Thursday, October 16, 2014

Democracy in Action

As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it? — William Marcy Tweed, November 1871.

Recent events cause some to wonder whether the literacy tests that voters in some states were required to pass, before voting, from the early 1890s until the 1960s, are preferable to the methods used today to disenfranchise minority voters. Literacy tests were used so that those who were elected to high office could be sure that those who voted for them were literate and fully understood the issues and were not voting on the basis of what they saw in the popular media. A literacy test in Louisiana, for example, consisted of six questions that the prospective voter was given 10 minutes to answer. The instructions advised the test taker to “Be careful as one wrong answer denotes failure of the test.” One of the questions was :“Draw a line under the last word in this line.” Of course the real purpose of literacy tests was to keep the African American and other minority populations from voting. They succeeded. In 1940 only 3% of African Americans in the south were registered to vote.

Ever since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the disappearance of the literacy tests, Republicans have been fearful that African Americans and other minority voters would not support their candidates. That concern has grown as an increasing number of Hispanic immigrants have moved into the United States. Since literacy tests are no longer allowed, Republicans have come up with three new approaches to dilute the minority vote and, where possible, prevent minorities from voting.

One involves creating voting districts that place, for example, African American voters in highly concentrated districts so that their votes will not dilute votes in the adjoining mostly white districts. On October 7, 2014, a federal appeals court said Virginia’s newly drawn congressional map was unconstitutional because it packed blacks into the 3d District thus diminishing their influence in neighboring districts and violating the equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. On October 1, 2014, it was learned that the Florida Supreme Court would hear an appeal pertaining to a Florida Circuit judge’s approval of redrawn maps prepared by the Florida legislature that opponents believe prejudice minority voters.. On June 1, 2014, it was announced that the U.S. Supreme Court would hear two appeals from Alabama in which appellants argue that Republican legislators drew district lines that intentionally marginalized African American voters.

Redrawing districts is not the only substitute for literacy tests used by Republicans to marginalize the effect of increasingly enfranchised minorities. Reducing the number of days for voting is another. Ohio’s secretary of state reduced early voting for the November 2014 elections by one week and eliminated one day of Sunday voting, a day when black churches have traditionally taken congregants to the polls. He also eliminated the week during which voters were permitted to register and vote at the same time. The secretary of state explained that these changes were to reduce the opportunity for “fraud and abuse”. He did, however say that election fraud was “very rare.” On September 29, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court said his changes were fine. That Court also approved North Carolina’s elimination of same-day voter registration and said a lower court was wrong when it ruled that refusal to count votes cast in the wrong precinct would harm minority-voting rights.

Voter ID laws are the third weapon of choice used by Republicans to disenfranchise minority voters while at the same time solving the non-existent problem of voter fraud. In Texas the legislature enacted what is considered the most restrictive voter ID law in the country. It addressed the problem exposed by two convictions for voter impersonation that took place in a 10-year period in Texas during which 20 million non-fraudulent votes were cast. Wisconsin, too, has enacted voter ID laws even though there is no evidence that voter fraud is a problem in that state. In a vigorous dissent from the majority opinion of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Wisconsin’s new strict voter ID law, Judge Richard Posner said that the requirement that voters present photo IDs of themselves in order to vote “has placed an undue burden on the right to vote. . . . Some of the ‘evidence’ of voter-impersonation fraud is downright goofy, if not paranoid. . . . As there is no evidence that voter-impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? . . . . There is only one motivation for imposing burdens on voting that are ostensibly designed to discourage voter-impersonation fraud, if there is no actual danger of such fraud, and that is to discourage voting by persons likely to vote against the party responsible for imposing the burden.”

Judge Posner got it right. Republicans have it wrong. Perhaps they should see if, with the passage of many years since they were last used, literacy tests would once again pass muster. Here is one question they could use from the old Louisiana test: “Draw a line around the shortest word in this line.” They might even want to impose a requirement that all their candidates pass such a test. Many would not.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Syria and the Ukraine

Preachers say: Do as I say, not as I do.
—John Selden, Preaching

Today’s question is what is the difference between what the United States may or may not do in Syria and what Russia may or may not have done in the Ukraine. The main difference is that according to Vladimir Putin what happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has nothing to do with anything Mr. Putin or Russia did whereas what’s about to happen in Syria has a great deal to do with what the United States plans to do. If Mr. Putin were not credible, the differences between what’s happening would be less pronounced.

Russia now owns Crimea and rebel forces in eastern Ukraine are trying to take over that part of Ukraine. This is all being done without any help from Vladimir Putin. If anyone has any doubts about that they were put to bed by a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Alexander Lukashevich. On September 11 he reaffirmed that: “No Russian troops are fighting in south-eastern Ukraine. There were no and there are no Russian troops in Ukraine. The Russian army is not fighting there. There are volunteers who cannot stay away from the suffering and events unfolding in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.”

NATO members and non-NATO members are of course upset with Mr. Putin because (a) they don’t believe him or his spokesman and (b) they don’t think he has a right to engage in military action in a sovereign country irrespective of his reasons for doing so. That is why sanctions are being placed on Russia.

