Nov 182019
 

Do you pay taxes?

I bet you do unless you are unemployed. Basically, in order to avoid paying taxes, you have to be very well-to-do. Of course, you could try good old-fashioned tax evasion and risk getting caught. But you’d better be sufficiently well-healed to employ a battery of lawyers to protect you in court. My experience is that the less well-off you are, the greater is your risk of getting caught pilfering a can of beans, let alone witholding tax.

Do you like paying taxes? Most people don’t. But look on the bright side: If the well-to-do pay their fair share of taxes (which, more often than not, they don’t) they pay an awful lot more than you.

Let’s say you make USD 3000 per month and pay a 30% tax, which leaves you with USD 2100. Not very much, I grant you, considering all the expenses we have these days: the rent, health insurance, car insurance, pet insurance, dentistry, child care, halloween costumes, weddings… ?

But your boss is making – say – USD 30,000. If he pays his 30% tax, he’ll have an annual income after tax of 351,000. Not bad, I’d say. More importantly, though, his annual contribution to the common good will have been USD 9000. That’s something to be proud of!

Have you ever met a person who was in some way seriously incapacitated, yet who nevertheless managed to help others? I put to you that when we meet such people, most of us feel – if nothing else – respect.

Incapacitated people are exempted from having to live up to peer pressure. They are not expected to own, let alone pilot their own pin-striped jet planes or serve 19th century cognac. That is probably the only advantage the incapacitated have over the rest of us, who tend to scramble like mad to impress one another with profligacy.

Recently, a former president of Peru, Alan Garcia, shot himself when the police came to arrest him. He is believed to have tucked away a lot of illegally acquired money in trusts that the prosecutors won’t get at. You see, trusts have recently turned into a particularly interesting financial instrument for tax evaders and other criminals. If you read this article from the Guardian, you may end up conceding that the extent of callousness knows no limit in the upper echelons of finance. You will see that what the article explains started long before the current US presidency, so don’t blame Trump.

Some authors have romanticised the “poor”, claiming they too are exempted, claiming that they are better than the rest of us. I don’t know. I really don’t know. Or rather I doubt it.

Is the human species even worth the effort of trying to save it from the iminent climate collapse? Can we at all imagine the possibility that social standing might someday not be measured by what we consume, but by what we contribute to the common good?

What I do know, though, is that for hundreds of years, fiction – of which I have read a lot – has tended to make heroes of those who sacrifice social standing and personal wealth to serve the common good. Even in real life, there are such people! Edward Snowden appears to be one of them. With his brains and self-discipline, he could have become fabulously rich.

His deeply moving book, Permanent Record, is not fiction. I don’t know what to call it. An autobiography? Written by somebody who is barely 30 years old? No, I prefer to call it an account. To what extent can one believe his account about why he acted as he did? On the other hand, why else would he have taken such an apparently hopeless risk, which yielded him, personally, nothing but the sterility of exile.

After all I have seen and read during my lifetime, I deeply distrust the species to which I belong, with its Bolsonaros, Trumps, Bushes, Netanyahus fake news, exploitation of miners and anyone who is destitute and hungry. For decades I have witnessed, albeit only on the screen, the killing and maiming of demonstrators demanding elemental human rights. Throughout history, not least the first decades of this century, there has been so much cruelty – just think of the Yemen war and Sudan – so much callousness – the suppression of the Palestinians, the Rohingiuans, the Uighurs, the desperate refugees banging on the doors of USA and Europe…

Would I have bought a pin-striped jet plane if I could have afforded it. No!

Castle in the Air, 1928 - M.C. Escher
Copied from: https://www.wikiart.org/en/m-c-escher/castle-in-the-air

But would I, had I had the means, have bought a gorgeous mansion surrounded by a park – my park – by the sea? I honestly don’t know. I would have been a different person, wouldn’t I? Fortunately, I am spared the temptation. So maybe the poor are better.

At any rate, as long as there still are people like Edward Snowden around, it would be a great pity if the human species should go down the drain.

