Monday, March 30, 2015

Letters of Marque May Be Making a Comeback

Today I saw something that gives me hope. Someone was arguing in favor of letters of marque.

However, they were afraid this solution to a current problem would be seen as a move to privatize warfare: as in in privateers! That's the etymology.

Some less rational factions will undoubtedly hail this as a crazy right-winged conspiracy to privatize the military. But Founders did not design a Constitution with powers that undermine other powers. If letters of marque were a tool of privatization, what good would it have been to include provisions, just a few lines below this, “to raise and support armies” and to “provide and maintain a Navy”?

And exactly what would be wrong with that? It wasn't as if the constitution provided for a standing army. However, in order to give people the opportunity to take advantage of a letter of marque, we would also need to repeal the Neutrality Act. Is anyone prepared to do that?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Instead of Servants There Are Apps

Should you thank your app, the same way you would thank a servant? Or is the whole point of having apps to do away with gratitude and the need to interact with other humans who are serving you.

Every night I tell Siri: "Set alarm for six am." Most of the time, she answers: "OK, it's on." But every once in a while, she says "I'm not sure I understand." Or "You have three six am alarms. Which one did you mean?" Then I get a little testy, and I try different ways of saying it, like "Set alarm for six am sharp." And then finally she does it and says: "Okay, it's set." And then I say: "Thank you."

But always wonder, should I have said that? Is it wrong to thank an app?

In earlier blog posts, I have mentioned that the middle class used to be characterized by the fact that it employed servants, but now it does not. However, I may be very much behind the times, living in an isolated rural location where even Pizza Hut does not deliver. This morning I read an article that opened my eyes to how service from servants is now being obtained through apps.

The washer and dryer did not solve the servant problem, but now there is an app that picks up your dirty laundry and then returns it folded to your drawer. And this can happen without ever having to speak to a human being.

No, robots have not gotten that sophisticated. There is an army of flesh and  blood people working for those apps. and the world has been divided, in this scenario, between shut-ins and shut-outs. The shut-ins have service without human contact, and the shut-outs get to serve people they never see,

It's a brave new world! What would Jean Laffite have thought about this?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Can Jean Laffite Ever Be Forgiven for his Part in the Slave Trade?

I was talking to a friend about what can be done to enshrine Jean Laffite as the American hero that he truly was. Some ideas that we bounced around is to get a scholarship or stipend endowed for graduate students in history, stipulating that their research topic be the accomplishments of Jean Laffite. Another much more modest idea was that an annual prize be awarded to high school students for the best essay about Jean Laffite.

My friend said that sadly it would be very hard to bring any of this about, because the very fact that Jean Laffite was involved in selling slaves precludes anyone from looking at him in a favorable light today.

George Washington had slaves. Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Even Jonathan Edwards, who did not own slaves, rented them by the hour when he needed his garden plowed. It was just the way things were.

Jean Laffite was not a slaver. He was a privateer. He looted enemy ships and sold the goods at auction. The fact that some of those goods happened to be human beings shipped as cargo is unfortunate, but not damning. He was a patriot, but not a saint.

The Laffites may not have been politically correct by today's standards, but I'll tell you what they were not: they were not racist. And the idea that racism was the only thing behind slavery in early  America is one of those misconceptions that needs to be put to rest.

There were not just black slaves. There were also white slaves. There were not only white slaveholders. There were also black slaveholders.

Pierre Laffite came as close to marrying Marie Villard as the law at the time allowed. She was a free black woman, and he bought her a house in her own name, a house where she was the mistress of all she surveyed. He also bought her a black cook to serve her.

These are the complicated realities of the time. I dealt with this issue directly in Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain. 

Slavery is a complicated issue in early American history. It deserves to be studied in a detailed and nuanced manner, without prejudice for or against any particular outlook. But right now it is being misrepresented to the public as only black and white, with no shades of grey.

In the process, everything good that Jean Laffite stood for is being ignored, just because he catered to all the market needs of the people of New Orleans and sold slaves at auction to both black and white buyers.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Should We Repeal the Logan Act?


It's funny how obscure laws passed during the administration of John Adams keep surfacing at the oddest of times. John Adams was a British-leaning, one term president who signed into law a very unpopular legislation package called the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798.

