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Archive for December, 2010

Another day, another outrageous attack on free speech. Colorado resident Phillip Greaves was arrested a week ago by Florida cops on obscenity charges. His crime? Writing a book on pedophilia called: The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct. The cops, posing as buyers on the internet, got him to mail a copy of the book to them and then flew to Colorado to arrest him.

I haven’t read the book, but it is apparently not — despite the title — a book on how to abuse children, but instead on how pedophiles can conduct themeselves around children in a manner that conforms to the law.

Eugene Volokh wrote a nice post explaining why Philip Greaves has not violated the obscenity statute nor any child pornography laws. Also read this post at Sexhysteria.

I am pretty sure that the charges against him will be eventually dismissed. Even if the jury convict him, he can appeal and will be virtually certain to win. The operative word though is “eventually”. Till then, he sits in jail. It appears that he lacks the money to hire a good lawyer or set himself free on bail (set at $15,000).

For a related case, read this old post of mine.

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Flex your rights has four videos up on Youtube. You should definitely watch these if you live or have plans to live in America.

The intro and the music at the beginning is a bit jarring, and the acting could have been more professional, but overall these videos are well-made. They are an excellent primer on your rights when dealing with police and strategies for asserting these rights effectively but sensibly.

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Outrages against liberty by various arms of the Indian state are neither rare nor mild, yet, even by those standards, the sentencing of Binayak sen is a shocking event. When a good doctor and an internationally acclaimed humanitarian is convicted by a court in a democratic(!) country and sentenced to life imprisonment: for violating arcane laws which should probably not be there, and which he anyway appears not to have violated, it is time for grief and rage.

I am not an expert on the various aspects of this case, but this much seems clear to me: Binayak Sen was not responsible for an act of violence. It doesn’t matter to me whether he is a Maoist sympathizer or not — if he is, that’s an exercise of his right to thought. It doesn’t matter to me if he spoke in favour of the Maoist movement — if he did, that was an exercise of his right to speech. It doesn’t matter if he possessed banned books — as far as I am concerned, possession of a book, whatever it is, should never be a crime. It doesn’t matter if he gave significant medical aid to an injured Maoist leader — if he did, he was doing exactly what every good doctor would have done in his situation. It doesn’t matter that he visited said Maoist leader in the jail or elsewhere — even disregarding the fact that such contact would have been normal in view of the doctor-patient relationship, noone, should ever, in any circumstance, be penalized merely for being in contact with another human being.

If Binayak Sen actively played a role in planning or executing violent deadly attacks, he should serve the time. But as far as I can tell, there is no evidence whatsoever he did so. Whatever evidence there is, point in a very different direction.  The notion — non actionable, even if true — that he was some sort of a believer in a Maoist ideology seems to be supremely wrong-headed. By all accounts — and I am relying here on accounts of those who know him — Sen’s beliefs were of a far more mild variety: he believed in inclusive growth, aid to underprivileged communities, an opposition to a system that created “two kinds of people” (the haves and have-nots), and so on. He is on record saying he abhors violence, including the Maoist variety. The evidence also points to him selflessly serving these underprivileged communities through his work as doctor. From the linked Tehelka article:

Drive 150 kilometres away from Raipur into the unforgiving dustiness of the forest around Bagrumala and Sahelberia in district Dhamtari, where Binayak ran his Tuesday clinic, and the heroic dimension of his work overwhelms you. There is nothing that could have brought a retired colonel’s elite, accomplished son here but extraordinary compassion. Scratchy little hamlets, some no more than 25-houses strong. Peopled by Kamars and other tribals, the most neglected of the Indian human chain, destituted further by the Gangrail dam on the Mahanadi river. No schools. No drinking water. No electricity. No access to public health. And increasingly, no access to traditional forest resources. Here, stories of Binayak Sen proliferate. How he saved young Lagni lying bleeding after a miscarriage, how he rescued the villagers of Piprahi Bharhi jailed en masse for encroaching on the forest, how he helped Jaheli Bai and Dev Singh, how he helped create grain banks. “Do something. Save the doctor,” says an old man in Kamar basti. “We have no one to go to now.”

In short, the evidence points to him being a man who above all believed in doing good. As a doctor, and a humanitarian with certain beliefs, he did good to everyone, from the powerless poor to some who the state considers its enemy. He spoke out against things he considered unjust and criticized the state whenever he felt it did wrong. Some of his acts made him, in the eyes of the powerful, a dangerous man who needed to be put down.

This ruling is certain to be challenged, but it still means that the forces of evil have won this round. For India and for liberty, this day is a black one.

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When I last wrote about Sen, a reader (Chetan) asked some interesting questions.