Having thus reached the conclusion that mankind is still worth saving (because you know that no matter how many species perish, the planet will survive and new species will evolve, but humans may not be among them) I recommend not only one, but two good reads:

Edward Snowden – Permanent Record – to maintain your faith in the human species

Naomi Klein – On Fire – which explains in a very companionable way HOW we can save the human species. For those of you who fear that Naomi Klein is a firebrand, you can listen to the book for free before you buy it.

Apr 212016
 

I hear on the news that Edward Snowden is taking my country to court, or rather, he is asking the judiciary of my country to consider what his rights would be as a visitor to Norway.

I find the question fair and timely. Much as I keep insisting that the rule of law is, by and large, taken very seriously here, I fear that Norway’s NATO membership entails some unpleasant obligations, between friends, as it were.

Forcing the judiciary to consider his legal rights before he takes the chance of coming here, Edward Snowden has acted wisely. The judiciary is supposedly independent of the executive powers. Now its independence will be put to the test.

From a statutory perspective, the case is pretty clear pursuant to section 5 of the Extradition Act: No extradition for political offences. Political offences are primarily defined as acts targeting a state and its organisation [“samfunnsordning”], whereas prosecution for war crimes and “serious” terrorist acts are not exempt from extradition.

However, as we all know, a court can easily turn into a hockey field if the players are sufficiently insolent. And on a hockey field almost anything goes, I’ve been told. I beg pardon if I am insulting anybody.

Nov 292015
 

The other day a colleague who is familiar with my slightly subversive views maliciously presented me with a philosophical challenge:

– How come you who so fervently believe in the rule of law defend people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange?
It is true that I passionately believe in the rule of law, defined by the UN as follows:

“… a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.”

(You will find other definitions of the “rule of law”, definitions from which the last clause – “and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards” is absent.)

Back to my malicious colleague: I took the moral highground: Edward Snowden and Julian Assange did not have the right to violate certain legal provisions; they had a duty to do so.

– Ah, said my colleague with a sly smile, so when you face the enemy, the rule of law no longer applies?

I must admit that my mumbled reply was not very impressive. I saw where he was going, and I am a terrible chess player. He would make sure I’d soon be writhing in a corner (figuratively that is) admitting that to defend my values, we must do whatever it takes, whereas to defend your values – if they differ from mine – we must play by the rules.

Now I am an extremely law-abiding citizen. I don’t even cheat on my taxes, and wouldn’t do so even if I had the chance, for the simple reason that I’m proud of paying my share of the upkeep of this country. Nevertheless, my sympathy for rule breakers does not stop at Snowden and Assange. I also have full sympathy with hackers “Anonymous” when they claim to be taking down the “enemy’s” Twitter accounts (again, on the assumption that their enemy is my enemy, and ISIS certainly is a shared enemy.) Taking down a Twitter account is, however, a far, far cry from “Guantanamo Bay” and universal telecom surveillance.

The self-styled “Islamic State” and Boko Haram are not the only monsters lurking in the shadows. There are other agents of rape and mutilation out there. And some of them are friends of our friends. Take the Uzbek government, for instance – just about as bad as they come, yet several European governments including my own, have invested heavily in Uzbekistan. A recent scandal rocked the press in my country for a couple of days, but all is surprisingly silent now. Was it too close to home for the powers that be?

I quote the Norwegian Helsinki Committee:

It is widely known that authoritarian regimes put as a condition for providing licenses to mobile telephone and internet providers that they get full access to content and meta ‐ data of communications on the systems. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee has inter alia criticized the Swedish company Telia Sonera and the Russian company Vimpelcom (partly owned by the Norwegian company Telenor) for providing authorities in Uzbekistan and Belarus full access to their systems.

Meanwhile, in Sweden (source: the Guardian), the prosecuting authority is taking an Uzbek hit-man to court. He is suspected of having been acting at the orders of the Uzbek government when he shot an Uzbek opposition politician in the head. He did it in Malmö. That’s in Sweden. The impudence!! Yet, Sweden has also been investing heavily in Uzbekistan.

