Normative Narratives

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The Politics of Division and Class-Based Affirmative Action

(Repost from Jan 2016. Rings even truer today).

During a March 2008 campaign speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Barack Obama said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

Obama then noted the consequences:

When they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed…resentment builds over time.

Obama’s words ring just as true today, as highlighted by the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2015 American Values Survey. While the majority of Americans believe that historically marginalized groups face “a lot of discrimination”, there is a large portion of all Americans (25%) who believe whites face “a lot of discrimination”. Predictably, certain groups (Republican, Tea Party) hold these views even more strongly.

These perceptions fuel what has become known as “Identity Politics“, but what I initially called the “politics of division”. Regadrdless of what you call it, it is the “us” versus “them” mentality, where “we” are hard workers who bust our butts just to make ends meet, while “they” are lazy “takers”…

Full Article: The Politics of Division and Class-Based Affirmative Action



Economic Outlook: Getting the International Aid Fiscal House In Order

humanitarian spedning

Mr. Lykketoft [UN General Assembly President], echoed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said, ‘there can be no peace without development, no development without peace and neither without human rights.’

As the UN marks its 70th anniversary, the Organization itself is “very much at a cross roads, particularly in the area of peace and security” with the architecture developed over the seven decades now struggling to keep pace with today’s and tomorrow’s threats and geopolitical tensions, in a way that is undermining Member State trust.

…making the UN Security Council (UNSC) more representative and more effective, for example, by addressing the use of the veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes. But it also includes agreeing budgetary and institutional reforms to prioritize political solutions and prevention across every aspect of the UN’s approach to sustaining peace.

Humanitarian spending generally goes towards natural disaster relief, aiding people in conflict zones, and helping people displaced by both types of crises. As international powers have proven themselves unable to end conflicts, and the negative affects of climate change have become more acute, humanitarian spending has (unsurprisingly) ballooned in recent years.

Investing in clean energy and environmental resilience (preparedness and early warning systems) can mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters, reducing future environmentally-related humanitarian spending. But natural disasters, while tragic, are partially unavoidable–as various sayings go, mankind cannot “beat” nature.

(Do not confuse the inevitability of natural disasters with climate pessimism–the idea that it is too late to prevent the negative aspects of climate change, so why even try? There is nothing inevitable about the current trajectory of global climate change, and there are many actions humans can take to make the global economy more environmentally sustainable and reduce both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.)

Thankfully, natural disasters generally do not cause long-term drains on aid budgets. While devastating, the natural disaster passes and the affected area can begin to rebuild. Conflicts, however, can be persistent. Persistent conflicts require sustained humanitarian aiddiverting resources from development aid that doubles as conflict prevention.

[The number of] people in extreme poverty who are vulnerable to crisis–677 million. Efforts to end poverty remain closely related to crisis, with 76% of those in extreme poverty living in countries that are either environmentally vulnerable, politically fragile, or both.

There is something particularly discouraging–no damning–about the fact that man-made, preventable, politically solvable issues should divert such a large amount of resources–80 percent of humanitarian funding–that could otherwise be used to deal with unavoidable humanitarian crises (natural disasters) and investing in sustainable human development / conflict prevention.

There will always be strains on development and humanitarian budgets. Donor countries are asked to give resources while dealing with budgetary constraints at home. All the more reason that, if an issue is both preventable and leads to persistent future costs, it should be addressed at its root.

To this end, the international community needs to invest more into poverty reduction and capacity building for democratic governance, particularly in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) most susceptible to conflict. When conflict prevention fails, there needs to be a military deterrent (more defense spending by the E.U. and Germany specifically) and UN Security Council reform, so that conflicts can be “nipped in the bud” and not deteriorate to the point where they become a persistent source of human suffering and drain on international aid budgets.

The idea of increasing investment in preventative peacebuilding and sustainable development as means of reducing future humanitarian spending has gained steam within the United Nations system–this is good news. But failure to end emerging conflicts before they become persistent conflicts puts this plan at risk, because these persistent conflicts consume the very resources needed to make the aforementioned investments in the first place. 

The U.S. could effectively lead the fight for UNSC reform. As the world’s largest military and a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, on the surface the U.S. would have the most to lose by introducing a way to circumvent a UNSC veto (perhaps through a 2/3 or 3/4 UN General Assembly vote). But while the world has become increasingly democratic, the UNSC has has not. This reality has prevented the U.N. from implementing what it knows are best practices. By relaxing its grip on power through UNSC reform, the U.S. would be able to better promote democracy and human rights abroad.

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Technical Difficulties

NN Community,

My computer gave out on me, so I will be taking a forced break until I get t fixed. Hopefully that will be soon (I can’t put together high quality blogs on a mobile device, we ain’t runnin’ a fashion blog over here!).

In the iterim, feel free to check out my microblog on facebook, where I regularly post the articles that underpin Normative Narratives. 

