Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 30, 2007

The Darker Side of Dior

Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, notes today, in a New York Times op-ed piece, that terrorists and other bad actors finance their malicious activities by merchandising counterfeit shirts and handbags. Ms. Thomas talks about going after “the source” of the problem: the manufacturers of counterfeit goods. She’s right in one sense, but the real source is, of course, the consumer. At another point in her piece she notes that people are buying fake goods from New York to Los Angeles, and thereby encouraging Chinese parents to sell their eight-year-olds to clandestine sweatshops. So in the United States, the desire for counterfeited luxury items is fueling crime and misery across the globe.

In Asia, there exists the mirror image of this problem: consumers committing crimes to buy genuine luxury items. The Japanese account for about half of the world’s sales of them: they buy about 20 percent at home and the remaining 30 percent while traveling abroad. Nine out of every ten Japanese women own at least one Louis Vuitton item. Where do they get the yen—I’m referring to the currency here—for these purchases? Yuichi Yamamoto of TokyoFreePress implies that Japan’s women are turning to prostitution to finance their insatiable appetites for Vuitton and other luxury products.

The luxury business turns full circle in China, which manufactures both genuine and fake goods. The Chinese are now the third-largest consumers of real items, accounting for 12 percent of all global sales. That’s up from one percent in just five years. By 2015, China will overtake Japan in the consumption of luxury goods. But the counterfeiters may run out of luck in the world’s largest market. The ernais—mistresses or second wives and perhaps the biggest consumers in this area—will buy only the real thing. That, of course, is a good sign. The Chinese will be able to do what Western societies cannot: put a real dent into terrorist financing.

Dana Thomas, author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, notes today, in a New York Times op-ed piece, that terrorists and other bad actors finance their malicious activities by merchandising counterfeit shirts and handbags. Ms. Thomas talks about going after “the source” of the problem: the manufacturers of counterfeit goods. She’s right in one sense, but the real source is, of course, the consumer. At another point in her piece she notes that people are buying fake goods from New York to Los Angeles, and thereby encouraging Chinese parents to sell their eight-year-olds to clandestine sweatshops. So in the United States, the desire for counterfeited luxury items is fueling crime and misery across the globe.

In Asia, there exists the mirror image of this problem: consumers committing crimes to buy genuine luxury items. The Japanese account for about half of the world’s sales of them: they buy about 20 percent at home and the remaining 30 percent while traveling abroad. Nine out of every ten Japanese women own at least one Louis Vuitton item. Where do they get the yen—I’m referring to the currency here—for these purchases? Yuichi Yamamoto of TokyoFreePress implies that Japan’s women are turning to prostitution to finance their insatiable appetites for Vuitton and other luxury products.

The luxury business turns full circle in China, which manufactures both genuine and fake goods. The Chinese are now the third-largest consumers of real items, accounting for 12 percent of all global sales. That’s up from one percent in just five years. By 2015, China will overtake Japan in the consumption of luxury goods. But the counterfeiters may run out of luck in the world’s largest market. The ernais—mistresses or second wives and perhaps the biggest consumers in this area—will buy only the real thing. That, of course, is a good sign. The Chinese will be able to do what Western societies cannot: put a real dent into terrorist financing.

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Tax Evasion and the New York Times

According to a report in today’s New York Times, “a website that sells materials stating that individuals can legally stop paying taxes has been shut on the order of a federal judge.”

The website, run by two organizations called We The People Foundation for Constitutional Education and the We The People Congress, argued that the U.S. tax code deceives people into paying taxes. It promoted a national campaign—“operation stop withholding”—to persuade employees not to have payroll taxes deducted from their paychecks.

Let us stipulate what is plain to see: that the defendants in this case are avaricious crackpots. Nonetheless, they claim in their defense that the “speech” contained on their now-shuttered website is protected by the First Amendment.

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According to a report in today’s New York Times, “a website that sells materials stating that individuals can legally stop paying taxes has been shut on the order of a federal judge.”

The website, run by two organizations called We The People Foundation for Constitutional Education and the We The People Congress, argued that the U.S. tax code deceives people into paying taxes. It promoted a national campaign—“operation stop withholding”—to persuade employees not to have payroll taxes deducted from their paychecks.

Let us stipulate what is plain to see: that the defendants in this case are avaricious crackpots. Nonetheless, they claim in their defense that the “speech” contained on their now-shuttered website is protected by the First Amendment.