If our own governments don’t play by the rules, how can they expect us, to whom they are accountable, to do so? If our governments practise realpolitik  why should not we also do so, at least in self-defence. The question is: Should hackers in one country, mine for instance, defend violently suppressed people in another, eg, the “ganster state” Uzbekistan?

That, I think, is the real philosophical challenge. Would the consequences be all-bad, as have those of the military intervientions in Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya?

Finally, should it occur to you to you to ask me, let me be clear: Any hacker who, for personal gain, abuses his/her skills (e.g. online bank fraud, industrial espionage, etc.) will find no more sympathy at my door than a medical doctor who kills his/her patients. There are certain things one just doesn’t do!

Nov 092015
 

So, am I being watched? I mean, am I subject to more scrutiny on the part of western intelligence agencies than the average man and woman? Are you, who are reading me, being watched?

Because we are all being watched, remember? Not only by the NSA, which appears to have assumed extra-judicial powers and which, incidentally, collaborates with any number of states.

In case you don’t remember, allow me to remind you of the EU Data Retention Directive, the formal purpose of which is to make it harder for criminals to escape. No matter who that criminal is, no matter how anonymous, the Data Retention Directive will make it very hard for him or her to hide in Europe for any length of time.

If the sole purpose of the Directive were to bring heinous criminals to justice, I would be all for it! I very much want the big bad guys brought to justice. In fact I am all for the directive in principle, but I am worried about certain nefarious side-effects. One of them being that we do not all always agree about who the really, really big, bad guys are. Not so very long ago, for instance, homosexuals were considered very bad. I mean really “bad”!

I for my part am of the opinion that one really bad guy is Benjamin Netanyahu and that another is George Bush. Were it not for them, I doubt there would have been a 9/11 (Netanyahu was not the PM at the time, but he had been).

Bush and Netanyahu do not bear all the blame for Israel’s expansionism, to be sure, but a big chunk of it, and thus for much of the ghastly global consequences of Israel’s crimes against humanity. (IS terrorism is just the first pixel of the rather dim picture.) Will Bush and Netanyahu ever be brought to justice?

So much for bad guys. As for the good ones, Edward Snowden tops my list. Without research and its shared results, humanity would never have got this far, obstructed as it has been from time immemorial by power mongers. Snowden has uncovered a weapon that was and still is being used to throttle investigative journalism, on which we so desperately depend for the defence and development of the common good. The US authorities, on the other hand, would do practically anything to get hold of him and put him away for ever, as they have with Brian Manley, who has more or less given his life to help us understand the gravity of the crimes against humanity committed by Bush in his war on Iraq.

I believe, and I hotly maintain, that in most normal circumstances you have to be a crook in order to reach the highest echelons of power, not only in the USA. I used to think Obama was an exception, but now I merely think that even crooks can have a few decent items on their agenda. Certainly, even crooks can love their children or their dogs. To get to the top, you have to be able to cross lines that no decent person can even imagine crossing. In other words, if you get to the top, look at yourself in the mirror and ask: “Where did I go wrong?” If you get to the top, make arrangements at once to bribe a biographer into painting a flattering portrait of you. If you are lucky, investigative journalists won’t discover the bribe, and the flattering portrait will confuse posterity for ever.

With such views I very much doubt I would be granted a visa to the USA, if I applied. Obviously the authorities to which I applied would have had to examine more than my passport and my empty criminal record (to which they officially have no access, by the way) to know that I abhor US foreign (or for that matter domestic) policy. And they would be sure to know.

I actually don’t think that I am the target of particular attention on the part of my own country’s anti-terrorist intelligence efforts. It’s not as though I were the Huffington Post. But I put to you that anybody in any country, in the EU or elsewhere, who is considered a potential political threat by the powers that be (political and corporate) could risk being subjected to extraordinary scrutiny simply because advanced tools of mass surveillance are in place. And where they are in place, they can be abused, as Snowden has so forcefully demonstrated.