If this issue were to be discussed on the basis of principle alone, I would like to know your views about how you would view an arrest of a person who is actively involved in aiding and abetting a violent political movement.

For instance, were it to be proved that a person provided not just intellectual but also material and tactical support to a violent movement, do you think the State has no right to imprison him? (The implicit assumption here is that the person didn’t involve himself with the violence. Let’s just say he provided funding and helped perpetrators of violence hide from the cops knowing what they had done)

While I cannot cover every scenario here, a few things I believe are:

Helping a violent movement  in a way that is directly linked to the execution of violent criminal acts (giving them money knowing it would be used to buy guns, helping them plan an operation, carrying letters detailing this plan from one person to another) should be a crime.

“Helping” a violent movement in any other way (moral or intellectual support, giving legal advice or medical help, carrying a letter that merely contains seditious propaganda) should not be a crime. Nor should giving money be a crime if it is the case that this money will only be used for legitimate purposes and not for violent acts (or, by mens rea, even if the financier believes incorrectly such to be the case).

From the libertarian viewpoint, the most important issue when pondering the legality of a certain sort of indirect support is whether its nature is intrinsically rights-violating (NAP violating). A good rule of thumb to resolve this is to ask the following question: would it, in your mind, be legal to offer the same sort of support to another group that had till then not committed any crime? If the answer to this question is yes, then the support should probably be legal even when offered to a violent lawless group.

Granted, a few cases are somewhat on the line, but in Sen’s case, it doesn’t even seem close.

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One question that  is pertinent to politics as well as psychology is the nature of moral progress. When I say moral progress, I mean the process by which individuals end up updating or modifying their basic moral beliefs (or priors). This process usually is a slow one, and at the micro level involves one’s reaction to evidences or thought processes.

This typically happens when Person A comes across some data/evidence that is in tension with his moral system. For example, A may value a certain principle and then realize one day that some regular action of his violates this principle. Or maybe A values several principles, and new data (or just new reasoning) seems to suggest that in at least some instance these principles are in conflict.

To give a couple of examples:

Time: 1790. Place: America. A values both individual liberty and a harmonious, prosperous society. The issue at hand is slave ownership. A reluctantly accepts slave ownership for the time being because he believes that Blacks are intellectually inferior and would not be able to live in the same land as the Whites. Perhaps A supports emancipation in principle but thinks an actual implementation would result in tremendous disorder, huge decrease in prosperity and would also require eventual deportation of all the Blacks back to Africa in a painful, costly and disrupting process. But one day his scientist friend shows him evidence that seems to strongly suggest that the inferiority of Blacks is a myth, and given proper education they would be as likely as Whites to succeed in intellectual endeavors.

Or to give a second example, A is a young European, living currently, who has a strong moral opposition to hunting for pleasure. He thinks it is wrong and rights-violating. Yet he eats meat. He justifies this by saying that killing for food or to achieve some other basic necessity is ok, but killing for pleasure is morally wrong. But one day, after a conversation with a friend he starts to wonder if his position is morally sound. He realizes  that he can get by  without eating animals (gaining the needed protein from other sources, such as lentils, milk and soy, as many Asians do) so the main reason behind eating meat is the pleasure he gains from it. So how is eating meat different form hunting then?

And so on…

The interesting question to me, is what A does in such a situation.  He has several choices:

1. Simple minded denial: He can just deny that the evidence exists. For instance the 18th century American could refuse to believe his scientist friend. He could claim that the facts and the research are false and move on. We seem to see something similar with some (not all) global warming sceptics today.

2. Tweaking:  He can decide that despite the new evidence/argument, he can resolve the tension with minor tweaks. For instance, he comes up with other evidence or arguments to counter the tension. Or he  makes minor changes to his priors that make this tension go away or at least become less pronounced. There are many ways to tweak one’s beliefs, some simple, some highly complex; some honest, some not, some based on reason, some based on emotion.

3. Biting the bullet: He can decide that his values are truly in conflict and modify them significantly. The 18th century American could either give up his belief  in liberty, or abandon his support for slave-ownership. The 2oth century European could decide that animals don’t have rights (and end his moral opposition to hunting) or decide to become a vegetarian. Any of these outcomes are what I’d call significant moral progress. At the individual level, they can be life-changing.

It seems to me that personality plays a complex role in deciding which of the above outcomes occur. As a rule, people have a strong emotional resistance to any sort of change in their moral priors. For that would mean acknowledging to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they have engaged in beliefs/actions that are false/evil. Some make a conscious attempt to avoid letting emotions take precedence over reason in deciding how one deals with such conflicts, while others go with the flow.

