, only to come under their domination as a de facto puppet state. Amid deteriorating freedoms, state oppression, and a faltering economies, students and workers increasingly agitated for change.

What began as a peaceful demonstration erupted as a full blown war when the delegation that attempted to broadcast its demands was detained by state authorities. Protestors arrived demanding their release, only to be fired upon by the State Security Police (AVH in Hungarian). Multiple students died and one was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the start of the next phase of the revolution, as the news spread and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread like wildfire; the government collapsed. Thousands of ordinary Hungarians organized into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Some local leaders and ÁVH members were lynched or captured, while former political prisoners were broken out and armed. Radical workers’ councils wrested control from the ruling Soviet-backed Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political change.

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Hungarian protestors marching through Budapest.

The revolution was initially leaderless, but a new government was formed by Imre Nagy, a committed communist who was nonetheless opposed to Soviet control and authoritarianism. He formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared the intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped, and the days of normality began to return. Some workers continued fighting against both Stalinist elements and the more “liberal” communists they distrusted.

Soviet leaders, initially appearing open to negotiating a withdrawal of Soviet forces, changed their mind and moved to crush the revolution just as it was calming. On November 4, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued for another week, claiming the lives of over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops. Over 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter; 26,000 people were brought to trial, 22,000 were sentenced and imprisoned, 13,000 interned, and 229 executed (including Nagy and other political leaders of the revolution and anti-Soviet government). Resistance continued for another year, mostly led by independent workers’ councils and unions.

But by January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition and reasserted Soviet dominion. These Soviet actions, while strengthening control over the rest of the Eastern Bloc, alienated many Western Marxists, who up until that point had at least nominally sympathized with the Soviet Union. Communist and Marxist parties split and/or lost membership across the world.

The Hungarians had led the largest and fiercest opposition against the Soviets in Eastern Europe, and it would remain one of the biggest revolts to threaten Soviet control. While it initially failed, it weakened whatever ideological currency the Soviet Union would have had abroad. Ironically, by the 1960s, Hungary became “the happiest barracks” in the Eastern Bloc, with relatively more economic and cultural freedom than most Soviet satellites. It quietly pursued reform to human and civil rights into the 1970s; in fact, its opening of the previously-restricted border with democratic Austria in 1989 is credited with hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union—meaning the Hungarians ultimately won in the end.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

The Peaceful Erosion of Despotic Regimes

The most important theorist of nonviolent revolutions is the late political scientist Gene Sharp. A conscientious objector during the Korean War who spent nine months in prison, Sharp became a close student of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggles. His work set out to extract the lessons of the Indian revolt against the British. He wanted to understand the weaknesses of authoritarian regimes—and how nonviolent movements could exploit them. Sharp distilled what he learned into a 93-page handbook, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a how-to guide for toppling autocracy.

Sharp’s foundational insight is embedded in an aphorism: “Obedience is at the heart of political power.” A dictator doesn’t maintain power on his own; he relies on individuals and institutions to carry out his orders. A successful democratic revolution prods these enablers to stop obeying. It makes them ashamed of their complicity and fearful of the social and economic costs of continued collaboration.

Sharp posited that revolutionaries should focus first on the regime’s softest underbelly: the media, the business elites, and the police. The allegiance of individuals in the outer circle of power is thin and rooted in fear. By standing strong in the face of armed suppression, protesters can supply examples of courage that inspire functionaries to stop carrying out orders, or as Sharp put it, to “withhold cooperation.” Each instance of resistance provides the model for further resistance. As the isolation of the dictators grows—as the inner circles of power join the outer circle in withholding cooperation—the regime crumbles.

This is essentially what transpired in Ukraine in 2014. When the country’s president backed away from plans to join the European Union, a crowd amassed in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan. The throngs initially had no avowed intention or realistic hope of overthrowing the kleptocratic president, Viktor Yanukovych. But instead of letting the demonstrators shout themselves hoarse in the thick of subfreezing winter, Yanukovych set about violently confronting them. This tactic backfired horribly. A movement with limited aims became a full-blown revolution. Oligarchs quietly slunk away from a leader they had long subsidized. Lackeys who had faithfully served the regime resigned, for fear of attracting the public’s ire. In the bitter end, Yanukovych found himself isolated, alone with his own family and his Russian advisers, destined for exile.

—Franklin Foer, The Atlantic

The Birth of Solidarity

On this day in 1980, Solidarity, a Polish trade union, was founded as the first independent labor union in a Soviet-bloc country. It gave rise to a larger nonviolent and anti-authoritarian social movement that claimed over nine million members and ultimately contributed to the fall of regimes across the Soviet bloc.

