Western Athletes in Russia: Make Sochi as Gay as Possible

I thought all those awful homophobia stories we hear happening in Russia could only happen outside Moscow, until it happened to me and my friends.

We were attacked in a bar in the center of Moscow. The attackers were screaming “Faggots!” while hitting us. The next day one of them found me online. He wrote me that they are going to beat ‘“faggots” until they are half-dead. The security of the bar refused to call the police and the official position of the owners was that we looked too extraordinary.

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When an authoritarian government can no longer win people’s silence by giving out money because the money is running out, they start using the rhetoric of patriotism in order to maintain a semblance of unity. And if there’s no external enemy, you can always find an internal one. This summer an anti-gay law was passed in Russian State Duma. Now every person who openly speaks about homosexuals in a positive way will be fined. You can’t use rainbow symbols either. they tried to fine a milk company for using rainbow in a pastoral picture.

But as my friends and I discovered, many of the consequences of the law are much less funny. Groups of young neo-nazis throughout Russia are attacking gay teenagers, humiliating them and recording it all on the video. They stay unpunished and in numerous interviews they picture themselves as defenders of the Homeland. Two openly lesbian schoolgirls, 14 and 17 years old, committed suicide in Novorossiysk. A 23-year-old man was brutally killed after his drunk friends outed him in Volgograd.

Formally, the anti-gay law prohibits the propaganda of homosexualism to children, though nobody, including bureaucrats from Duma, knows what the propaganda of sexual preferences looks like. Actually, it would be absurd to go out in the streets with the slogans like: “Be gay! It’s cool!” And no one does. But signing the anti-gay law President Vladimir Putin gave carte blanche to all those aggressive people who were seeking an enemy. Now they are sure that they have the law on their side.They feel total impunity now. They not only express homophobia but also feel like heroes. So do the chiefs who fire employees for supporting LGBT movement.

Gays are accused of showing off their private life. But it’s government officials who think it’s necessary to invade the people’s private lives. Russian gays are just trying to defend themselves. The law was first suggested two weeks before the parliament elections. Some people think that they can teach others how to live, and the government promises that they will have an opportunity to do so. It a country where homophobia prevails it is an easy way to get more votes.

The Russian government promises that the anti-gay law will not be enforced during the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi (the general idea of such an anti-ghetto seems absurd, by the way). Despite this, some Western governments and individuals are calling for a boycott of the Games. I personally don’t think it’s a good idea. Remember Eurovision: when two Finnish girls kissed to attract attention to LGBT rights even Russian federal channels had to show it. If the athletes hold rainbow flags on a ceremony in Sochi it will certainly spoil the triumph for Vladimir Putin who regards the Games as the principal project of his third term. Otherwise he wouldn’t have spent on Sochi more than any other winter Olympics have ever cost.

And in case Western countries boycott the Games, especially if they do this because of official Russian government homophobia, it will give Vladimir Putin the opportunity to show himself one more time as the leader of traditionalist world. Another film will be shown on federal TV about the decline of the Western civilization. And the houses of opposition activists who have been to America (like me) or have worked for foreign NGOs will be searched one more time. And the level of hatred in Russian society will just grow.

If you’d like to speak with or book Vera or any of our other Advocates, please contact Young Voices now.

Some Tips for Obama In Time For His Visit to Sweden

For the first time ever, a sitting U.S. president is going to visit Sweden this week. President Obama is stopping by Stockholm on Wednesday before traveling to the G20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday and Friday. Among the issues to be discussed is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, (TTIP), (which Young Voices recently commented on).

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The Obama administration has had a tough year. With the support for ObamaCare struggling, the global NSA scandal still on people’s minds and a pending U.S. strike on Syria stuck in Congress, it’s clear that Obama needs some good publicity. What better way than to visit Sweden: a social welfare state where healthcare is free and warrantless wiretapping of telephone and Internet traffic is legal. A country which claims to be the happiest on Earth.

Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible for a low-income person, student, or new entrepreneur to find a place to live near any major Swedish city. Due to a highly regulated real-estate market it’s both difficult to build any new houses or rent the ones already in place. In addition, most rentals are part of a severe governmental rent control scheme, which has resulted in long queues for housing. If Mr. Obama were to give up his presidential salary, and donate the rest of his fortune to charity, it would take him 24 years to get a rental apartment.

Faced with the defeat of being homeless, at least Mr. Obama wouldn’t have to fear the terrorists. Much like the U.S. has the NSA, Sweden has the FRA. It’s a legislative package that authorizes the state to wiretap all telephone and Internet traffic that crosses Sweden’s borders, without any warrant. What again were the words of one of the United States founding fathers? “They who can give up essential safety to obtain a little temporary liberty, deserve neither safety nor liberty.”