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Transparency Report: Tunisia’s Test

On March 18th, terrorists took hostages at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital city of Tunis. When the dust settled, 22 innocent people had been murdered, mostly foreign tourists (20) but also Tunisian nationals (2).

Tunisia is to date the lone success story of the “Arab Spring”. This distinction, while undoubtedly a positive, makes Tunisia a target for extremist groups who are ideologically opposed to moderization, democracy, and human rights (“Western values”). It was not, therefore, a question of if extremists would try to scare the democracy out of Tunisia, but when and how.

That question was partially answered on March 18th, and unfortunately there are no guarantees that extremists groups will not attack again. Tunisia’s security forces must remain vigilant, and should receive substantial support from the international community. Seeing Tunisia succeed as a stable, functioning democracy is not only in the interest of Tunisians, but also the disenfranchised throughout the region and the world.

The Tunisian people, for there part, have proven themselves to be remarkably courageous and dedicated to democratic values:

World leaders joined tens of thousands of Tunisians on Sunday to march in solidarity against Islamist militants, a day after security forces killed members of a group blamed for a deadly museum attack.

“We have shown we are a democratic people, Tunisians are moderate, and there is no room for terrorists here,” said one of the demonstrators, Kamel Saad. “Today everyone is with us.”

“The Tunisian people will not bow,” President Beji Caid Essebsi said in a speech after the march. “We will stay united against terrorism until we wipe out this phenomenon.”

Tunisia’s leaders have passed every test of their commitment to democracy. They have transferred power peacefully and enshrined their dedication to liberal and pluralistic democracy in a new constitution. I am confident that the international community, understanding both the ethical and symbolic implications of Tunisia’s democratic success, will provide assistance as necessary.

But in the wake of these terrorist attacks, a new test to democratic values has emerged–preserving the rights of the accused:

Tunisian security forces have arrested 23 more suspected Islamist militants as part of a crackdown after last month’s Bardo museum attack in which two gunmen killed 21 foreign tourists, the interior ministry said on Friday.

The attackers gunned down foreign tourists visiting the national museum in Tunis, in one of the worst attacks in the country, which has mostly avoided violence since its 2011 uprising against autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

The interior ministry said in a statement that the 23 new suspects belonged to two terrorist cells. It said that so far 46 suspects have been arrested since the Bardo massacre.

“Members of these terrorist cells will be charged of being accomplices in the terrorist incident (Bardo attack) through providing weapons and logistics help,” the statement said.

I do not pretend to know the evidence against those arrested as accomplices–it is possible that all of the 46 suspects indeed are guilty of being accomplices to this heinous attack. But it is imperative that due legal processes are followed, and that trials are conducted in an open and transparent way.

People are angry, and rightfully so, but convicting people to placate public anger would be a misstep for Tunisia’s budding democracy. Tunisia’s government should resist urges to try all the defendants jointly (except when a joint trial is objectively prudent), and let the facts of the case determine the outcome.

Effective democratic governance is not only about majority rule, it is also about pluralism, personal rights, judicial transparency, due process and rule of law. Tunisia must show peaceful Muslim’s that there is a place for them in Tunisian society, that they won’t be unjustly punished because of their beliefs. Failure to do so would be counter-productive, pushing Muslims into extremists arms, resulting in greater future instability.

Tunisia’s leaders must stand behind democratic principles; the world–both those rooting for against Tunisian democracy–is watching. While Tunisia’s leaders have given us no reason to think they won’t rise to the challenge, the emotional nature of this situation raises some concerns. Enlisting help from UNDP Tunisia might not be a bad idea.

The Tunisian people, who have been unwavering democratic watchdogs throughout the Arab Spring, must remember the big picture and demand their government ensures fair trials for the accused.

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Normative Narratives Turns 2!!

WordPress just informed me I started Normative Narratives 2 years ago today!

During this time I have enjoyed critically considering the major issues of the day, and developing as a writer. If my readers have enjoyed reading my blogs half as much as I have enjoyed writing them, then I am doing a good job.

Over these past two years, my responsibilities have changed considerably (from being a graduate student to having a full time job), forcing me at times to pare back on my blogging.

What has not changed is my commitment to the principles guiding NN (mission statement, manifesto), nor my resolve to continue blogging regularly whenever I can.

Thank you for being part of this journey with me; who knows where it may lead.

In other news, Happy Veterans Day! I would not be able to do what I do if not for the brave men and women–both past and present–who defended and continue to defend our freedoms!

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The Maturation of America

The 4th of July; something about America’s “birthday” lends itself to personification. America is a country by the people and for the people; our strength has always come from investing in our citizenry.