Though Poland’s government attempted to destroy Solidarity instituting martial law in 1981, followed by several years of political repression, it was forced into negotiation by the sheer weight of union’s influence and popularity. The subsequent talks resulted in semi-free elections in 1989—the closest Poland came to democracy since the 1930s. Continue reading

How Iranians Use New Media to Empower Civil Society

The tenacity and resourcefulness of the Iranian people–and indeed of oppressed people the world over–is incredible.

One of the latest apps is Hafez, which translates as “to protect”. Named after the famous Persian poet whose words frequently targeted religious hypocrisy, the app offers users a collection of human rights-related information.

Foremost, it is a virtual rolodex of human rights lawyers in Iran, which allows users to access legal information regarding human rights.

However, Hafez is more than just a list of telephone numbers, Keyvan Rafiee, an Iranian human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

“Users receive daily human rights news; [it] allows them to send news of human rights violations securely; [it] disseminates important legal information to users if they are arrested, and provides the contact information for attorneys who can assist,” said Rafiee, the founder of Human Rights Activists Iran (HRAI).

Rafiee, who has been arrested for his activism six times, said having a record of human rights violations is instrumental for protesters in Iran.

“Monitoring violations that take place on a daily basis can improve human rights conditions since independent organisations are not permitted to work in Iran,” Rafiee said.

Source: Al Jazeera

The Sedition Act of 1918

On this day in 1918, the Sedition Act was passed by Congress forbidding Americans from using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, flag, or armed forces during the ongoing First World War. It also allowed the Postmaster General to refuse to deliver any mail that, in his discretion, fit this description.

This was actually the second act of its name and kind, with the first being passed early in the history of the republic, in 1798 (though it expired in 1801). Those convicted under the 1918 act generally received prison sentences of five to 20 years. Continue reading

Why Won’t Businesses Hire?

Supposedly, it’s because the US business environment is unfriendly. Corporations want to place all the blame for our economic problems on the government. It is certainly true that the state has not been guiltless in this mess. But neither have business elites. Let us analyze the facts.

Contrary to popular belief, the United States still remains among the top ten countries in the world in terms of economic freedom, business friendliness, and competitiveness (sources include the Freedom of the World Index , the Index of Economic Freedom, the Ease of Doing Business Index, and the Global Competitiveness Report ; note that many of the countries that surpass us in these areas are what we would otherwise call “socialist” – they have higher wages, universal healthcare, more state intervention, and so on).

Yet companies are firing people, freezing wages, slashing benefits, and refusing to hire, citing the business climate as too unpredictable, unfriendly, and oppressive to facilitate investing in the economy. Really? If that is the case, how have companies managed to gather a total of $2 trillion in cash reserves, continue to pay their CEOs millions in bonuses, and consistently make profits throughout the recession (in some cases even breaking records)? By just about every measure, most businesses are clearly doing well.

The government has screwed a lot of things up, but it has little to do with business leaders deciding they want to pocket more money for themselves while pretending, despite all the evidence, that they can’t afford to do their part.

 

The Corruption Perceptions Index

The countries with the lowest rates of corruption, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index  for 2011 (the only source of its kind).

Other countries in the top 10 include Canada, Australia, Norway, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The US ranks 24. Note that countries with big governments can be found all across the spectrum, from cleanest to most corrupt. Many of the world’s most secular societies also rank highly as well.

I think Canada and Australia are particularly impressive in their performance, since they’re far more populous, diverse, and geographically large than the others that rank highly. The trend seems to be that countries which homogeneous, small, and demographically compact tend to be less corrupt. But of course, it’s far more complex than that, and many other factors contribute.

Universal Healthcare vs. Freedom?

There is a widespread notion that providing universal healthcare, or something closer to it, comes at great cost to economic and political freedom. However, empirical evidence suggests otherwise: most of the countries that are ranked high in both economic and political freedom – many of them above even the US – offer universal healthcare systems, among other “big government” policies.

The conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, bear this out in its Index of Economic Freedom, as does the libertarian Fraser Institute. And Freedom House consistently ranks “socialistic” countries at the top of political and press freedom in its reports.

There are certainly problems with this healthcare act, but state-sanctioned oppression is not one of them. Expanding healthcare, in and of itself, is not mutually exclusively with overall liberty and well-being. One could argue whether what works for other societies works for America, but that’s a different discussion compared to the idea that healthcare is, in principle, a detriment to liberty and well-being.

