Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger and the House Un-American Activities Sub-Committee for New York

When I was six months old and ignorant of such things, Pete Seeger was subpoenaed by a sub-committee of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  This committee acted independently of Senator McCarthy’s even more infamous inquiries in the Senate, and Seeger’s testimony came after Edward R. Murrow already had exposed McCarthy for the crude and cruel grandstander he was, and the tide had turned against him.

The sub-committee was charged with investigating communist infiltration in the entertainment industry in New York.  Seeger’s testimony led to his conviction for contempt of Congress.  According to the appellate court, the sub-committee asked Seeger about a concert he gave in Allerton, some years before.   Here’s how the court characterized the question and answer: 
 "May I ask you whether or not the Allerton Section was a section of the Communist Party?" (Count 1), to which he gave a completely nonresponsive and irrelevant answer which apparently was a prepared statement he was determined to make regardless of the question:
"I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." 
This response was mentioned in many of the tributes to Pete Seeger today. 

However, as the appellate court observed, Seeger was not asked about his associations, philosophical, religious, or political beliefs—he was asked a factual question:  was the Allerton Section a section of the communist party? 

What’s wrong with that question?  It bothers us because we feel Congress overstepped its bounds by prying into people’s business that was none of their damn business.  We agree with Seeger that these are improper questions to be asked of any American under compulsion. 

Yet sometimes people are given power to pry into our personal business.  We similarly bristle when confronted by border agents, or police officers.  “Where were you?”  “Whom did you visit?”  None of your damn business, we want to say, although it’s ill advised. 

President Clinton was in a similar situation during his deposition in the Paula Jones case.  Paula Jones had brought a civil suit for sexual harassment, dating back to Clinton’s time as governor.  In the meantime, Clinton was president and there was the Lewinsky affair.  “Improper sexual relations,” a semen stained blue dress, politically motivated friends (Linda Tripp), and a special prosecutor hanging about.  The information made its way to Paula Jones’ attorneys.    

When confronted with the Lewinsky affair in the Jones case, Clinton lied in his deposition.  We understand the impulse:  none of your damn business!  Except we don’t have that option in a deposition.  All we can do is fess up, not answer and risk sanctions, evade, dissemble, or lie.  It’s not a pleasant choice.  Clinton was cornered by unsavory dishonorable political opponents and he opted to lie.  His action was understandable (that’s why the public stayed with him). But his action was not honorable. 

Seeger was also cornered by unsavory politicians.  Their investigation was not an honorable or wise activity, and it had needlessly harmed hundreds of people for more than a decade.  Seeger opted to risk contempt.  It was political protest; it was honorable. 

Seeger was charged with ten counts of contempt, and convicted by a jury for not answering the questions.   The trial court judge, no friend of justice or good sense, refused to stay the one year sentence pending an appeal.  However, the court of appeal granted the stay, and found a way to let Seeger off on a technicality.  The indictment, they said, did not adequately plead, and the trial did not adequately prove the sub-committee’s authority to ask its questions.  It was a Solomonic decision.  The court found a way to do justice.  It’s what courts do when they work well—they find a way to do justice.

Seeger acted honorably, took his chances, and the court did right by him.   It was a good chapter in a long and excellent life. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Government Surveillance: The Face of Abuse

Speaking of Ukraine ….

There is an interesting piece in the NYT this morning (1/21/14) reporting on renewed Ukraine protests. The connection here is not fully made, but it looks like this:

1.  Ukraine parliament passes laws making it a crime to be present at a violent assembly.

2.  Peaceable, or sort of peaceable, protest occurs.

3.  The government sends a text message to everyone's cell phone who was present at the protest--"You have been registered as being present at the scene of a disturbance."

4.  There are thugs present at this protest making it violent.  They beat on protesters, they break windows, upend cars, and such.  When cornered by some of the protesters, these thugs report they have been paid $25 to cause the disturbance.  It's not entirely clear who paid them.

5.  Activist leaders are pinpointed and disappeared.
"An activist who has been prominent in the movement, Ihor Lutsenko, went missing Tuesday after unknown men forced him into a car in the parking lot of a hospital, according to a Facebook post by Mr. Lutsenko’s wife."
Here is the article. 

It's not a far stretch to imagine this type of abuse of NSA surveillance and technology being abused to battle something like Occupy Oakland.

There is risk in this.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

An Olympic Primer: Ukraine's Oligarchy Next Door

Tim Judah, a graduate of the London School of Economics and of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University is a correspondent for The Times and The Economist. This week he writes about the political situation in Ukraine in the New York Review of Books (Fighting for the Soul of Ukraine).

