Sunday, October 27, 2019

On Freedom - In Loving Memory of Moe

I did not have any pets at home growing up. I rescued a pup in Iraq during one of our missions clearing a house of explosives, but was later told to surrender him to Civil Affairs as pets and infantry did not mix well. When I left the Army, I had the urge to get a puppy and we rescued one. He was an amazing friend and kept me busy for more than 10 years. We first attempted to train him as a search and rescue dog, but his laziness quickly quashed that dream. Instead, he became a therapy dog and led my wife and me to many hospitals and nursing homes. He even came to my law school finals to help ease the anxiety for me and many of my peers. Through the years, he taught me the value of patience and unconditional love. He was there when our son was born but he passed away a few months ago.

It is often said that humanity’s true moral test is how we treat those at our mercy: our pets and animals (Milan Kundera, and I think Gandhi said similar things). But what I have learned from our dog Moe was much more: about the ideas of freedom and civility.

In training our dog Moe to become a therapy dog, I learned to let go of control of his roam; he would be off-leash but his freedom came with a discovery of his curiosity and intelligence. By giving him the range to explore, he learned rules and boundaries. He learned to maneuver around wheelchairs and oxygen tanks, first out of fear but later out of his desire to comfort those bionic-human beings needing his attention. He learned to participate and respect because he was not bound to arbitrary chains; and his presence was a warmth that everyone felt. When he passed away, we received condolences from all over; but the most tearful thing came from my son who said “daddy, I grow up learn magic and bring Moe back.” To which my wife kindly reminded us that "Necromancing is nothing to f*** with ..." ;-D

As I reflect on Moe's life lived, and the increasing presences of authoritarianism around us (from China to Turkey), I am reminded why freedom is so important as Moe had taught me: when we let go and enable freedom, amazing things will transpire from those who are bestowed the privilege; it is when we chain them that they become uncontrolled and uncivilized.

"To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild 
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware.
When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air
Comes a still voice"

We love you Moe.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

In a world of chaos, what divides us?

The world is now in a sustainability crisis: not just from the environmental brink of irreversible changes, but more pressingly from social and economic pressures and direct assaults to liberal democracy from the likes of Cambridge Analytica reinforcing misinformation campaigns undermining the value of free choice—for you see, without a freedom to choose we cannot correct the environmentally degrading courses made by autocrats, greedy corporate executives, and willing politicians.

Without freedom, we are all doomed.

While liberal democracy takes a shadowy left-hook on the chin from social media for profits’ sake, a few authoritarian regimes are mounting direct right uppercuts: killing journalists, censoring dissidents, committing cultural internment and genocide, and intimidating anyone dare to stand and speak against the monotonous power-based voices: obey, as resistance will be futile. The exercise of this power-based voice has made martyrs out of Jamal Khashoggi and unwilling fictitious characters such as Winnie the Pooh and the whole South Park universe—I only wish our humanity is so fictitious that I can laugh it off.

On the surface, the left-hook and right uppercuts combo on liberal democracy seem wholly unrelated: most would point fingers at Putin or Zuckerberg for being behind those Facebook breaches of misinformation; of course, Xi and bin Salman alone sit atop of those blames for censorship, forced/political incarcerations, economic intimidation and worse yet organ harvesting. To connect these individual “powers-that-be” in the same context against liberal democracy almost seems a conspiratorial sacrilege—one that would surly mark me as being ridiculous to imagine a world in which Putin, Zuckerberg, Xi, and Mohammed bin Salman, among others, all walked into a bar … and left agreeing to work in unison attacking our American values in freedom and pursuit of happiness. 

But we ARE mistaken to blame Zuckerberg, Putin or Xi, or Mohammed bin Salman, personally for failures of our liberal democracy. Such personal criticisms invariably lend support for these larger-than-life power-idols because humans are capable of sympathy on a fundamental level for anyone being merely/imperfectly HUMAN—yes, we instinctively have sympathy even for dictators. Still, placing such pointed blame on those power-idols implies an innocence of the accuser and spontaneously dividing the world into “us” versus “them.” Conveniently, we are giving them, and the power-based worships around the world, ammunition to fight back against liberal democracy with our own propaganda on how cruel and intolerant we can be in the name of “freedom.” Trust me, many around the world are more than happy to trade a lifetime of hard-earned freedom for an ounce of temporary peace and permitted prosperity. And they are all too happy to be entertained by observing how the American democratic experiment has failed.