Syria’s Struggle and the Question of Intervention

A member of the Free Syrian Army stands guard as anti-Syrian regime protesters hold a demonstration in Idlib, Syria, Feb. 6. The US closed its Syrian embassy Monday and Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a dramatic escalation of Western pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up power, just days after diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to end the crisis collapsed. AP Photo

After nearly a year of civil strife and mass protest, the Syrian regime has still managed to cling to power, killing over 5,000 people in the process. Its brutality and cunning have so far assured its survival, at a great cost to innocent lives, and though violence is nonetheless escalating to a near-civil war, there seems to be no foreseeable end to the bloodshed.

The courage and tenacity of the Syrian people astounds me. Their efforts have been periodically written off every time the army unleashes its artillery, tanks, and snipers to obliterate any demonstration. Yet they’ve continued to reemerge against all odds, no matter how much the regime ratchets up its barbarity. It’s become a battle of willpower, a game of chicken – who will give in first?

I can’t imagine what it would be like to face such overwhelming odds without ever backing down. The choice between your life and oppression is not an easy one to make, and I’m eternally grateful I don’t have to worry about it. It seems that they have so little to lose after decades of despotism, that the risks are inconsequential. How else can we explain this so-far unconquerable urge for freedom no matter the cost?

It saddens me to see a people strive to better their conditions, only to be put down like cattle. So many innocent people have died, and continue to die even as we speak. I’m typing away about their fate, powerless to do anything about it. While I go about my daily routine in my comfortable life, their being starved, tortured, terrorized and massacred, all for the heinous crime of demanding a say in their own future.

This recent video from CNN was particularly heartbreaking. The country looks increasingly like a war zone, and neither side seems to be prevailing with any certain. I fear this conflict will continue to drag on, bleeding the country dry for some time. You can hear the deep sadness and hopelessness of the activist being interview, and most palpably the sense of frustration: while the Syrians get butchered for their efforts, the world is impotent to do anything about it (Russ and China recently vetoed a UN resolution that would have condemned the atrocities).

But what can the world do? Syria is a populous country with a far stronger state and security apparatus. It’s religious and ethnic diversity may give way to Iraq-style sectarian violence once the regime were to be toppled. Getting involved may cause more problems than anything.
Besides, no country is in the position to intervene, even if it were sure to work. Aside from the considerable lack of public support for any overseas venture, any operation effective enough to dislodge the regime would require boots on the ground, and an expensive and long-term commitment that most currently cash-strapped nations can’t afford. Furthermore, many people, me included, would doubt the humanitarian sincerity of any intervention, given the long precedent of strategic selectiveness.
So all we can do is watch and hope? Provide moral support and solidarity, but nothing more practical? Economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation may work, including freezing the bank accounts of state officials and banning them from travel. But will that really bring down a government fighting for its life and privilege? Who’s to say it won’t hurt ordinary Syrians more, given that they’re already enduring food and water shortages due to both government action and economic turmoil.
Its times like this that I wish we had superheroes, someone who could fly in like Superman and pummel those tanks and artillery units. I wish there was a standing UN army that could rapidly deploy to defend besieged citizens from their malicious rulers. Even in an era of increasing globalization and interconnectedness, we’re still unable and unwilling to address the periodic violence that is exercised with impunity. Some would argue that it’s for the better, given the capacity for abuse and mishandling. I sometimes wonder if someday that won’t be the case, and the world as a whole will be a better governed place.
I know that’s just the nature of this complex and disunited world; I know that there are too many dynamics and factors involved, across economic, social, political, diplomatic, and military spectrums. But that doesn’t make me any less saddened, no matter how many times I’ve had to see and study it over the years. All I can do is watch, wait, and hope. My heart goes out to the people of Syria. I think the regime is weakening, and that its fall will be inevitable. But it’ll come at a heavy cost, and there’s no telling what will come after. Syrians will have no choice but to press on. They’re fighting for their own fate after all, so perhaps it’s ultimately fitting that they do so on their terms.
Be grateful for your freedoms and comforts. Never take any of it for granted. I should be so lucky to be sitting here, in comfort and stability, upset about the fate of others fighting for what I was so fortunate to have, by mere accident of birth.

On SOPA and Policing the Web

At this point, I doubt these infamous acronyms need much introduction, given the ubiquity of news related to the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act. You’d have to go out of your way to avoid hearing any mention or debate about it, especially from within social media.

For the record, I try to avoid discussing current events on this blog – the deluge of instant information would render my articles obsolete very quickly. Besides, you can find of plenty of up-to-date news about the subject elsewhere (except Wikipedia, which as of this posting, has blacked itself out in protest). Instead, I want to briefly discuss the more enduring issues of “net neutrality” and freedom of speech on the web, a subject I’ve visited once or twice before.
 
