Liberty for Puerto Rico

‘Puerto Pobro’ would be nearer the mark. The island could be wealthy, but on the Fourth of July, several of the complaints of the Thirteen Colonies against Britain could be made by Puerto Rico against the United States, and they have bankrupted it.

It is not out of malice and not irremediable, but is damning, and of the same origin as the thoughtless errors which sundered the Thirteen Colonies in the 177os.

Today, Puerto Rico is thoroughly American, washed in American culture and expectations, with local quirks and customs and language, but as American as anywhere can be. It is not about to rebel, and unlike the Thirteen Colonies it cannot stand alone if it did, but those causes which drove the American Revolution in 1776 must be dealt with as they are beggaring the island.

It is relative, it must be said: Puerto Rico is wealthier than many of its neighbours, but only because they are likewise impoverished. Puerto Rico has the capability to live up to its over-optimistic name, with sunshine, resources and access to a culture which has hitherto been a byword for enterprise.

In the 1770s as the crisis with America rose, British ministers believed that they were treating the colonies properly, but they were not there to see and feel. The story is well known – colonists had liberty in their home colonies, more indeed than the average Briton had at home, but there is more to liberty than paper laws, the King’s ministers in London could not see it from three thousand miles away.  The colonies’ populations were swelling and yearned to spread west over the empty continent, to turn fresh, untilled land into farms and homes, but were forbidden from stepping beyond a line. They were treated as British subjects, but forbidden from trade abroad: these are crucial constraints Adam Smith observed in that fateful year of 1776. There was taxation, with no opportunity to be heard, nor any opportunity to be heard when the ‘Intolerable Acts’ were passed in response to disquiet.

Nearly a quarter of a millennium later, the United States have their own colonies, and of these Puerto Rico is suffering and bankrupt. Its bankruptcy is the result of its own elected misgovernment following American norms, and impositions by the American federal government:

  • It has heavy taxation, and taxation without representation;
  • Its trade is strangled by the Jones Act just as the colonies were stifled by the Navigation Acts
  • It has had imposed on it a stifling excess of federal laws, imposed on the mainland for an urban culture which does not apply on the island. In Texas  and the prairie states they can get by though ignoring the  worst of the laws, but that does not work on a tight little island.

This is much the situation the colonies found themselves in when they burst forth with resentment against thoughtless impositions.  Puerto Rico in contrast has drink it up and imposed their own, by all I read. They cannot now even take a begging bowl to Uncle Sam for relief from their crushing debt, as the USA is itself on the brink of debt default.

Free trade is the first key to prosperity in any state or island. In the Georgian Age, the Navigation Acts forbade any foreign ships from trading with the colonies, and American merchants suffered.  Today, the Jones Act forbids any ships from plying between Puerto Rico and the United States unless they are American-owned, American-flagged and even American-built: even the Navigations acts did not go as far as regulating the shipyard. This makes for a cosy monopoly and for higher prices on the island, which the mainland does not suffer. Puerto Rico imports most if its food and supplies, at monopoly freight prices.

Those celebrating the Revolution today should take a lesson and repeal the Act or be accused as hypocrites.

In the Colonies, a monopoly imposition led to the Boston Tea Party.  What today could be hurled into the harbour of San Juan?

Laws too which were designed to employ armies of public servants and create local cabals are unaffordable in a territory which does not have the billionaires that the states have.  That bankruptcy should be no shock.

Taxation, without representation, designed by a distant government for a society with millionaires to pay it, grinds a struggling economy onto the dirt. Is there no memory of the fate of the Stamp Act?

‘I rejoice that America has resisted’, said William Pitt the Elder; ‘Three million of people so dead to all feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.’ It is good for Americans to celebrate that resistance. It was  hurtful cleaving of the British nation, regrettable but necessary given the abuse they had suffered, and a great nation arose from it. They should not be so great nor so confident in the virtue of their origin that they commit the same abuse of their own colony.

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Books

Deathly rights

Weird, deadly American politics. Democrats believe children should be murdered in the womb; Republicans they should be murdered in the classroom.

