Vive la résistance

There is intelligent life in the White House, after all. What about Silver Spring?

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Yesterday’s op-ed in the New York Times was one of the most interesting, and heart-warming pieces of news recently. Yes, you heard me right.

nytimes_opedInteresting, sure. An anonymous senior White House official points the gun at President Trump, essentially saying: we know he’s amoral and erratic, but we are working behind the scenes to contain the damage and counter some of his worst tendencies. Trump has responded in his usual manner, shouting and threatening on Twitter. The circus continues.

But what makes this heart-warming is the fact that even Trump’s supporters are aware of the reality. Even if you blinded yourself to believing in the man, this op-ed shows us that there are still people in power who want to work for what’s best for the country.

Things may not change overnight, but this gives me hope.

Church politics gone sour

I have previously mentioned the ongoing political theatre in the Adventist Church, which I am a member of. And I have compared General Conference President Ted Wilson to Donald Trump – not for his morals, but for his ignorance of the limits of power, and lack of respect for democratic institutions.

Next month, the church’s world leadership will meet for their Annual Council, and following last year’s failed attempt at forcing unity, an inquisition-like setup of oversight committees is once again on the agenda.

Where is the op-ed from within the General Conference office?

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We probably won’t see that, but I have to believe that not everyone is happy with the president’s warmongering. It would not surprise me if – like in the White House – a large group of church officials are silently playing along, but doing their best behind the scenes to mend some of the wounds which the president’s actions are creating.

Silent majority

The president can be a Democrat or a Republican, a Conservative or a Liberal, I don’t care. But a president should not be authoritarian and despotic, whether he is president of a country or a church.

Yes, Trump got elected. But I still believe in the American people. I choose to have faith that a silent majority of Americans cannot abide this man’s values and actions.

Similarly, I choose, for now, to have faith in the Adventist Church. I have to believe that a silent majority cannot abide by the divisive, un-democratic behavior of its highest elected official, but have hopes and intentions that transcend political games.

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A Good Day for World Peace

After 70 years of “war” in Korea, was this the breakthrough we were waiting for?

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The Singapore Sling is an iconic drink, created more than 100 years ago. You take an American mixture of something strong and something sweet, add a few Asian flavors, and you’ve made history.

That was also the recipe for today’s summit on Sentosa Island, Singapore, the first-ever meeting between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.

Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy made the phrase “Speak softly, carry a big stick” famous. That’s not the first expression you would use about Donald Trump, but he does seem to have somehow broken through to the world’s weirdest regime. Despite several many potential flies in the ointment, that itself is a big achievement.

A Fool’s Errand

From threatening mutual destruction to suddenly embracing each other as friends, Trump and Kim have come a long way.

Only last year, they were calling each other a madman and a dotard, respectively, and worse.

Kim-Jong-un-1Kim Jong-Un:
”I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
“Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason.”

051117trump-angryDonald Trump:
“Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime.”
”Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!”

Objectively speaking, they were probably both correct.

And perhaps this is one of the real reasons they apparently hit it off in Singapore today – they are both equally crazy, and on some level understand each other.

Win-Win?

Critics say that Trump has played right into Kim’s strategy. Certainly, as argued in Politico, “Kim’s diplomacy is a progression of Kim’s strategy.” His agenda includes better international relations and improved quality of life for his people.

In that light, the summit and agreement is a big win for Kim. And personally for Trump, who has not had many policy breakthroughs and is facing mid-term elections later this year.

It also weakens U.S. bargaining chips, say some, but if the end result is lasting peace in Korea, doesn’t that make us all winners?

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BFF

In today’s press conference Trump was confident and spoke almost like a statesman, especially in his prepared statement. Hats off to the ghost writer, but also to Trump himself for saying words such as:

“The past does not have to define the future. Yesterday’s conflict does not have to be tomorrow’s war. And as history has proven over and over again, adversaries can, indeed, become friends.”

To an oratorically deprived audience, such words from the president seemed almost blissfully out of character. In the following Q&A he reverted occasionally into his usual self-defense mode, but still with more composure than has often been the case.

Ten years ago on this blog I was hoping for a thaw in relations between North Korea and the world, but not a whole lot happened. Will it this time? Only time will tell.