Now if you believe that in your country they would never abuse those tools for political purposes, I congratulate you: State your views without fear, and with a little luck, you will not be made to suffer. But if you distrust your national authorities, you might consider shutting up.

That is what many critical journalists do. They have learnt to shut up. Journalists need to consider their future, their careers, their families, etc. They need to earn incomes like the rest of us.

No need to refer to Egypt or Saudi Arabia. In fact, no need to look further than to Spain, where an authoritarian and mendacious PM has been holding forth for some years now. He has nothing to offer the voters except strident references to Spanish glory. And since I actually read Spanish papers – at least I did – I have found that even El Pais has lost its spark. Its journalists now devote their literary verve on accounts about bickering and intrigues within opposition parties.

There is nothing glorious about Spain, these days. The country is as riddled by corruption as a Swiss cheese. We know about this, because the press revealed it. One by one, many of the ruling party’s crown princes have been dragged before the courts – not sentenced, it is true, because the courts are partial – but exposed to the public. (Nor have they been acquitted. The cases are merely protracted for years and years, frozen.) Even the King’s sister faces very serious charges (yes, of putting public money in her darling husband’s pocket).

The New York Times (and apparently also Amnesty International) have been rather heavy-handed in their  criticism of Spain recently. Apparently, the Spanish press is being straight-jacketed not only because of the structural challenges facing newspapers everywhere, but also because the PM now has the power to rein in freedom of the press. Whether due to restructuring or for political reasons, 11,000 journalists have lost their jobs in Spain in recent years. Those who are still hanging on are not likely to stick our their necks.

NYT about curtailment of freedom of the press in Spain

or

NYT about so-called “gag-law” in Spain

When mainstream newspapers have lost their bite, when they no longer do their job – i.e. to tell the public what the public needs to know in order to make informed decisions, for instance that Mr Rajoy, Mr Netanyahu and Mr Bush are crooks – others will have to pick up the banner and continue the race. Those others could be bands of laid-off journalists who form small subscriber-based internet “newspapers”. Or they could be well-informed citizens who maintain their own open websites.

Whoever they are, we need them. And because we need them, we must protect them. We must adamantly oppose surveillance of our private correspondence (including who we correspond with) orally or in writing. The contents of our correspondence must not be stored anywhere, except by court order and when there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect that we have committed a crime punishable by a long custodial sentence. Obviously, we must also be on the alert against “gag laws” (cf. NYT in the second link) that turn expression of certain views in certain places into punishable offences.

Equally important is the protection of you, the reader.  Make no mistake. The websites you visit, the books you read, even the pornography you secretly enjoy – it is all your private business and should remain so. Google and Apple do not agree, but you might consider leaving Google and Apple.

It is sickening to hear members of the public exclaim, “why should I oppose the prohibition to film the activities of the police during demonstrations? I never take part in demonstrations, and I certainly have no interest in filming the police.” Maybe you have never taken part in a demonstration, Mister / Lady, but believe me: had you been a Spaniard living in Spain these past years, you might very well have done so. In Spain, I have seen grey-haired demonstrators wearing kid gloves, Italian shoes or mink.

What happened in Spain could happen in your country, too. In fact, as we speak, country after country in Europe is reeling under the burden of a tsunami of refugees. The ramifications of this mass movement of desperate people may be well-near devastating. I have known for years, and warned, that this would happen, so I am not surprised. What I don’t know is what happens now.

There will be trouble. There will be demonstrations and anti-demonstrations. But freedom of the press must not – NOT – be curtailed in any – I repeat – ANY – way.

Jul 052013
 

Of course I cannot be silent about an issue that seems to have jolted the planet. I will not be silent even though the matter has had its fair share of press coverage – and thank goodness for that! I want to join the chorus of angrily clamouring voices from all over the globe, although I must add that Snowden’s revelations came as no surprise to me. Not that I accept what Obama would have us believe: that everybody does it.

If you lived right across the street from a couple who make heady love every night without drawing their curtains, would you watch? Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t. I am prepared to concede that many people would indeed watch, but they would not like others to know they were doing so. They would draw their own curtains, so that nobody could see them peeping. On the other hand, if you happened to know that the couple across the street were making heady love behind thick, drawn curtains, and you happened to know that they had a laptop in that same room, would you use a computer program you knew about that could turn on the webcam of that laptop?