It is incomprehensible to those of us in the old country. Two political parties have monopolised all, and come to assert in absolute terms positions their members would not naturally believe.

The latest confected outrage across the pond is about a rule not found anywhere in their Constitution, but once imposed by judges anyway. The energy expended on this suggests more symbolism than substance, and its suggests to the rest of us a fatal decay amongst Americans in the very concepts of law and of democratic rule, which perhaps is now being put right. Of more immediate substance is something which is in their Constitution as a principle of freedom but the effect of which is to eliminate freedom: the right to bear arms.

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I would not be seen as an enemy of guns as such – I happen to be an accomplished shot. It is the flooding of society with the means for murder at one remove, conscienceless murder, which is impossible to bear. In Britain and in Europe, guns are heavily restricted and we can walk free with little fear: the United States are awash with them and in many places fear is the natural state.

There are long debates about what the framers of the Constitution meant, seeing the war-begot historical background and asking how to pair the first half of the sentence, concerning the need for a militia, with the second. The plain words remain though that “the right to bear arms shall not be infringed”.

Many commentators have run through the historical background, which goes deeper than the mood in 1789. The Constitution and its first amendments were written by thinkers and lawyers schooled in the over-optimism of the Enlightenment, and in the afterglow of a war that seemed to them to be a war between the old world and the Enlightenment itself (though in truth the new learning was just as much a cause of the British ministers’ inability to be flexible).  In such an atmosphere the idea would be irresistible that a people who are armed will better defend liberty. A hundred years before, in 1688, King James II had been overthrown by rebellions in England and in New England, and Parliament declared in their own Bill of Rights that the Crown may not disarm the people (or in fact, may not disarm Protestants while arming those with allegiance to Rome).

If the Enlightenment idea of man’s ultimate goodness were true, then maybe there would be justification for trusting “the people” with the means to end others’ lives in a moment without effort.  That idea is not true though: Hobbes showed  this, and so has human history at every stage. Mankind’s truest reflection is seen in those who in bestial fury slew millions in their Lebensraum, in Armenia, in the camps, in the gulags, the lao gai, and in Rwanda, and in the cities of today’s America.

The American Constitution does not command the massacres it has overseen, but it is an accessory to murder.

Politics

If political debate made sense, there could be a broad spread of opinion across America’s political parties. There is no reason why one political party would across its membership have a rock-solid, extremist position on the issues, and the opposite on the other side. The two main parties are relics of the Civil War in any case, their raison d’être of each lost long since – when the Democrats stood for slavery and the Republics for abolition. That is all gone.  The politicians all live in one society and can take broader views. They all have families like everyone else. No one should have to fear whether their children will survive the school day.

The mythology of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights has a sacred place in the American understanding underlying all their understanding of liberty. Any trespass upon those rights may be seen as sacrilege and the beginning of the end of all liberty. They are at the heart of what it is to be American, an identity artificially cultured over two and a half centuries. Having placed the right to bear arms in the Bill of Rights, it is within that temple.

Those who hold to that opinion need to step back and take a deep breath.  The ‘Founding Fathers’ are the secular gods of the Republic, but they are not actual gods, and are not infallible, nor are their words holy writ.  Where a provision in the Bill of Rights actually decreases freedom, by making citizens live in fear, it is the enemy of what the Founders wanted.

Solutions

Gun control measures do not work – at least not those tried to date. There is no statistical evidence they work. Tests and cooling-off periods before purchase are useless, and have never stopped any murderer from getting his hands on a gun.  It is ownership and possession of a gun that matters, and this cannot be interfered with while the Constitution says what it does.

The Constitution is not unamendable. It is hard to amend, and requires a political consensus, but it is not impossible.  Reformers may take a lesson from the National Temperance League a century ago: it would have been unthinkable to call for the Constitution to be changed to ban alcohol across the nation, but they had the audacity and a slogan: National Constitutional Prohibition, which any politician had to declare himself for or against. They succeeded. They should not have, but they did. A measure more modest and more beneficial might too. It would first though have to undermine from beneath those solid political positions, to become the cry of the popular voice in every party.