Ban or no Ban?

How can a liberal society justify outlawing ‘religious expression’?

Denmark is making international headlines, not for hygge and happiness, but once again as a battle-ground for the clash between Western and Muslim civilizations.

The Danish parliament voted last week to ban burqas and niqabs, following the lead from France and other countries.

Additionally, there has been heavy public debate on (male) circumcision, sparked by a citizen’s petition calling for a full ban on circumcision of anyone under 18.

Do these cases represent attacks on religious liberty and liberal values? No, it’s not quite that simple.

The self-righteous left will probably interpret the ban as an attack on religious liberty. I would rather see it as a sad, but necessary counter-attack on individual liberty.

It’s all a matter of perspective. And campaigners are quick to label their opponents’ views and practices as sexism and child abuse, or religious persecution, respectively. Calling each other names will not resolve the issue, however.

Religion as victim or oppressor?

It is an easy temptation, especially in religious circles, to portray religion as the victim. To argue that the most important civil right is the right to freely express your religion.

But even as a religious person myself, I don’t subscribe to that point of view. Surely, the right to live is more important? The right to decide your own fate? The right to not be oppressed?

The civil rights movement in the U.S. was about basic human dignity, not religion. In fact, you had churches and ministers fighting vehemently for their right to treat black people as, well, not people.

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, churches which were believed to be places of refuge were converted to scenes of mass slaughter.

It’s not that the Left are any better. Remember Stalin? Mao? Chavez?

The right to live

No, religious liberty as a value should not be put above other values and basic human rights.

The values of liberty and justice and equal rights may have roots in religion, and perhaps even in the divine. I believe that recognizing all human beings as loved by a Creator should carry an imperative to treat them with the dignity and respect that they are often deprived of.

But the sad reality is that organized religion has not always been the most ardent proponent of this principle.

Societal values

So back to burqas. For all its populism and symbolic gestures (the number of people carrying them is disproportionately small), I believe the ban has merit.

People have the right to choose, but choosing badly has consequences. They have a right to choose, but not to enforce their views on others or disturb the public order.

When some Muslim women say, “no, we are not oppressed,” they are speaking their individual belief, but I disagree.

And when some Adventist women say, “we do not want ordination of women,” they are also speaking their individual belief, but I disagree.

The burqa represents a world-view we do not want to condone, just as Feudalism and censorship has been removed in our society. And as a society, I believe we must defend our values of individual rights and liberalism, even if it has a few paradoxical consequences and draws criticism from those opposed to those values.

A land of your own?

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As Kurds in Iraq voted on independence last week, and Catalans in northern Spain attempted to do so this Sunday, it seems like a new wave of independence movements is underway. They are not alone: Scotland comes to mind, as does Greenland (at times), and of course Tibet, South Sudan, Kosovo, and others.

These situations can easily escalate into violence. Ironically, more violence has been reported from Spain than from Iraq.

Reactions from around the world follow the traditional lines: those with nothing at stake support the movements or stay silent. Those who condemn are typically countries who fear similar movements within their own territories.

For the supporters, the right of people to choose their own government weighs heavily.

The US Declaration of Independence states that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [a destructive government], and to institute new Government”. And for most free countries, this rings true as the decent thing to do.

But it’s not that simple. The American Civil War was fought because the Confederates were not allowed to secede from the Union. Yes, slavery was the issue of moral high ground, but also at stake was the integrity of the nation. A United States of America would be a strong world power – two Americas would not.

Even for democratic states, it’s about money and power.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain. It would add even further strain on its struggling economy were the powerhouse of Barcelona to leave.

Similarly, independence for Padania (Northern Italy) would be fatal to the Italian economy.

China needs Tibet, not for economic reasons, but as a territorial buffer to India.

Turkey fears having to give up large parts of its territory to a united Kurdistan, and thus opposes the movement among Iraqi Kurds.

On the other hand, Greenland for instance survives on large subsidies from Denmark, which they would lose with independence. Consequently, any thought of them becoming independent is no real cause for worry in Denmark (even with potential mineral riches).