Age probably plays an important role in all this; younger people are more likely to change their belief systems. As Fitzgerald once wrote, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

In any case, I don’t have any deep insights to offer, but I think these are interesting questions, and being able to deal with moral dilemmas in an efficient, unbiased and rational manner would certainly improve political outcomes.

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Here is his latest article, illustrating how NY Times and other papers routinely divulge information — and rightly so! — that is far more secret and consequential than Wikileaks is accused of doing.

I have admired some of Greenwald’s writings in the past. But on Wikileaks and related First Amendment issues, he has been nothing short of breathtaking, a one man army. He has made every point worth making. He has repeatedly pointed out the dangers to free speech from an Assange prosecution, and the legal equivalence between Wikileaks and traditional newspapers. He was the first to reveal to a broad audience the inhuman conditions in which Manning is being held. He has been passionate in his appeals, razor-sharp in his arguments and accurate in his facts. With every article, he has exposed the hypocrisy/evilness of the US administration on this issue and has furthered the cause for liberty and free speech.

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I donated some money to Greenwald today via Paypal. It was not so much to help him financially — I am sure he earns a good salary from his Salon column and other gigs — but more to express my support and admiration. This is what I wrote in my message: I am a libertarian. Likely we don’t agree on a lot. But for everything you have written about Wikileaks, you are my hero.

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I forgot to post this earlier. Ron Paul on the floor of the US Congress:

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I noted yesterday that the apparent government strategy to indict Assange as co-conspirator rather than disseminator of the leaked cables would be still be highly problematic, and the danger to the First Amendment no less grave. Since then, there have appeared articles by several well known writers and legal experts who have come to the same conclusion.

Here’s Jack Goldsmith:

I’m not so sure this path avoids awkward questions.  Charging Assange as a conspirator to Manning’s leak might distinguish the Times in the wikileaks case.  But it would not distinguish the Times and scores of other media outlets in the many cases in which reporters successfully solicit and arrange to receive classified information and documents directly from government officials.  Prosecution of Assange on this theory would therefore raise awkward questions about why DOJ does not bring charges against the American media for soliciting classified information on a regular basis.  It would be a fateful step for traditional press freedoms in the United States.  Indeed, unless I am missing something, it seems that a successful prosecution of Assange for conspiracy to leak would have broader and more corrosive implications for press freedoms than a successful prosecution under the ambiguity-riddled Espionage Act.

Josh Gerstein:

Reporters seek classified information all the time in telephone conversations, in private meetings and other contexts. Just Wednesday, the New York Times carried a front page story from Elizabeth Bumiller describing two classified National Intelligence Estimates on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Does anyone think she was entirely passive in this leak? That the reports, or some summary of them, simply arrived on her desk or in her inbox and she did nothing either to solicit them or to seek more details about them after receiving them? Frankly, if she didn’t at least do the latter, she wouldn’t be doing her job.

It seems to me if the Justice Department takes the approach the Times describes, the issue of classification might fall away altogether. But that could potentially make the First Amendment questions even more profound. A reporter who asks a county clerk for a document that is traditionally sealed might be committing a crime. And with virtually all information stored on computers these days, almost anyone who asks a government employee a question the employee might not need to know the answer to might be conspiring in an unauthorized intrusion into a government information system.

Jack Balkin:

Journalists are not merely passive recipients of information they receive from their sources. It make take weeks of negotiations (and rounds of drinks at the Mayflower Hotel) to get a source to agree to provide sensitive information, and work out the details of the disclosure. Agreements not to reveal a source who provides sensitive information are just that, agreements. If prosecutors wanted to, they would argue that such agreements were part of a conspiracy to leak classified information under the Espionage Act or related statutes.

Journalists should be very worried about the conspiracy theory that the Justice Department is considering. It puts them (and their jobs) in serious danger.

Glenn Greenwald:

Very rarely do investigative journalists merely act as passive recipients of classified information; secret government programs aren’t typically reported because leaks just suddenly show up one day in the email box of a passive reporter.  Journalists virtually always take affirmative steps to encourage its dissemination.  They try to cajole leakers to turn over documents to verify their claims and consent to their publication.  They call other sources to obtain confirmation and elaboration in the form of further leaks and documents.  Jim Risen and Eric Lichtblau described how they granted anonymity to “nearly a dozen current and former officials” to induce them to reveal information about Bush’s NSA eavesdropping program.  Dana Priest contacted numerous “U.S. and foreign officials” to reveal the details of the CIA’s “black site” program.  Both stories won Pulitzer Prizes and entailed numerous, active steps to cajole sources to reveal classified information for publication.

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