The American democratic experiment is failing but not because of Zuckerberg, Putin or Xi, or Mohammed bin Salman, or any other power-idol we care to put on a pedestal (*ahem* Trump). The American democratic experiment is failing because we have forgotten what the experiment is all about—defiance in freedom by the people and progress in due process for all.

Defiance in Freedom.

Freedom is a responsibility. The Founding Fathers of this country saw the wisdom in that and drafted our Constitution protecting free speech, free association, and psychologically guaranteed our rights with the second amendment for the right to bear arms. In doing so, the founding of this great nation and its experiment in self-determination are rooted in defiance; “standing with others similarly inclined is paying forward the debt we owe those who paved our way.”

There is no such thing as defiance in freedom in places like China, or Russia, or Saudi Arabia. Defiance in those places can cost you your life and liberty; consequently, the privilege to pursuit happiness in those bad lands are limited to the select few and are based on patronage without due process or fairness.

Progress in Due Process. 

Freedom unchecked and without responsibility can be dangerous. Left unrefined, freedom drives deeper our affinity for stereotypes and fundamentalism, and creates a need for patronage for some sense of predictability. It is hard work to cross the waters and learn to appreciate differences; freedom thus uncivilized is a state of nature from which we have contracted out by our consent to live under our Constitution—a document guiding us to seek out differences and embrace them for the common good.

But there are many different constitutions around the world; some are process based (like ours) and some are patronage-based drafted around cult of personalities (e.g., China). When a constitution of a people is process based, due process and transparency allow a sense of fairness and equity from which defiance is possible and progress can be made. When a people’s constitution is patronage/personality/idol based, as seen in China and many other places, secrecy and mistrust breed unrests, protests, and direct confrontations—if not contained, could possibly result in horrendous consequences. Defiance is dangerous and progress is controlled. We see this manifests in China during the Cultural Revolution, at Tiananmen in the Summer of 1989, and currently ongoing in Hong Kong.

It would be remiss of me to support the Hong Kong protesters without pointing out the xenophobic undercurrents of these protests by both sides of the confrontation. The emboldened responses of pro-mainland-China voices against Hong Kong hate crimes ought to be welcomed by a people who value free speech, but some caution is warranted. There is an underlying systemic threat to due process long in the making with its origin traceable in modern Chinese memory to the Cultural Revolution—the mass hysteria campaigns albeit officially resolved by the Chinese Communist Party, continues to affect the Chinese national psyche that to this date refuses to confront its own failings; (China in 1981 passed a resolution declaring the Cultural Revolution no longer relevant for discussion as Mao’s contributions and mistakes cannot surpass his idol status and legacy).

The Cultural Revolution is the epitome of controlling outcome sacrificing the due process—the Chinese would soon forget their own self-transgressions than to confront them. In doing so, the Chinese people have put freedom aside in favor of their pride and prejudices. And here we are, blaming Xi, Trump, Zuckerberg, Putin or Mohammed bin Salman for our own mass hysteria on media blitzes all for the sake to be entertained. We are not so far from a Cultural Revolution of our own.

Yet without freedom, we are all doomed.

Liberal democracy is a condition we strive for all to exist in hopes for fairness and human progress. Blaming someone else for our follies demonstrates a laziness to embrace liberal democracy ourselves to reflect on events like the Cultural Revolution, which are immensely informative of what divides us today. Let’s not forget that our responsibility in freedom is to keep history alive and embrace our own mistakes. No one else is to blame for the failing of our liberal democracy—at least not those without such privilege to begin with.



Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Fairness, Hope, and Peace - 天生有权, 有心做主。

I’ve been re-reading a book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. After coming back from war, the idea of survival fascinates me.

The older I get, the less certain I am of how much I understand; and in this maddening world of ours: Who lives, Who Dies, and Why is a question much about FAIRNESS than about just merely perpetuating the carbon-copy vessel-bodies we occupy walking this earth.

At the heart of this “survival” book is an important message—a message about having heart and making rational decisions. Each survival situation requires the calm and coolness of black jazz musicians performing rhythmic masterpieces in the face of racism, but progressively leveraging the raw emotional power to compel and fight against injustice through their music and voice. Each survival is a balance of will, reason, and feel to gain one more step towards HOPE.

That brings me to today’s madness in Hong Kong and the need for the survival of PEACE steering us away from progressively more authoritative regimes. Exercise what "civil disobedience" you must and wave your umbrellas proudly, even if they cannot protect you from bullets. Sing and people will rally when you put heart into the right places. They will copy your voice, sure; but imitation is the best form of flattery. Celebrate our commonalities.


Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Fear is the mind-killer

Fear is the mind-killer.” – Litany Against Fear
I’ve seen the photo many times now. So much so that I can almost imagine gawking down the dark void of a tank barrel thinking “there is no way these idiots would waste the ammunition.”

But it’s not the caliber of barrel that is impressive. What seems more formidable is the human cruelty that can be inflicted staring right back at the vision of a photograph. The government can take your home, take your family, or better—erase you from history and bestow fear on those who would dare to rally behind.

Hence, no one followed the Tank Man in 1989.

It has been thirty years since the Tank Man stood, no one is sure what had happened to him. In the wake of Tiananmen’s violent resolve, China had joined the WTO (in 2001) and the world was hopeful it would share a common vision of emancipation with open economies, rule of law, and mutual exchanges of ideas. China is due for praise for lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty since Tiananmen. It has made progress towards implementing the rule of law, and at times its economy seems open and welcoming to progressive ideas working towards global sustainability. More impressive is the hundreds of thousands of young Chinese students traveling to foreign countries without fear, facing prejudices, and taking back knowledge and friendships with them to help transform the world’s biggest population facing the largest ecological threats since joining the fossil-based global consumer production scheme in 2001. Hope seemed on the horizon.

Somewhere things turned for the worst.

The United States and Europe are now struggling with nationalist rhetoric at odds with the international institutions put in place after WWII. The United Nations struggles to address common threats such as climate change and human rights violations. The World Trade Organization appellate body are primed for paralysis with its membership dwindling below the threshold to exercise its adjudicative powers. The North Atlantic peace alliance faces an existential crisis as it is being leveraged for political gains rather than for stabilizing regions. Corruptions are rampant in both Socialist and Democratic nation states. Patriotism, nationalism, and authoritarianism are all on the rise. Pundits and optimists hope and bet on our dependence on the market forces to return to the same old spiraling downward progression, but the public confidence looms doom (millennial citing predictable global catastrophes as their main reason for not saving for their futures).

With uncertainty lurking, opportunists invoke and exploit strong emotions hijacking our wisdom of sensibilities. While the hijackers are busy creating totalitarian environments to silence the dissent allowing prolonged opportunities for such private profiteering, the masses are busy attuned to distractions. Caught in the middle are the students of life with what remain their resilient optimism, still traveling to and from China, United States, and the rest of the world in search of better lives on this pale blue dot in the universe we call our home.

In honor of this 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre (or as the current U.S. President Trump had called it in 1990: a show of “the power of strength”), I am reminded that today is a day of great memory. The Chinese students who rose in defiance of the “power of strength” remain inspirations for countless others in both the East and the West to date. Confronting such power of totalitarian strength is the power of collective courage, which comes from the knowledge that the world does listen; we are turned to genuineness united against an installation of Fear to allegedly maintain stability, but for how long?

How long before the young forget such Fear and rise up in revolt? How long before the young remember such Fear to rise up for the virtuous ends?

Today, June 4th, is a day to honor all students of life continuously learning what Courage really means.

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.” 
― Frank Herbert, Dune

Friday, May 24, 2019

International Institutions Under Strain (Part 3 - NATO)

(This is part three of a three part learning blogs to honor those who gave their lives to defend things worth defending.)
Daultay Dofine: This scheme of yours has failed, Lord Sidious. The blockade is finished. We dare not go against the Jedi.
Darth Sidious: Viceroy, I don't want to see this stunted slime in my sight again. This turn of events is unfortunate. We must accelerate our plans. Begin landing your troops.
Nute Gunray: Ah, my lord, is that... legal?
Darth Sidious: I will make it legal.
Nute Gunray: And the Jedi?
Darth Sidious: The Chancellor should never have brought them into this. Kill them immediately.
Nute Gunray: Yes, my lord. As you wish. 
- On the eve of Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Post WWII, Europe faced the daunting task of rebuilding lives while maintaining vigilance for peace and security of the region. Greece was fighting a civil war, tension was mounting in Turkey, and communism was gaining popular support in Italy. The Soviet had successfully advanced a coup in Czechoslovakia (bordering Germany) testing the hospitality of Western Democracy. Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg came together and formed a peacetime military alliance under the Brussels Treaty.

