Archive

February 28th, 2016

Help Russia's human rights activists

    This year marks the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of Russia. One of the most remarkable features of that rebirth was the rapid creation, after 70 years of Soviet repression and atomization, of Russia's vast, vibrant and effective civil society. The history of the human rights movement in Russia is also the story of my life, because I was a dissident in the Soviet era and today proudly chair the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization working in Russia.

    In the 1990s, our country was poor, and rights groups could find hardly any funding in Russia. We were fortunate to have Western donors who supported our work. Even as Russia got back on its feet, thanks largely to a dramatic rise in oil prices, it still wasn't easy to find financial assistance in Russia for human rights work. There were many reasons for this, not least of which was that potential donors did not want to risk the Kremlin's wrath by supporting potentially sensitive causes. And let's face it, human rights work can be sensitive.

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Don't Bury Our Cities in Megatowers

    Many longtime residents of San Francisco, Miami and other hot U.S. cities complain of "Manhattanization" when developers put up 20- or 30-story apartment complexes. In Portland, Oregon, they're debating the wisdom of 40 stories.

    They should try 100 stories on for size -- or not, if they value the amenities of urban life. That's the height of a megatower proposed for downtown Seattle. It was "downsized" from 102 stories after aviation authorities warned the tower could interfere with air traffic.

    Tall buildings don't normally shock New Yorkers, but many Gothamites are appalled by the growing scourge of "billionaire's row" on West 57th Street. This is a forest of freakishly high sticks casting shadows on Central Park.

    In the sedate residential enclave of Sutton Place to the east, a developer wants to drop an oblong almost as tall as the Empire State Building smack in the middle of narrow 58th Street. Glomming onto the neighborhood's reputation for quiet elegance, the developer is perversely calling his monstrosity Sutton 58.

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Britain's unsolvable problem with Europe

    Should Britain stay in the European Union or go? Between now and the referendum on June 23, the two campaigns will press their respective arguments with total conviction. These displays of certitude are phony. The choice is a closer call than either side will admit.

    For one thing, the eventual outcome won't be ordained by what Britain decides on the day. Whether it's stay or go, everything depends on how events subsequently unfold. Britain's decision is enormously consequential not because it will settle things, but because it offers two completely different sets of challenges -- a finely balanced choice between two extremely demanding futures.

    Suppose Britain votes to quit. What would success then require? The list of tasks is crushing. First, the government would have to negotiate a friendly divorce -- one that left most or all of the single-market freedoms in place (thus avoiding a damaging economic shock) while restoring some useful measure of political sovereignty (thus justifying the whole endeavor).

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Back to the days of the smoke-filled room

    So you thought the smoke-filled room was dead? No way. It still exists, but only in the Democratic Party. And under a new name: "superdelegates."

    Early evidence of a smoke-filled room, one of the most colorful pages in America's political history, first appeared in a report about a 1763 meeting of the Boston Caucus: "Selectmen, assessors, collectors, fire-wards and representatives are regularly chosen there before they are chosen in the town. ... There they smoke tobacco till you cannot see from one end of the garret to the other."

    But the term itself dates from the Republican National Convention in 1920. After convention delegates deadlocked on a nominee, a small group of Republican senators met secretly in a suite in Chicago's Blackstone Hotel -- in a "smoke-filled room," reported the Associated Press -- and engineered the nomination of Warren G. Harding as the Republican Party candidate for president. The phrase has been used ever since to mean any gathering where cigar-smoking party bosses meet secretly to choose candidates.

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In pro-gun Texas, a candidate needs firepower

    As Alfonso Sanchez, an instructor at 360 Tactical Training in Houston, gave me my first handgun shooting lesson with a Glock 17, talk turned to the candidates in the 2016 elections. Texas votes on Super Tuesday, and guns are going to be an important issue in the state that will provide the Republican winner with the most delegates on March 1.

    Sanchez, 28, who hadn't voted in 2008 or 2012 since he'd been deployed in U.S. Navy operations against drug smugglers, dismissed the Democrats out of hand. Hillary Clinton, he says, ought not to be allowed even to run given how she handled classified information; if Sanchez voted this time around, he says it would be to keep Clinton out. As for the Republicans, Ted Cruz seems to have a decent stance on firearms from Sanchez's point of view, but he isn't sure about Marco Rubio.