Scotland is somewhere in between. They have oil, but London remains the economic centre. And yes, dissolving the union would be a blow to any Imperial memories the English might have. But with Brexit, they have chosen their own path of solitude, so they are (self-)occupied for the time being.

So where does that leave Catalonia and Kurdistan? The people in power need to balance morality with prosperity. People’s rights and all that is fine if you have nothing to lose. Will they accept a poorer Madrid and a less powerful nation, or keep on fighting against the will of the people? Only time will tell.

Wars of Misinformation

The presidents of Turkey and America are using the oldest trick in the book to offset their personal insecurity. And it is probably working.

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“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu

We all recall the infamous Irqai information minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who blatantly and hilariously continued to deny that Saddam Hussein’s regime was coming to an end.

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” he said. And on another occasion: “The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies and more lies!”

Fake news

Something you would expect from an enemy – but what about the sitting president in a democratic country?

Donald Trump’s attacks on the press are more than just shouting. They are a very effective example of deflating your opponents’ arguments. Fake news is a real problem, and the phenomenon might have been a contributing factor to his election. But by labelling real news as fake news, the incentive to attack fake news is diminished, because he is muddling the picture.

Who’s the terrorist now?

In Turkey, President Erdogan has just won a huge victory in securing power to himself, and limiting democratic restraints. But this has only increased his tendency to rebuke any criticism. His Nazi comparisons and name-callings have not ended. Rather he stooped as low as branding Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP monitoring the election, a ‘terrorist’.

Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to call out the accusation, adding to the international pressure rightfully placed on Turkey these days.

This is not child’s play

Name-calling your enemies is a classic strategy, and something informed and well-educated citizens ought to see through. Heck, it even features in children’s literature. I’ll give you two examples:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final instalment in the Chronicles of Narnia, a monkey conspires to present a fake Aslan (the creator-Deity lion) who issues orders that destroy the nation. Our heroes discover that the fake Aslan is in fact a donkey in disguise, but before they have the chance to call the bluff, the monkey himself announces that an impostor has been found, and the real Aslan will show himself no more. Thus they have nothing to gain by showing the impostor. “She understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is faced with the news that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. In denial and/or out of fear, however, he instead launches a smear campaign against the sources, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, branding them as nutters and liars.

We should not fall for this. More importantly, leaders in free societies should not stoop to this level. It is a sign of weakness and fear not worthy of a leaders.

One might add: “If you want to know what a terrorist looks like, Mr. Erdogan, you should look in a mirror.”

How Swede it is…

In a little while, I will compare the King of Sweden to Donald Trump. And not in a flattering way.

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Hang on, wasn’t there a line in a song about him?

She had a dream about the King of Sweden // He gave her things that she was needin’

Who would have thought that Cab Calloway was being prophetic when he wrote Minnie the Moocher back in 1931?

Scandinavian socialism

Scandinavia has attracted the attention of left-leaning politicians in the U.S. for a while. The ‘social democratic’ generous welfare states inspired both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and some of their supporters.

While the attention is flattering, it is also not entirely true. In the book Debunking Utopia, Nima Sanandaji – who migrated from Iran to Sweden as a child – argues successfully that the success of Scandinavia is due more to culture and homogeneity than to generous welfare; in fact, the success of these countries was in place before the mushrooming of welfare, and was severely hampered when public spending was at its highest, in the 70s and 80s.

The threat of immigration

Furthermore, he argues that the welfare system, especially in Sweden, is under threat by heavy immigration. It is no wonder that large swaths of refugees (like Minnie the Moocher) would flock to the place where the King gives you the things you need. But immigrants actually fare and integrate better in America, where the incentive to work is higher.

In Denmark, immigration and integration of foreigners has been on the political agenda for decades. But in neighboring Sweden, the discussion was ignored, explains Sanandaji: “Being against open borders became synonymous with being a racist. […] favoring open borders was the only legitimate political view in the country.”

The only political party who attempted to raise the issue, was ignored by the political elite. As were the issues, such as crime and financial strains. Gang violence and shootouts have been significantly higher in Swedish cities than in Denmark and Norway, for instance. And more and more people have become wary of the situation.