Then U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall sought to support the effort. He had proposed a large-scale stimulus package for Europe in part hoping to stabilize the region. U.S. Congress passed a legislation for the European Recovery Program in April 1948 allowing for some $12 billion (equivalent of $100 billion today) for post war economic revitalization in Europe.

The Soviet Union stood firm on the other side, however; Stalin had barred any satellite States in Eastern Europe from participating in the stimulus activities and instituted a blockade against West Berlin.

To safeguard the European stimulus investments, a Republican Senator Arthur H. Vandenburg called for the negotiations for a North Atlantic Treaty in May of 1948. The US led negotiations were a success; the “Treaty” was signed in 1949 between United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

The core principal of this Treaty was infamously enshrined—an attack against one is an attack against all. Article 5 of the Treaty reads:
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.  
Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.” 
NATO has invoked this Muskeetering Article 5 only once—after the 9/11 attacks against the United States. NATO does have an active duty force ready to guarantee the collective defense of the participating nation States; it has taken up the collective defense measures on several occasions including in Syria and in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Today, the NATO peacetime military alliance is the largest of its kind in the world. Yet in all of its military might and glory, NATO is only catching up to the cyber defense priorities of the modern age. Even less so, the NATO alliance as led by the United States has yet to fully appreciate the need for a coordinated effort to deter economic warfare against democracies and promote economic progress conducive to the ideals on which NATO was built.

Nationalist movements are gaining popularity in the US and in Europe. With these moving tides, international conflicts in cyber and economic spaces directly challenge the NATO’s Muskeetering motto. As national incentives across the Atlantic become untangled and misaligned from one another, the NATO alliance appears an outdated watchdog of aging western democracies. With billions of dollars’ worth of economic damages at stake and rising risks to our critical infrastructures, private sector mercenaries and active citizens are organizing to supplement State sponsored ones. From Anonymous to Bell¿ngcat, distributed model of operation is replacing centralized headquarters in military camps with active citizens and private security forces with computer terminals.

NATO’s “all for one and one for all” by default establishes an enemy; but who are today’s enemies? Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the recent May 2019 Cyber Defence Pledge Conference (London) stated in response to a question by UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt:
 “… the more and better protected resilient we will have our critical infrastructure the more the enemies will focus on the mind of our societies. And here, indeed, the aim is to undermine the trust, the mutual trust, to undermine also the credibility of [democracies] …” 
There will always be frictions and wars. Preventing them requires good organization and collective actions, but more importantly it requires a strong moral core—one that was NATO’s inception of fostering democracies, not bullying autocracies.

 “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” ― George Orwell, 1984

Sunday, April 28, 2019

International Institutions Under Strain (Part 2 - WTO)

FDR and Churchill on Augusta
(This is part two of a three part learning blogs to honor those who gave their lives to defend things worth defending.)
I thought you would like me to tell you something of the voyage I made across the ocean to meet our great friend, the President of the United States. Exactly where we met is secret, but I don’t think I shall be indiscrete if I go as far as to say that it was ‘somewhere in the Atlantic’. 
- Winston Churchill, by Public Radio Broadcast, 24 August 1941 

In August 1941, aboard the U.S.S. Augusta in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, a plan for international system was chartered between the United States and Great Britain—the Atlantic Charter.

The significance of this charter is its timing; it is agreed upon just before United States entered the Second World War. President Roosevelt had hoped that the Atlantic Charter would help him garner political and popular support for United States’ intervention in WWII. History would favor the story that it was the attack on Pearl Harbor in December that had pushed the United States into the world conflict against the Axis of aggression.

The Atlantic Charter outlined eight “common principles” regarding territorial stabilization, trade liberalization, freedom of the seas, freedom of governing, as well as international labor, economic, and welfare standards—as the end-goal of yet another world conflict. It is not a binding agreement. It is an aspiration (arguably following a Wilsonian-vision for the postwar world)—one that would be characterized by freer exchanges of trade, self-determination, disarmament, and collective security.

Following WWII, the United States, United Kingdom, and allied nations pursued the Atlantic Charter’s ambitions and agreed to establish rules for the postwar international economy; the result of which created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) at an international conference in Geneva in October 1947. The GATT agreement eventually led to the inception of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its rule-based adjudicative process to allow State actors enforce the agreed upon terms of those great Atlantic aspirations.