America has historically been at the forefront of progressive politics, championing democratic and capitalistic values both at home and abroad. But “progressive politics” is, by its very nature, constantly evolving. Like a person, America has been maturing over the course of it’s 238 year history (the following is necessarily oversimplified…):

Childhood (1776-1812): The United States was born out of 13 British colonies revolting against a tyrannical sovereign. In order for the colonies to overcome the British, they had to enlist outside help, most notably from the French. This was America’s infancy, a time when America readily understood we needed help from outside powers.

Adolescence (1813-1913):  The 19th and early 20th century lent itself to the vast expansion of the American empire both domestically (within what is now the continental U.S.) and abroad (mainly in Latin America, the Spanish American Wars), known as “Manifest Destiny”.  The hubris and supreme belief in American exceptionalism, which underpinned Manifest Destiny, has many parallels to the image of a teenager that believes they are “invincible”.

Young Adulthood (1914-2008): Starting with WWI, America took on the roll as the world’s hegemon. This is the beginning of what I call the era of “Team America, World Police”. America began to recognize the concept of “extra-territorial human rights obligations”; how we interact with people abroad should reflect the values we champion at home.

The hubris of imperialism gave way to the paternalism of hegemony. While well intended, America’s young adulthood was marked by a number of failures (and successes!) due to the supreme confidence and closed mindedness often associated with young adulthood. The U.S. rescued the Allied powers in both WWI and II, rebuilt Europe with the Marshal Plan after WWII, and took the lead in building a system of institutions for global governance–all great achievements of the 20th century. But America’s folly was its  “White Man’s Burden” approach to both economic development (which ended with the failure of “Washington Consensus” policies in the late 20th century) and global security (which ended with the failure of the War in Iraq).

Middle Adulthood / Maturity (2008-Present):

In the Wake of the Great Recession, and in light of the failures of both the “Washington Consensus” and War in Iraq, America had some serious soul-searching to do. How could we take a leadership role in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world? America had to learn to work within the global community.

In my previous blog, I said America finally found its “Post-War-on-Terror Identity. We cannot afford to fight the world’s wars unilaterally, we need our allies to play a bigger role in global security (on this front, Japan recently amended it’s Constitution to allow it to play a greater role in global security). We cannot tackle issues such as climate change and tax avoidance by ourselves; the greatest challenges of the 21st century are diverse, but all involve “global commons”, and therefore require cooperation and coordination with other countries.

America has to assist with the democratic modernization of developing countries, providing technical / financial / security assistance while supporting the local capacity development and policy space. Instead of dictating how countries should modernize, the failure of the Washington Consensus emphasized the need to empower our partners to address the context sensitive impediments to development in a sustainable and self-determined manner.

The self-awareness and maturity needed to recognize the limits of ones own powers does not come easily. However, it seems that from past failures and successes, America may have finally arrived at this point. Of course the next presidential administration could come and flip the “Obama Doctrine” on its head, but for the sake of both America and the global community, hopefully it does not.

Happy Birthday America!!!

As a nation, we have come a long way, pushing the frontier on progressive governance as we go. To paraphrase Obama and many Presidents before him, “If we do not lead, no one will”. America must continue to push this frontier, while recognizing its limitations and the roles of our allies in this process.

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Happy World Day of Social Justice

Today marks the World Day of Social Justice! Make it a point do do something today (and everyday) to promote social justice!

Social justice starts with interactions between people. While systematic change is always a daunting task, do something in your power to promote social justice; stick up for someone who is routinely treated poorly, start (or continue recycling), pay a little more for sustainably sourced goods, donate to a charity of your choosing, etc.

It is within everyone’s power to promote social justice; don’t let cynical / self-interested people convince you otherwise. Don’t let the crushing weight of the worlds injustices paralyze you into inaction; don’t allow perfection to be the enemy of progress.  

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The Age of Sustainable Development

I would like to invite all of my followers to sign up for “The Age of Sustainable Development”. This is a free online class taught by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, a visionary in the field. You can commit as much or as little time as you want to the class (I, for instance, will watch the lectures but will not be doing any of the assignments).

This is an excellent opportunity to receive a free crash-course in sustainable development. For those who are interested, I have provided a link below.

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Back from Paradise

Hello All,

Just wanted to give you all a heads up. I am back from vacation and will resume regular blogging by the end of the week (I have lots of loose ends to tie-up, just the usual stuff being out of the country / off the map for 8+ days leads to!)

While my vacation was excellent, I am excited to get back to blogging!

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Going on Vacation!

Hello NN Community,

I will be taking a well deserved break (Jan 4th-11th) from blogging, to enjoy vacation with my beautiful girlfriend.

I’m sure there will be lots of interesting developments over that time, so be sure to check back soon after the 11th for new blogs!

I have a feeling 2014 will be a good year for NN, human rights norms, social justice and sustainable human development.

Never downplay your ability to shape the world you want, and remember meaningful change always starts from humble beginnings.

All the best,

Benjamin Zupnick