Of course there is a case to be made for the humanitarian cause of helping people in need. But ignoring the costs – monetary, and societal – in the name of political correctness is ridiculous.

Trump and the King

So when Donald Trump mentioned problems in Sweden last week, some were quick to dismiss him as making up things again. It also didn’t help that Fox News featured as expert a ‘Swedish defence and national security advisor’ that nobody in Sweden had heard of.

But Trump-bashing aside, international media did start looking into Sweden and found that their rosy image did not hold true any longer.

And that’s when King Carl XVI Gustaf entered the debate. “Without media that works seriously and carries out good criticism of its sources, that doesn’t work,” he said. Fair enough.

But he went further than that: “It is important to present the good examples. There are so many positive developments.”

With all due respect, Your Highness, that is not within your mandate. Dictating what the media should and should not report on is exactly what Trump has been doing the last month. And while his attacks are more brash, the danger is the same. People in power should never interfere with the press, no matter their agenda.

William McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL, recently called out Trump’s attacks on the press, calling them “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime”.

I agree. More than ever before we need a free press, with investigative reporting that highlights real issues and challenges prevailing sentiments and political correctness. In Sweden, as well as in America.

The Internet has not made us more democratic

Social media made Obama president, but also Trump. So much for digital revolution.

Everyone likes to think they are unique. That their struggles and ideas are somehow different from everyone else’s. And every generation likes to imagine that they are not just incrementally different from their parents, but the first in a new era of enlightenment.

Most of them, however, are not. The Age of Aquarius was a fad. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not give us lasting world peace. Postmodernism is an interesting label, but no more than a label (in the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern”). Millenials, post-millenials, digital natives, what have you.

The internet promised to change things radically. In some ways, of course, it has. We do things differently than before, with instant access, self-service, and always-on connectivity. But the inner fabric of what makes us human, alas, has not really changed. And the results fall short of the naïve dreams of 15-20 years ago.

Social media doesn’t make people better

Everyone his own editor, was the promise. Blogging was the tool that gave common people a voice (I was one of them). Finally, the though monopoly of established media was challenged. And for oppressed people, here was the way out; the means to breaking the power of their authorities.

There were many flaws in this dream. First of all, there is a reason that so few people were previously represented in the media: The rest were simply not worth listening to. As it turns out, bigots and complainers are still bigots and complainers, and now they are annoying more than just their families and friends.

Secondly, not all people have good intentions. Instead of spurring utopia, the ‘digital revolution’ has brought out both good and bad in people. Just like every technological development before it. Protesters in the Arab Spring used social media. So does Al Qaeda and ISIS. New ways of congregating also means new ways of monitoring. The Great Firewall of China has been quite successful in making sure the rise of digital media did not jeopardize the power of the ruling elite.

As any early joiner of Facebook will remember, what used to be a place to meet your friends has now become a giant marketplace where more or less dubious brands compete for your attention. Savvy (young) users flee to the refuge of alternatives such as Snapchat, but it is only a matter of time before companies will all come there as well, repeating the process.

Finally, anywhere people gather, so will would-be criminals. The greater the potential, the more hackers, spammers, phishers, fake news publishers, and worse. Raise security, and their means will grow more sophisticated to match the challenge. Just like superheroes spawn super-villains (illustrated perfectly by Batman).

Have you thanked your editor today?

What the world needs now, more than ever before, is good editors. There are ideas which are not worth promoting, and individuals whose rants should not so easily be given an audience.

Social media have ‘democratized’ mainly in the sense that we can avoid views we disagree with, encouraged by algorithms that favor more of the same. Fake news have exploited this trend. And by playing to the lowest denominator of clicks and likes means that the media have outplayed their role of challenging people in power and become just as partisan as the politicians themselves.

Governments taking control of the media used to be a big cause of worry, but the dilemma may have become a moot point. If Donald Trump preaches to the choir on Twitter and discredits any critical questions from mainstream media, he circumvents the dilemma. He doesn’t need to shut down the independent media, like Putin and Erdogan have done. He can bypass them altogether and undermine their role and trust without any formal actions against them.

The only way to stop this destruction would be to close down Twitter entirely. Which is probably not going to happen. One thing that history has taught us is that we cannot turn back time.