When Mr. Obama finally finds a home, on the outskirts of Stockholm, he might like to bring his family here to live with him. In that case, we can only hope that there is a suitable English-speaking school in Mr. Obama’s neighborhood, since homeschooling is illegal in Sweden. Private schools are allowed, although highly regulated and supervised by government authority. The point is to protect! No dangerous parental indoctrination is allowed. The government on the other hand takes its job to enlighten the rabble very seriously – from the cradle to the grave.

Sweden is a country where the largest employers are the municipal and county councils. Since the 1950s Sweden more than doubled its taxes, regulated the labor market and for a while implemented marginal taxes over 100 percent. In recent years the country lowered it taxes somewhat, and tried to follow a more liberal path. Unfortunately, the battle fought in Sweden is no longer between liberty and collectivism but between state-individualism and state-collectivism. The individual has no say, no role and can always be compromised, for the “greater good,” for the sake of the government.

So, Mr. Obama, if you sincerely believe in “he didn’t build that,” we suggest that you take your family and move to Sweden. If not we suggest you end — not start — wars, cut spending and cut down on both private and public sector corruption. Implement the principles of liberty that once made the United States one of the greatest nations in history – a breathing space for anyone who believes in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Military Intervention in Syria Serves Obama, Not the People

There are two questions to ask when assessing whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria: Is there a legitimate national security interest at risk here? And if so, is U.S. intervention in Syria the best approach to protect our interests?

The answer to the first question is a “maybe.” International conventions such as the Geneva Protocol from 1925 (signed by Syria 1968) prohibit the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (especially by a government against its own population) is reprehensible and threatens not only regional stability, but the well-being of people around the globe.

However, sweeping statements by our own politicians such as drawing “red lines” for foreign policy doctrine might threaten national security even more than the current turmoil in the Middle East. Rather than empower the U.S. to respond to difficult situations, such statements narrow tactical and military options, and have caused credibility problems in the past such as when Reagan stated the U.S. would not withdraw from Lebanon.

President Obama’s “red line” claim has put him in a difficult position: If Congress does not follow his recommendation and deliver upon his previous threats, Obama’s credibility is damaged. As tough of a loss as that may be for the President, it would be a victory for the U.S. One of the great differences between the U.S. and those countries threatening our security is that no single person can decide the fate of the entire nation. Future U.S. Presidents should come to finally understand that ex-ante military doctrines are not theirs to set, and they should consult Congress before declaring how the country will react to particular actions.

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The move of President Obama to involve Congress in deciding whether to intervene in Syria or not was the right thing to do. Presenting this move as a surprise and not involving Congress from the very beginning is the actual scandal and exemplary of the lack of respect for our tripartite system of checks and balances cultivated by this administration.

As for the question of whether U.S. intervention is the best approach to stabilize the situation in the Middle East, the answer is a very likely “no.” Intervening will lead to a litany of unintended consequences, and likely fail to accomplish its stated purpose of sending a statement to Assad and other regimes in the region and around the world that Weapons of Mass Destruction will not be tolerated. At this point, intervention would serve the political interests of the President more than the security interests of the U.S.

It is not about isolationism but about being aware of the unintended consequences of interventionism. Many problems in the Middle East can be at least be partially seen as unintended consequences of former interventions, military aid, or intelligence campaigns. An entire decade of war has not stabilized the region at all but rather brought more instability, political uncertainty, and terror to the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Claims by some that less military intervention abroad means being disconnected to other cultures or indifferent to atrocities overseas are just not correct. The notion of not creating bigger fires in the Middle East has nothing to do with isolationism practiced in the early 20th, century but with a 21st century understanding of the interconnectedness of the world that suggests greater military intervention and greater violence might not lead to peace and stability.

Hawkish Republicans and bellicose Democrats (following the administration) are trying to continue the neoconservative heritage of the past ten years and thus lead us to a second decade of war.

The pro-interventionist alliance of Democrats and Republicans is another illustration how the mainstream parts of both parties try to push for more policing around the world and neglect the people’s opinion on these issues. It is now up to the American public, dovish Democrats, and non-interventionist Republicans to prevent another war. Real liberal Democrats are hopefully starting to understand that the Obama administration practices a style of foreign policy which is diametrically opposed to their fundamental ideas.

It’s about time to finally overcome the neoconservative direction of U.S. foreign policy. Congress and the President have to understand that stability in the Middle East can’t be brought by additional U.S.-led intervention.

Private School Parents Aren’t Bad People, Public Schools Are Too Hard To Improve

I’m not actually going to take issue with the basic premise of If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person. Allison Benedikt argues persuasively that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. And Benedikt is not looking to outlaw private schools. She’s just trying to guilt parents into quitting them.

Benedikt wants every school full of parents with the time and energy needed to improve it. But that’s a pipe dream. What isn’t is a public education system open enough to accountability and change that even working parents can get a good education for their kids from their local public school.