One leading American jurist suggests amending the Second Amendment to add a rider to the right to bear arms “when on militia service”. That would do the trick.

There is an alternative.  I am not American and may be dismissed by those who are, especially lawyers, but bear with me.

When the Bill of Rights was passed, it bound only the Federal government and Congress, not the states. Even the First Amendment, the foundational injunction to freedom of speech is “Congress shall make no law…”, not the states. States and towns used to restrict the bearing of arms (it was enforcement of such an ordnance in Tombstone that led to ‘the Gunfight at the OK Corral’.) Only in the 1920s, so I read, did the Supreme Court imply its application to bind the state authorities too, using a strained interpretation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments on equal rights and due process. It is then just one judgment away from being overturned.

Not every Amendment in the Bill of Rights has been held to bind the states. An article specifically on Federal procedures would not, presumably.  Here then is an opportunity:  an Amendment could declare that the Second Amendment is not binding on the states: that way the states can make their own laws on the possession of deadly weapons. It could to be excluded in federal jurisdiction in the territories and District of Columbia too.

The land nevertheless is awash with guns – more guns are owned than people to own them. They cannot be abolished as criminals will continue to bear arms whatever the law says. It should be possible though to empower the police to stop the appearance of potential murder on the street, and make young men pause before taking that fatal step.

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Books

Unsanctioned in Moscow – 2

Secret police agents can be a hoot when they are in the right mood, and polite. Moscow is turning out to be a city of surprises.

In June, it looks nothing like the films – all snow and heavy coats – and I will admit one attraction of reporting from here was meant to be having an excuse to wear a big, white fur hat and matching muff, but the weather has been warm. While ‘Peter is a bit north of Aberdeen, Moscow is on a latitude with Berwick-upon-Tweed, without the wind that cuts across the sea there.  No hat and muff then. What it has are power and people.

This is the old capital – not airy Enlightenment palaces but the heavy walls of the mediaeval Kremlin, the spider at the heart of Muscovy, and what happens within those walls today can be just as mediaeval.

I see people in British town doing ‘Soviet nostalgia’ as a fashion kick. They really take that fashion seriously here: shortages, queues, and everyone living in fear of being killed or imprisoned for an ill-placed joke.

Interviewing local people out of the way of the police is a challenge. What we are told in the West is untrue: there are many genuine Putin supporters here, and many who hate him too, but whoever they are, they share an underlying understanding. They understand all about the war; they know that the media is controlled by the governing party and they are being lied to, but they must accept the doublethink, to believe what they are told by the screen and the newsprint even when they know it is untrue because otherwise they have nothing. The media is paid for by the government machine, access to material granted or withdrawn at the governors’ whim, leaving them corrupted and compromised,  like the CBC in Canada, or BBC Scotland.

It was not long before I spotted them – two men following me. That is not unusual. These two though looked sober, and so they stood out in the crowd. I have learnt a thing or two about ‘the craft’ and managed to give them the slip (do not ask for hints though – I learnt the techniques in confidence and will only say it is not like the films). Even so, after a few more interviews they located me again.

Now, police and FSB agents do not have large expense accounts. They might follow you to a Вкусно – и точка (which is McDonald’s whatever they call it), but then the purse runs out. So I invited them to the White Rabbit on Smolenskaya Square. When your cover is blown, it is blown, so you might as well make the most of it and they weren’t paying. (The black grouse is to be highly recommended. I would gladly eat anything on the menu apart from the raw meat dish.)

Those two made for charming dinner companions when they had had the caviar starter. Whatever their reputation, they all have families, and they were soon showing pictures of their families: wives and girlfriends (don’t ask), a son at school, a son in the army, and some very pretty daughters each was proud of: they are the future and if a nation believes in its children they will want the future to be the best it can be.

Are policemen as cynical of their own government?  Of course, and more so having worked within it, creating the myth and living the myth. When they open up, you can see how the system works.