John Adams Source: Wikipedia

The Sedition Act, which was a part of this package, provided for a punishment of up to two years imprisonment for "opposing or resisting any law of the United States or writing or publishing false, scandalous and malicious writing about the President of the United States or Congress, but not about the Vice President."(Source: Wikipedia)  Opposing any law of the United States under the Sedition Act did not mean violating that law: it meant campaigning to have it repealed. Writing scandalous and malicious things about the President did not mean, apparently, just libel and defamation, as there were already measures against that. It meant writing things about them which may be true, though scandalous. (The "and" in "false, scandalous and malicious" was interpreted as an "or".) The Vice President, on the other hand, was not shielded by these laws from having scandalous but true things written about him, because the Vice President at the time was Adams' chief rival, Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson came to power, he allowed the Alien and Sedition Act to expire, and he compensated all the people who were harmed by it.

However, the Logan Act, passed during the same period,(January 30, 1799) was not ever repealed. It has also not ever been successfully prosecuted, and its constitutionality is in question. 

The Logan  Act is named for Dr. George Logan of Pennsylvania, who during Adams' undeclared and unconstitutional war with France, took it upon himself to try to improve matters between the two countries. According to Kevin Kearney:

Upon his arrival in Paris, he met with various French officials, including Talleyrand. During these meetings, he identified himself as a private citizen, discussed matters of general interest to the French, and told his audience that anti-French sentiment was prevalent in the United States. Logan's conversation with Merlin de Douai, who occupied the highest political office in the French republic, was typical. Logan stated that he did not intend to explain the American government's position, nor to criticize that of France. Instead, he suggested ways in which France could improve relations with the United States, to the benefit of both countries. He also told Merlin that pro-British propagandists in the United States were portraying the French as corrupt and anxious for war, and were stating that any friend of French principles necessarily was an enemy of the United States. Within days of Logan's last meeting, the French took steps to relieve the tensions between the two nations; they lifted the trade embargo then in place, and released American seamen held captive in French jails.
The Federalist Party, and John Adams at its head, were very jealous about the praise showered on Dr. Logan for his successful negotiation with the French, so  they passed a law forbidding any American from ever doing something like that again. Logan was later elected to Congress, during Jefferson's term of office, but for some reason, he was never able to get the Logan Act repealed, though he did try. 

Only one person was ever indicted under the Logan Act and that was in 1803. Nobody has ever been convicted under it. Its constitutionality has never been upheld. 

Should we repeal the Logan Act? Or is this legacy from John Adams restricting Americans from speaking on behalf of other Americans to foreign governments to be upheld? Was what Dr, Logan did in France really so very bad?


 Kearney, Kevin M. (1987). "Private Citizens in Foreign Affairs: A Constitutional Analysis". Emory Law Journal. 36. (winter)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Taiwan To Import Domestic Workers from Vietnam -- $7000 per Person

It is important when discussing the issue of slavery in modern times that we not focus on a particular ethnicity or nationality, such as people from Haiti, or on a particular use to which modern slaves are put, such as sex workers. If we do that, we sensationalize the problem and also reduce its significance. There is a market for people. All kinds of people, who can perform all kinds of jobs. At the same time as modern day first world countries are limiting the domestic market by setting minimum wages, working conditions and basic health care packages for their own citizens, there is a hunger in each of these countries for people to work at less than minimum wage performing jobs that need to be done, but nobody has enough money to pay for them in a market that is constricted by artificial demands set by law.

One of the biggest problems that first world countries are facing now and in the foreseeable future is that we have a glut of elderly people in need of domestic caretakers. High tech countries have low birth rates, and while this may seemingly make the standard of living of the average person higher than in those countries with a high birth rate, because people with fewer children are not burdened with many dependents, in the long run this leaves many elderly people with no one able to care for them in their dotage.

Not all elderly are wealthy, and despite all the social safety networks in place, many need help that they are not able to get without resorting to hiring an imported domestic worker who will accept reduced wages and working conditions. In Taiwan and in Israel, it is not unusual for elderly people to be cared for by workers imported from poorer countries for the specific purpose of becoming temporary "domestic caretakers". Notice that I am using the modern euphemism for what used to be unabashedly called "a servant." Servants and slaves have not gone away, but we distance ourselves from the concepts, by giving them new names.

Vietnamese workers in Taipei

The difference between an ordinary servant and a slave is whether the service is voluntary. But how voluntary it is can be better gauged by how many runaways you have than whether there is an employment contract in hand. In Taiwan, according to the article linked below, there is a runaway problem with people imported from Vietnam,

Due to the loss of workers form Indonesia, Taiwan is considering lifting a ban on Vietnamese domestic workers, a ban that was initiated due to the high rate of "absconding" that was associated with Vietnamese workers, Why was there such a high rate of absconding?