There are applications that can do that, and there are people who use them. We call such programs malware, and we call the people who use them criminals. Most of us are not criminals.

I was not surprised because in my mind, USA has had an inglorious history since WWII, a history that would have been impossible unless the powers that be were prepared to break every rule in the book. I won’t go into that, since it would require the writing of a very long text, and such texts already exist, many of them admittedly published in the United States, which means that opposition has not yet altogether been silenced even in that country. Thank goodness for that, too. There is still a long way from USA to North Korea! But a lot of legislation has been put in place since 9/11 that demands considerable courage from citizens who want to speak up.

Fear appears to be woven into the fabric of the US constitution, if the firearms debate is anything to go by.

Many commentators maintain that fear is what has persuaded the nation’s population to allow its democratically elected governments to systematically commit crimes against humanity, to disregard international treaties, and to dismantle transparency.

They must have been afraid from the very outset. Afraid of the “reds”, of course, whose human rights the entire “white” world was not at the time ready to embrace. The US had every reason to be afraid of the colonial power that continued to bully them even after the country had won its independence (War of 1812). Many of the settlers were Calvinists fleeing from religious persecution and thus doubly afraid: born and bred to be afraid of God and the powers that be. There were and there are, still, a lot of preachers. To this day, politicians speak like preachers, oratorically.

They were afraid not so much of Sin as of God’s wrath that punishes not only he/she who sins but the entire community that allows Sin to persist (Sodom and Gomorrah). In this fear, Calvinists were joined by Catholics and Jews. Needless to say, everybody dreaded poverty even more than the Black Death. Nowadays, they are terrified of crime, of hurricanes, of genetically modified foodstuffs, of serial killers, insanity, communists, immigrants, terrorists, Sin and the State, and this is just the top of the list.

Fear is not encoded in their genetic make-up, but the rhetoric of fear has been adroitly nurtured decade after decade, war after war, crisis after crisis, by the people they elected.

Today, the embattled country has every reason to be afraid. Having alienated their allies by supporting ruthless dictators, by refusing to endorse (referring to their right to defend their interests) inter alia the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol, by demanding support for wars most of their allies found nearly impossible to justify to their own populations, they now face a far more formidable foe than they have ever known. “Terrorism” is the elastic term they have coined for this foe. Their definition of the word seems to encompass quite a range of activities, depending on the stakes, just as their definition of “communist”, a word that was used to justify so much injustice a few decades back, was adroitly adapted to fit every context. To this day, many frightened US nationals refer to my peaceful and eminently democratic country as “communist”.

Few of the articles I have read about Edward Snowden vs USA dispute that USA has a case against Snowden. However, most grant Snowden the moral high ground, to say the very least. To quote El País of 7 July  (my translation):

The general public and politicians in the UK and USA may never be willing to comprehend fully the magnitude of the torrent of revelations about the intervention of communication all over the world from the fugitive former spy Edward Snowden. For the rest of the world, however, especially for Europe, this is a transcendental moment….Political leaders in Europe will need to ask themselves a whole series of questions. Since when are human rights no longer universal?

Of all the presidents of USA we have known since Kennedy, Obama appears to be the most intelligent. He may yet be able to convince us all that “everybody does it”, not least as it now appears to have been established that the UK is no better. If so, we will all be much the worse off. We will all lose faith in our governments, in “democracy”, in transparency and in everything else that we have believed in and hoped for these past 150 years. I can only hope that the loser of this international moral battle will be USA, and that the rest of us will regain some faith in democracy. In the very long run, this would benefit also USA.

Allow me to add as my purely personal opinion: USA has clearly demonstrated that its agenda is not, repeat not, peace, justice and the welfare of the greatest possible number of its inhabitants. BUT is there any great power that honestly pursues such lofty objectives? I put it to you that we all have a long way to go to attain real democracy.