What is important about the Atlantic Charter—and its eventual outgrowth in the WTO—is that it is by necessity a lesson from history: about tariffs, trade wars, and economic isolation. After the first world war, the Allies had pursued trade barriers that had led to the ruins of German economy. Churchill had adamantly argued that it is not “in interests of the world [that any] nation should be unprosperous or shut out from the means of making a decent living for itself and its people by industry and enterprise.” The then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull held similar views that economic collaborations are critical to avoiding new world wars.

However, the institutions of world economic collaboration is now under strain as the current political will of the United States takes a domestic-first tariff approach confronting autocracies like North Korea, China and Iran. The Brexit debacle also marks a deterioration of the once courage aspirations of Great Britain. Furthermore, United States’ withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has opened ways for China to build its own multi-lateral agreements and push forward its Belt-and-Road initiatives; albeit it is unclear if these Chinese-led efforts aspire to the ideological perspectives of self-determination and democracy, or are these propaganda efforts to spread China’s “soft power”—whatever that may be.

It should be noted that the Atlantic Charter was never signed. But its substantial influence and its non-binding (voluntary/aspirational) nature perhaps allowed “courageous leadership that looked beyond short-term self-interest” and sought hope in places where economic growth would be of interest for all.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

International Institutions Under Strain (Part 1 - United Nations)

Circa 1945, post-WWII. World in ruins (photo from UN website).
(This is part one of a three part learning blogs with some help from my old military buddies. Here's to those who gave their lives to defend things worth defending.)

“Membership” to the United Nations (UN)
 “is open to all peace-loving States which accept the obligations contained in the [UN] Charter and, in the judgment of the [UN] Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.” 
Charter of the United Nations, Chapter II, Article 4(1). 

The UN Charter is a fascinating piece of writing. Information about its significance are readily available on the worldwide web: regarding its historical perspectives of multilateralism embodied in the great wars, its governing structures built around UN body politics, as well as the obligations of its member States to work as one towards humanity’s common aspirations. For the most part, our global consciousness has accepted the UN’s role charting a course addressing climate changes, human rights and humanitarian crises, peace keeping through its often-paralyzed Security Council, as well as addressing a salute of global problems working closely with organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

Among rational minds, it is common sense to peacefully coexist in ending the scourge of wars, restoring faith in fundamental human rights, and transitioning to renewable energies and better consumption practices. Yet our path presents a challenge to established economic structures and corruptible enticements cemented in our society, both of which are bedrocks of a fast-flowing stream carrying powerful corporate and private business interests. While the UN has symbolically endorsed the unity of “people, plant, and profit” in its sustainability rhetoric, it has not put much effort into incorporating economic considerations in its body politics. In fact, there is an implicit understanding that such considerations are outside of the UN Membership consciousness and left to the likes of World Trade Organization and the World Bank. That is a problem isn’t it? The UN body politics have embraced a cognitive dissonance on sustainability (people, planet, profit), and it is no wonder:
“In different areas and for different reasons, the trust of people in their political establishments, the trust of states among each other, the trust of many people in international organizations has been eroded and ... multilateralism has been in the fire.” 
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.

The UN today seems to aspire to large bureaucracies in countries with very low literacy rates. It has welcomed Iran’s Minister of Justice, Seyyed Alireza Avaei, to address the UN Human Rights Council and appointed Iran to the UN’s Global Women’s Rights Commission. Its Security Council often complacent and the UN representative body often made incompetent from member State’s unwillingness to participate.

If one of the UN’s main obligations is to secure and promote humanity’s common aspirations, then we should ask ourselves why multilateralism is under threat from rising income inequalities, geopolitical tensions, voluntary and forced population migrations, as well as technological evolutions. While the institutional entities (World Bank, WTO and G20, etc.) are slowly pacing to charter a new course in sustainability, the populous has taken matters into their own hands. Today, we see collaborative production models rampant. Network governance with peer-sourced computing (e.g., blockchain) is gaining a foothold to unsettle the financial services sector. Crowdsourcing is primed for the big time with the likes of Wiki, Kickstarter, and now Bell¿ngcats. 

A key stakeholder of, or even a defender of the UN would argue against any alternatives to the UN, as no other entity like it has yet to emerge which grants buy-in from sovereign states. But the implicit assumption is that a sovereignty is vested with power from the center and within its government. As the American experiment with democracy which is based on the premise that power is vested in its people, perhaps a new global identity is emerging: from the ashes of the old, a new way of thinking—about network versus hierarchy, about collaboration versus conformation, and about membership privilege for profiteering versus participation for value gained—a new alternative in “We the peoples of the United Nations.”