    "He owns a Taurus," Sanchez's colleague contributed to the conversation through the open door of the shooting range's office. "Ah well, that's a crap gun," the instructor shook his head. "Brazilian. It'll go bang, of course, but it's just a bad design."

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Where death is a cure for autism

    In early childhood, the Dutch psychiatric patient known as 2014-77 suffered neglect and abuse. When he was about 10, doctors diagnosed him with autism. For approximately two decades thereafter, he was in and out of treatment and made repeated suicide attempts.

    He suffered terribly, doctors later observed, from his inability to form relationships: "He responded to matters in a spontaneous and intense, sometimes even extreme, way. This led to problems."

    A few years ago, 2014-77 asked a psychiatrist to end his life. In the Netherlands, doctors may perform euthanasia - not only for terminal physical illness but also upon the "voluntary and well-considered" request of those suffering "unbearably" from incurable mental conditions.

    The doctor declined, citing his belief that the case was treatable, as well as his own moral qualms. But he did transmit the request to colleagues, as Dutch norms require. They treated 2014-77 for one more year, determined his case was, indeed, hopeless and, in due course, administered a fatal dose of drugs.

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Walling off Common Sense

    “We’re going to do the wall,” Donald Trump told a cheering crowd of supporters in a victory speech following the South Carolina Republican primary. He was reiterating his fanciful promise to wall off the entire U.S.-Mexico border — and force Mexico to pay for it.

    Never mind whether even Trump believes there’s a chance this cornerstone of his stump speech will happen. It’s the thinking behind it that’s majorly flawed.

    This simplistic, right-wing logic turns the victims of social problems into the perpetrators. It seeks to inflict punishment even when it won’t fix anything.

    Take, for example, the issue of undocumented immigration.

    To Trump and his supporters, the problem is the people who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without papers. The solution is a wall. The end result, they say, will be more jobs for Americans.

    Sorry, it’s not that simple.

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Twitter can only lose when it polices abuse

    Less than a year ago, in those innocent, dewy-eyed days before Donald Trump had become the front-runner for the Republican nomination, I wrote about an issue that seemed important at the time: Twitter's harassment problem. Specifically, I wrote about how difficult it was going to be for Twitter to get a handle on its trolls without alienating portions of the user base.

    "Alienating portions of the user base" is a bad idea for social media companies that thrive by expanding their networks, not by eliminating users. That's why abuse puts Twitter in a bind: it can lose users by banning racist and sexist accounts, or it can lose users who don't think enough racist and sexist accounts are being banned.

    However, the issue has taken on a certain political valence. The users demanding redress seem mostly to be left-leaning people who framed this as a matter of race and gender discrimination. Acceding to their wishes was likely to alienate conservatives, who were likely to experience a disproportionate share of the banning.

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Trump, Rubio and the madness coming in March

    One version of the current thinking about the Republican presidential nomination is that things are moving perfectly for Donald Trump. He has three victories now and a close second in the four states that have voted. He's ahead in polls in many states, and leading big in national polls. This hasn't changed in months, and there's no reason to expect it to change soon.

    A contrasting view is that Marco Rubio is the candidate who is still set up nicely. He recovered from his disaster in New Hampshire to finish second (albeit a distant second) in South Carolina and Nevada, becoming the obvious challenger to Trump. He has finally won a large number of endorsements, putting him about even with John McCain in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004 as a late-breaking party choice.

    And, this argument goes, Trump is unlikely to increase his support. If he can't, then outside of his strongest states (and Nevada was one) he is only barely competitive in what will soon be a three-candidate race and not at all competitive in a two-man race.

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Trump taps the rich vein of white 'victimhood'

    Donald Trump has achieved an important milestone. Winning big in the New Hampshire and South Carolina Republican primaries has given him "big mo," as President George H.W. Bush used to call big momentum.

    At this rate, Trump could well be the Grand Old Party's next presidential nominee unless he does something devastatingly offensive to his supporters, such as, for example, saying something nice about President Barack Obama.

    Barring that, Bruce Bartlett may well get his wish for a Trump nomination, whether he really wants to or not.

    Bartlett, 64, is an author, historian, economist and veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations who describes himself as an endangered species: a "moderate Republican."

    So why does he want Trump to win the nomination? Because Bartlett wants to see the billionaire developer and TV star face the presumptive Democratic nominee, frontrunner Hillary Clinton -- and lose.

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