Without reforms to guarantee vacation rights and adequate wages, absconding would likely remain common among migrant workers, Wu said, adding that brokerage fees for Vietnamese workers in Taiwan cost up to US$7,000 per person — the most expensive among all migrant worker-providing countries.
If we read between the lines and break through the doublespeak, here is the picture I get: People from Vietnam were being sold into the labor market in Taiwan at $7,000.00 a person. The "brokerage fee" went to someone in Vietnam, not to the worker himself. This is very similar to the indentured servitude model that we used to have here in the United States since Colonial times. Workers who  abscond are runaways. Today, the slave masters in Hanoy are offering to punish runaways more severely, and this makes the purchasers in Taiwan feel that perhaps the laborers they are planning on purchasing in the future will be more reliable.

People in Taiwan could try to solve this problem by passing more laws to protect indentured servants. Or they could do away with the thing that created this market for imported workers in the first place: the guarantees mandated by law for a minimum wage and benefits for domestic workers who are truly domestic.

A woman I saw on the streets of Taichung in 1998

There are poor people in Taiwan. I have seen them with my own eyes. But they never get these caretaking jobs, because the jobs go to people who have fewer guaranteed rights as to exactly what working conditions and salary and benefits they will have.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Difference Between Karma and Revenge

There must be a great many closet Buddhists or Hindus among us these days, because wherever I turn I see something about karma. Religions seem to come out at us from the East, shrouded in mystery and a strange sort of dignity, and there is a great attraction in eastern religions for those who have spiritual tendencies, though they have squarely rejected the Western religious traditions. The Laffite and Little families were not immune to Eastern influences. Jean and Denise Laffite both seemed to know something about the I Ching,  and copied out quotations in their notebooks. But for all the attraction that he may have felt for the wisdom of the far east, I am pretty sure Jean Laffite was never a Buddhist. He believed in revenge, not in karma.

What is the difference between revenge and karma? Revenge is active and straightforward and involves punishing someone who has wronged you. Karma is passive-aggressive, and it involves waiting around for the universe to punish someone you don't like and then gloating about it.

The benefits of revenge is that it metes out direct justice for a specific wrong in a way that can be easily understood by all concerned, including disinterested onlookers. Revenge creates catharsis, releases anger, and allows life to return to normal more quickly after a bad event. Revenge speeds up the mourning process and brings inner peace. Revenge also has a good effect on society as a whole.  The world becomes a better place when someone works out correct revenge against an appropriate target, because everyone stands forewarned that misbehavior toward others does not pay. All the usual reasons for the criminal law are found in a revenge act properly executed: punishment, deterrence and a way to cut down on recidivism.

Now the sticking point is, of course, that it has to be the correct target.  If you attack an innocent third party for something that someone else did to you, then you are spreading injustice and sowing discord and suffering and war. So it is very important to go after the correct target and only the correct target. Bombing an entire village for something one person did is not proper revenge. The slogan that "an eye for an eye" will make all the world blind is actually based on the idea that you will go after the wrong target and create an avalanche of wrongdoing, instead of going after the original wrongdoer and help to enforce the law and cut down on crime. Revenge, properly executed, leads to closure.

In Theodosia and the Pirates: The Battle Against Britain, an act of revenge is even something that makes eventual forgiveness possible. It's not possible to forgive a wrongdoer when he is not penitent and will not apologize.  People rarely make a heartfelt apology unless they are truly contrite. Contrition is more easily achieved after experiencing a punishment that is related to the crime by an avenger who is kind enough to explain the connection.

Now compare this straightforward method of meting out justice with the ways of karma. Karma presupposes that the punishment for bad behavior will be doled out by the universe in an unfolding of mysterious long-deferred cause and effect. Rather than punishing your enemy, you have only to kick back and relax and wait for something bad to happen to him. People who believe in karma enjoy gloating over the misfortune of others.

The problem with that is that bad things happen to everyone.  Sometimes very bad things happen to very good people. Gloating over every misfortune is an ugly trait that some humans have. The Germans have a name for it: Schadenfreude.

Good people do not enjoy the undeserved suffering of other people. They do not tell a rape victim that she must have had it coming, or a holocaust survivor that he must be paying for the killing he did in a previous life.

According to Shirley MacClaine:

“What if most Holocaust victims were balancing their karma from ages before…. The energy of killing is endless and will be experienced by the killer and the killee.”

It is the belief in karma that perpetuates suffering by blaming victims for the wrongs that they suffer. Killing isn't bad. Murder is bad. Until and unless people learn to tell the difference, there can never be any peace, neither the conventional kind, as in the cessation of war, nor the internal kind, as in closure after a terrible injustice. A great man does not gloat  over the undeserved misfortunes of another, even if it is his own worst enemy. He does, however, avenge wrongs against himself and his family.

Lotus Flower