With few exceptions, public schools are better in the wealthier suburbs and rural areas. There, parents with the will and means to get a good education for their kids live close together and by turns force and help local schools to do their jobs. Rich, educated parents get much better results from public schools because doing so requires a ton of work. Bake sales and PTA meetings don’t run themselves. And school boards and administrators don’t do a good job of keeping themselves accountable.

In less wealthy inner cities and rural areas, schools operate poorly, with little assistance or oversight from parents who are struggling just to get by.

Much as we might want to think of them as exceptions, public schools are service providers, and parents are customers. Demanding customers get better service.

But part of the reason being a demanding customer is so demanding itself is that public education is so mired in bureaucracy, opacity and other impediments to competition and reform. It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. There is absolutely no way to know how public schools spend their budgets. Public education is one of the most top-heavy institutions in the United States.

Innovation in any industry, including education, requires two things. First, there must be flexibility to innovate. Things don’t improve which can’t change. Second, there must be impetus to innovate. Doing things differently is risky. No one will take risks if they don’t fear losing what they’ve gained to competitors who will. What excludes public education from this fact of life?

And how are schools supposed to innovate when states and unions set standards for school days, school years, curricula, teacher pay and more?

What we’ve seen over decades of skyrocketing spending on public education and flatlined educational outcomes is that no amount of money can replace a concerned, active, informed parent. Where parents are involved, schools produce a great education. Where they aren’t, schools fail. This is independent of spending. That’s why Benedikt understandably wants kids who do not have involved parents to benefit alongside the kids who do. It’s a laudable goal and a beautiful vision.

But any solution that requires people to deny their kids the best education possible out of guilt over the kids for whom that’s out of reach is doomed to fail. What could work are a few simple reforms to make getting schools to do their jobs require less time, money and energy in the first place.

Moves like ending teacher tenure, shining light on school budgets, allowing schools to innovate and legalizing charter schools and vouchers to open up competition will give concerned parents a clearer and easier path to improving their schools. They will make it easier for parents to demand, and get, better customer service.

PRISM Might Be the Scandal – But Protectionism Poses Danger Too

Recent news has been dominated by revelations about the NSA and British intelligence agencies spying on citizens, without warrants, who have not been charged with crimes. It’s important for citizens to resist government intrusion into their privacy, as governments tend toward authoritarianism in the absence of pushback from their people.

Yet one aspect of the growing surveillance state that hasn’t been discussed as much is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the United States. Politicians have been trying to use negotiations around it as leverage for the unrelated political dispute about surveillance. It would be terrible to let elected officials use international political conflicts surrounding the US and UK surveillance state to erode free trade.

The economics on the matter simply could not be more clear: 95% of all US economists agree that tariffs and quotas decrease standards of living. Realizing this, Western nations have reduced tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade significantly. And protectionism, which massively harms Africa and other developing parts of the world, has been mostly off the table between Western Nations. Until now.

With TTIP, the stakes are high. If the agreement manages to reduce the amount of tariffs between the US and the EU it will lead to beneficial outcomes for both economies. Lowering trade barriers are estimated to create up to two million jobs within Europe and the US. This would be especially crucial in the face of the present-day problems of youth unemployment and unfunded liabilities. Successful TTIP negotiations would create the largest free trade area in the world. The economic growth generated from this could be seen as a first step on the long path towards world-wide free trade.

Let’s be clear first that free trade agreements would not be necessary at all if governments were not interfering with trade in the first place. A free trade treaty (such as TTIP) should not be understood as a gift from government. It’s a Band-Aid, which presents a real opportunity for wealth creation for people living in those economies.

Free trade empowers people from different nations to exchange goods on a voluntary basis without government interference. Following from an understanding of the benefits of trade, all people should be able to trade freely under the rule of law. Each party of a trade expects to benefit from a transaction otherwise they would not do it. Interference from government hampers such mutually beneficial transactions.

Sadly, protectionism is still prevalent in the 21st century. It takes the form of direct tariffs or non-tariff barriers such as regulation and arbitrary standardization about, for example, the shape of bananas.

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Realizing free trade and reducing trade barriers is to the benefit of both consumers and producers. A prosperous world in which human beings have the freedom to pursue their own peaceful ends is a desirable goal. To achieve this policy makers ought to proceed with initiatives such as TTIP to the point that free trade will be the norm and not the exception.
Using political disputes over other atrocious acts of government as an excuse to deprive more than 800 million human beings of the possibilities to freely exchange goods and services is grossly negligent and outright harmful.

Government leaders have shown a capacity for learning, albeit slowly, from the mistakes of mercantilism. They’ve opened up their borders for goods, bringing much prosperity to the world. To stop this engine of wealth creation due to political disputes is holding millions of peaceful traders and consumers hostage. Citizens should not be punished for misconduct by governments and intelligence services.