What Mr. Obama proposes to do in Syria is quite different. Syria is governed by Bashar al-Assad. Three years ago Syrian Sunnis began a revolt against Mr. Assad and the result has been three years of a brutal and bloody civil war. During the war Mr. Assad has used poison gas, barrel bombs and other cruel methods of waging war to kill some of the 88.7% of the people who reelected him as president on June 3, 2014. The Sunnis being less well armed have been unable to drive Mr. Assad from power and as a result of the conflict more than 200,000 Syrians have been killed, and more than 1 million have become refugees. The Sunnis who began the revolt have been joined by some exceptionally violent Sunni types known as ISIS or Islamic State who have been fighting the less extreme Sunnis as well as Mr. Assad and his forces. When ISIS captured a government base near the Syrian city of Raqqa in July 2014 it beheaded the officers and soldiers it had captured and placed the severed heads on posts in the central town square for all to see. In September and August ISIS beheaded two American journalists and one British journalist and posted videos of the beheadings on line. Those three beheadings (but not the earlier ones) galvanized the west. Although the United States had been flying bombing missions over Iraq to fight Islamic State, following release of the videos of the beheadings it determined to do more. In an address to the nation on September 10, 2014, President Obama announced that in order to defeat ISIS he will authorize direct attacks against ISIS not only in Iraq but also in Syria.

Bombs may be dropped inside Syria without the permission of its president. As Mr. Obama explained in his speech to the nation: “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIS in Syria, as well as Iraq. . . . . If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” Mr. Lukashevich commented on the president’s plan saying: “This step (bombing in Syria) in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.” (Since Russia was uninvolved in the Ukraine he did not need to explain why Russia had not taken those steps or why what it did was not a similar violation.) So here is how it all is working out.

Mr. Putin invaded Crimea and is engaged in efforts to take over eastern Ukraine but says he did not do that. Mr. Obama acknowledges that he plans to bomb a country that has not given consent to being bombed because Islamic State is taking refuge there. Mr. Obama does not plan to put any U.S. troops in combat operations in Iraq or Syria although less than a week after he offered that assurance, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chief of staffs, said at some point he might recommend to the president that the United States have troops involved in attacks on Islamic State when accompanying Iraqi troops. His remarks were followed the next day by Mr. Obama saying there would be no American troops engaged in combat in Iraq. Neither Mr. Obama nor General Dempsey mentioned the possibility of ground troops in Syria. It will only be subject to bombing-at least for the next few weeks.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

iPhones, Us and Me

Remorse sleeps during a prosperous period but wakes up in adversity. —Jean Jacques Rousseau, Confessions

It’s enough to make us all want to quit sending nude photos of ourselves to our closest friends. Of course, the propagation of the nude photo on the Internet by means of the iPhone is simply the latest example of a creative use to which that medium has been put by some of its owners.

When members of earlier generations wanted to capture images of events they wished to preserve for posterity, they did it by committing the event to memory, if a private sort of event, or to film, if a non-private event. Images of public kinds of event that were preserved for posterity were taken with cameras and the subjects would be shown doing all sorts of things like climbing mountains, sailing ships or simply sunbathing on beaches. When recording memories of times on the beach, the raciest photos were defined by the coverage afforded by the bathing suit in the photograph. Times have changed.

The iPhone as camera has found opportunities to display its skills in places where few, if any, of their owners would, in days gone by, have thought of taking cameras. Although the new discovery may seem titillating to the iPhone and its owners, there is a downside to the use of the iPhone to preserve memories of what may take place in the bedroom. The downside becomes apparent when the parties to the bedroom activities are no longer friends and the events were recorded on the iPhone. If the possessor of the iPhone wishes to embarrass the former friend, he or she can simply e-mail images from happier times to mutual friends, not didactically to show what sorts of activities the former friends had engaged in, but vindictively to embarrass the person who didn’t own the iPhone. At least one court has addressed the issue of use of photos of lovers engaged in amorous pursuits once the pursuit has ended. A German court ruled that at the end of a happy relationship either party may be required to delete “intimate or revealing photos and videos” that the couple made in happier times. The court’s ruling did not apply to pictures taken of the woman when fully clothed since the court observed those had “little, if any capacity” to compromise the woman.

We have now learned that it is not only the ordinary who enjoy photographing themselves, either alone or with others in what in earlier days would have been considered private poses and activities. September arrived with the news that some prominent celebrities’ e-mail accounts had been hacked and pictures they had intended to share with only a few select friends were now being shared with the world. Those unfamiliar with modern ways may wonder why anyone takes a selfie or asks a friend to take photographs of himself or herself without the benefit of clothing. Even greater wonder is inspired by the question of why, having been taken, they are posted in a place where a hacker can discover and disseminate them on the Internet. Whatever the reason, it happens and now we can all enjoy photos of some celebrities wearing only what they were given at birth. Those whose photos have been shared with the world are, of course, furious even though in most cases (unless surreptitiously taken) they are the ones responsible for the photographs having been taken in the first place. It is not, however, only the celebrities who have been embarrassed by the disclosures. Apple has been as embarrassed by the distribution of these pictures as the unclad celebrities, albeit for different reasons. Endless news stories and editorials have criticized the company for the fact that the iCloud is not as secure as people thought and suggested that the fault lies with the company and not with the celebrity stars. There is, of course, another way to look at it.

Even if a celebrity has been told that he or she has “a heavenly body” many people might wonder why its possessor would want to place its naked image in the iCloud for friends to see. In announcing the breach of iCloud security that permitted the heavenly bodies to be viewed by the general public, one headline exclaimed: “Leaks of nude celebrity photos raise concerns about security of the cloud.” The headline might more appropriately have read: “Leaks of nude celebrity photos raise concerns about the good sense of some celebrities. ” It is easy to demand an explanation from Apple as to why its site can be hacked by voyeurs. Someone should demand an explanation from the aggrieved as why they posted the images in the first place.