On December 8, 2013 "hundreds of thousands packed the city center (in Kiev), and a granite statute of Lenin was toppled in a scene recalling both europe's anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 and the symbolic fall of Saddam's statue in Baghdad in 2003." At stake is whether Ukraine will begin to align with the EU to its west, fall back under the political dominance of Russia, or continue to sit on the fence.  Also at stake is the nature of Ukraine's future leadership.  

Ukraine Basics

Ukraine is a country of 45.6 million, with a GDP of $340 billion (2012), less than a fifth that of California.  Hitler had his eyes on the vaunted bread-basket, which accounted for more than a quarter of Soviet Russia's agricultural production. Today, agriculture accounts for 10 percent of Ukraine's GDP (compare 1% for U.S.); manufacture 30 percent; and services 60 percent.  Steel is the top export.

Ukraine has no hope of joining the EU at the present time.  Russia wants to get Ukraine back under it's thumb. Ukraine would like to stay independent.  Interesting tidbit:  Ukraine pays more for Russian gas transported across it's territory to Europe than Europe pays.  Judah reports that this comes from a self-serving sweetheart deal between the former prime minister, the glamorous and rich Yulia Tymoshenko, and Russia's Gazprom.  She was jailed for it in 2011 but the prosecution was viewed as political by most observers.

Rule of Oligarchs

Ukraine's current president is Viktor Yanukovich (born 1950).  He spent two prison terms for robbery and assault in his youth.  After prison he started work as an electrician in a bus company and worked his way up, joining the Soviet Communist Party.  In 2004 he was almost elected president in a rigged election, which was overturned by the "Orange Revolution."  Despite this he was elected president in 2010.  

From a 2010 article in the Kiev Post
Yanukovych has never been seen as his own man. His critics view him largely as a subservient tool of the nation’s wealthiest billionaire, Rinat Akhmetov, and other patrons. Many also say that the Party of Regions – the largest faction in parliament with 172 out of 450 seats – serves mainly the interests of Ukraine’s wealthiest citizens.
From his Wikipedia entry: 
Anders ├ůslund, a Swedish economist and Ukraine analyst, has described the consolidation of Ukrainian economic power in the hands of a few elite industrial tycoons, the richest and most influential of whom has become President Yanukovych's own son Oleksandr Yanukovych. While the exact distribution of wealth and precise weight of influence are difficult to gauge, two things are evident: No one has been enriched more than the younger Yanukovych, and most of the country's richest men are afraid to cross the Yanukovich family, even in cases where their own economic interests favor an economically pro-EU Ukraine and even when forced to sell their companies to the Yanukovych family at heavy discounts. One notable exception to the Yanukovych family's grip on the country's oligarchs is Petro Poroshenko, who is described as "uncommonly courageous" and whose confectionery empire is less susceptible to ruin by the tremendous power the Yanukovych family wields, strongest in the heavy industry sectors located in Yanukovych's geographic power base, the traditionally pro-Russian eastern part of Ukraine.
Here is how one local journalist critical of the government described the issue of Yanukovich and oligarchy to Judah:  
Yanukovichis … is not interested in the EU or the customs union (with Russia) or European values, he just wants cheaper credits and foreign investment and the opening of markets for oligarchs.  But for Ukrainians, Europe is not about Yanukovich but about its 46 million people.  

What are the Choices?

There are three main opposition leaders who are all fiercely in favor of integration with western Europe.  The country's three former post Soviet presidents all have come out in favor of the protesters in early December, as has the Kiev patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Here are the choices:

  • Oleh Tiahnybok, head of Svoboda (Freedom Party) which in the past has had links with neo-Nazi parties in other parts of Europe.  In a 2004 speech he railed against the Moscow-Jewish mafia that ruled Ukraine.  Svoboda supporters, with a reputation as the hard men of Ukrainian nationalism, led efforts in early December to occupy Kiev's city hall. 
  • Arseney Yatsenyuk, is head of the Fatherland Party.  He has been opposed to the EU's demands for a judciary independent of political influences.
  • Vitali Klitschko, an ex heavy weight boxing champion.  According to Judah he is the most interesting, having surrounded himself with smart advisers and may stand a chance in the 2015 presidential elections.   

Barring terrorist disruptions, the winter Olympics will take place this February 7-23, just to the East in the Black Sea port of Sochi.