Now RT is off the air in Britain, there is no one reporting from inside Russia with that insider insight from the depths of the Kremlin. I have done what I can.  I left my card anyway.

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Books

 

Unsanctioned in Moscow

It’s ‘Здравствуйте’ from Moscow! (Or St Petersburg actually – Moscow on Tuesday.) As I have not been banned by Putin, I can report from the heart of darkness, in June when it has no darkness, from the depths of the best restaurants in ‘Peter.

The White Nights make this a city that never sleeps, because it doesn’t dare close its eyes. It is as far north as Kirkwall, which has no real night-time any more than it has a nightlife, in June – St Petersburg is in that case a bit like its close latitude companion, Aberdeen, but with gorgeous Imperial architecture and gun-toting muggers. It is also under the watchful eyes of a ruler almost up to Sturgeon levels of dictatorship.

I should have posted this yesterday, but this city is disorienting, fascinating, intoxicating – like Aberdeen. There is also the time difference, which like much of Russia is two hours ahead and three hundred years behind.

This is the city which produced Vladimir Putin. Aberdeen produced Michael Gove. I think we had the best of the bargain.

This though is a city of wonders – a city build on a swamp, like Venice without the constant smell of drains, and with more Italians. This is – and you really get this in the very atmosphere – the city celebrated by Dostoevsky.  In these streets you can live and breathe it, feeling yourself a part of the novels.

Step away from the palaces and Prospeky and look: here is the street of collapsing garrets where Rakolnikov starved, or the dripping-damp underground apartment for the Underground Man; here the rotting barge basin where Marmeladov slept in his drunkenness; here the dark lanes where Sonechka – well, never mind. St Petersburg today reeks of Dostoevsky’s world.

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Texas weeping for her children

Incomprehension must not be a reason to stop thinking but a spur to try to understand, nor mourning a reason to put off the day’s work, but to redouble it. We want to say we do not understand the evil that strikes death at children, because otherwise we admit to what humanity is.

To all, we would hope, children are precious, inviolate, a joy to all, and everyone in society has a sacred duty to protect them and see them nurtured, because we were protected and nurtured when as vulnerable, and they are the future of society and all its hopes and dreams.

When a man enters a school and shoots at children, as has happened many times in America, and once n Britain too, it is alien; utterly beyond what we can contemplate. Yet it happens.

I said “to all in society”, but what of the man who has torn himself out of society?  We see in children that boundless joy they have and a remembrance of our own childish joy – what if that man never had that joy or has driven it out of his memory – what if he is enraged in jealousy of that joy?  We see children as the new growth of our towns and nations and humanity – what if he declares all mankind to be his enemy, to be cut off at the root?  Brevik on Utøya slew the playing children because he thought it would cut off the next generation of a political party at its root: imagine the man who wants to kill the whole human race. We see children as sacred – what if this is an invitation to the worst revenge against a society he sees as his enemy?  We know children are vulnerable – what if he takes that as an opportunity to exercise godlike power? Such a mind is twisted by hatred, with a horrible logic behind it.

This is speculation – we cannot see what happens inside the head of a man who would do such acts, and those who have done so end up dead by a police bullet or their own hand. We can though see what has been done even in our age by tyrants and demagogues and mobs. They too have murdered the weak and vulnerable, even children, and it is that latter aspect which raises the worst horror of them in the mind.

We know who those guilty men were and we call them monsters, but they were, are, human beings like the rest of us; they were all sweet, vulnerable children once playing joyfully; and all grew up in society as we all do. The tyrant murderer could have been like the rest, but for the lust for power, which is the primary motivation of man, and the achievement of power creating a promise of liberation from the constraints of social bonds – it may be political power or the personal power felt by holding a gun in the hand, with all it can unleash – that may be enough to be the difference between a normal man and a monster.

The monstrosity is not an abnormal defect but part of the lurking natural Caliban nature. If we choose not to understand it, we cannot counter it.  If we know where to find it, maybe those with pastoral care and political power can mould their response accordingly, but otherwise they yield the floor to the killer and we will weep many, many times more.

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Books