Like most people of my generation, I’m firmly committed to the idea that the internet should be an open marketplace where ideas, opinions, and data are freely exchanged between participants (I’m a strong proponent for making the web more accessible to more people). The greatest strength of the internet, and indeed the source of its allure, is its role as a venue where almost anything goes: you can seek out almost any activity, interest, person, or information you want. There’s quite literally something for everyone, and this groundbreaking capacity to connect to one another and pool together the virtual sum of human knowledge has been a great boon to our increasingly interconnected societies. Few of us could imagine existing without it.
 
Of course, like any new innovation or technology, there is a propensity for unsavory exploitation. Humans are just as inventive about the ways to abuse and misuse our creations as we are about making them in the first place. A lot of the information that gets dispersed can be unethical, corrupting, or illegal – child pornography, libel, or simple misinformation, to name a few examples. And the web is a great tool for connecting predatory individuals to their targets, whether it’s a sexual predator seeking out minors, or cyber-thieves looking to access someone’s bank account (if not the bank itself). Plenty of terrorist groups and crime syndicates make use of the web too, whether it’s to coordinate their illicit activities or recruit more members.
 
In other words, the web is a double-edged sword, just as liable for use in misdeeds as it is for being applied to benign pursuits, like education or social networking. This is hardly a shocking revelation. Even the least internet savvy person knows the potential for harm or mistreatment – nearly everyone has run up against viruses or the itinerant internet troll, to name the relatively more innocuous examples.
 
Online piracy is perhaps the most controversial and well-known manifestation of this fact, especially since SOPA and its ilk came along. The web may be famous in facilitating a wellspring of creative and conceptual output, but it’s also the place where such ideas and intellectual products are stolen, duplicated, corrupted, or wrongfully disseminated. Instant and easy access applies to nefarious types as well. So it’s understandable the individuals and companies would want to product their rightful creations, be it films, songs, artwork, patents, and the like.
 
But trying to enforce some sort of centralized legal and security system upon the web, as SOPA would aim to do, is not the way to do it. At best, it simply wouldn’t work, and at worst, it’d be overkill. The web just isn’t suited for a catch-all form of policing.
 
For starters, demarcating such a protocol would be difficult enough as it is, let alone even beginning to implement it. Part of the problem with SOPA and similar legislation dealing with the web is that its language is both vague and broad – as some have read it, the act could potentially allow the government, at the behest of complainants that include big media corporations, to shut down entire websites accused of being complicit in piracy. As with all forms of law, interpretation matters a lot, and there’s a risk that SOPA could be needlessly restrictive. To drive the point further, most tech experts have noted the archaic or otherwise incorrect terminology used throughout the bill, demonstrating how little regulators actually know about what they intend to regulate. That doesn’t bode well for efficacy.
 
This leads to my next point: trying to impose any sort of restrictions, well-meaning or otherwise, wouldn’t be very efficient. Pirates, hackers, and other skilled web users could very easily set up shop elsewhere; each new web domain that is shut down will be replaced by another somewhere else, sometimes within the same day. Every criminal activity innovates and adapts in response to new and improved efforts, and web-based transgressions are certainly no exception (especially since the same kind of technology is used by both sides). Trying to establish some sort of command and control over the constantly expanding internet just isn’t tenable.
 
This isn’t to say that piracy, cyber theft, and other crimes shouldn’t be addressed. Even the Wild West, to which the internet is compared to, had some modicum of order (its rate of lawlessness and crime is pretty exaggerated anyway). Laws dealing with crimes in the physical world should apply to their cyber counterparts as well (take theft or stalking for example). But such methods need to be left to the private sector to sort out. Companies, individuals, and public institutions should either fend for themselves or work together on their own accord to protect their content from attack or exploitation. We’ve seen dozens of security organizations offer their services to protect everything from databases to personal computers, while many enterprising groups have gone so far as to provide such programs for free. It’s no different from the way communities set up a neighborhood watch, or how individuals hire private security forms. People find their own way to get around obstacles, which the internet helps facilitate, thanks to its boundless supply of resources and networks.
 
Ultimately, there’s no stopping criminal activity, on or off the web. We must do the best we can with the resources available, but trying to curtail internet freedom is missing the forest for the trees. As we’ve seen in real life, responding to wrongdoings with an authoritarian approach simply doesn’t work, and if anything it makes the problem worse – or creates new ones, such as if innocuous activity becomes restricted as collateral damage. The web’s freedom is its greatest strength. The same open-endedness that has given unsavory types free reign to steal or terrorize will also allow others to take matters into their own hands. Let the internet be.
 
Appropriately, the web’s capacity to mobilize and inform the masses has greatly contributed to the widespread condemnation that has led to the bill’s demise, at least for the meantime.