It is well-established in law that “commercial speech” does not enjoy the same kind of protection as political speech. Thus Judge Thomas J. McAvoy, in his 25-page decision, notes that “to the extent defendants’ speech can be considered commercial speech, it may be enjoined because the government may prohibit false, misleading, or deceptive commercial speech, or speech that promotes unlawful conduct.”

So far, all this is uncontroversial. But Judge McAvoy goes on to conclude that even if we assume that the defendants’ speech “to be political in nature, it still may be enjoined.” The First Amendment, he notes, “does not protect speech that incites imminent lawless action.”

This, too, is not really controversial, or it shouldn’t be. But it sits awkwardly with the New York Times’s regular assertions that it is itself free to violate the laws governing the publication of classified information. Such speech also “incites imminent lawless action.” Not only that, such incitement is typically accompanied by the lawless action itself—namely, the publication of classified secrets in the New York Times’s own pages.

Granted, there is a world of difference between a great newspaper and a crackpot website. And there is a world of difference between promoting illegal tax-evasion activity and promoting the illegal publication of U.S. national-security secrets (although in some cases I am not sure which is worse). But the law is the law, and in both instances its violation is plainly being advocated.

Judge McAvoy put the conduct of the tax-evasion schemers to several legal tests, all of which they flunked. If we apply some of those same tests—not all of them are relevant—to the New York Times, how does it come out?

The first is “the gravity of harm.”

With regard to the New York Times’s publication of classified details of the NSA’s terrorist-surveillance program in December 2005, “the gravity of harm” is easy to demonstrate. A long list of high-ranking officials—Democrats and Republicans alike—have attested to the damage done by the Times to our efforts to thwart a second September 11.

The second is “the extent of defendant’s participation.”

The answer here is obvious on its face. The editors and publisher of the Times are, as the judge ruled in the tax-evasion case, “the primary figures in establishing the plan and encouraging others to participate in it”—the plan, in the case of the Times, being to publish classified information.

The third is the “degree of scienter,” or intent.

The tax evaders, the judge found, were “well aware (or should have been aware) that their assertions have been consistently rejected by the courts.” In the case of the Times, the issues involving publication of national-secrets have rarely come before the courts, but the few precedents that exist do not support the Times. Moreover, the law, especially Section 798 of Title 18—which proscribes the publication of classified information about “communications intelligence”—is unambiguous. Even more pertinently here, it lacks a scienter requirement. Committing the act itself, even without intent, is sufficient to constitute a violation.

The fourth is the “isolated or recurrent nature of the infraction.”

The tax evaders, the judge concluded, were serial offenders. So, too, when it comes to both advocating and publishing classified information, is the New York Times.

The fifth is the “defendants’ recognition (or non-recognition) of their own culpability.”

The tax evaders, notes the judge, “express no recognition of their culpability.” Neither do the editors of the New York Times. They continue to claim that they are exempt from the law. The words of the judge would seem to apply to them quite aptly: “Given defendants’ long-time pursuit of these goals, it is easy to conclude that they are likely to continue to engage in their conduct if not enjoined from doing so.”

The sixth is “the likelihood that defendants’ occupation would place them in a position where future violations could be anticipated.”

Once again—as with the tax evaders, so with the New York Times and violations of the laws of secrecy: “It is a virtual certainty,” ruled the judge, “that, absent injunctive relief, future violations can be anticipated.”

Of course, this entire issue is in all likelihood purely theoretical. The basic rule of politics was adumbrated long ago by Mark Twain: never pick a fight with those who buy ink by the barrel. The Bush administration, even as it is being accused of waging “a war against the press,” has been following this rule scrupulously.

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“Fatal Strikes”?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is capable of great feats of productivity when it wishes to draw a crowd to an international crisis. Especially, it goes without saying, when the crisis affords an opportunity to slander Israel. Last summer, only three weeks into the Israel-Hizballah war, HRW released a sensational 49-page report that declared, “Our research shows that Israel’s claim that Hizballah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare.” It added that “these attacks constitute war crimes,” and concluded that “in some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians.”

Those are serious charges to inject into the middle of a war, especially one as saturated with media coverage as any conflict involving the Jewish state (in a recent Harvard study, Marvin Kalb noted that the Israel-Hizballah war summoned the heaviest international media coverage since the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991). None of HRW’s calumnies, it should be added, has been substantiated in a credible way.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) is capable of great feats of productivity when it wishes to draw a crowd to an international crisis. Especially, it goes without saying, when the crisis affords an opportunity to slander Israel. Last summer, only three weeks into the Israel-Hizballah war, HRW released a sensational 49-page report that declared, “Our research shows that Israel’s claim that Hizballah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israel’s indiscriminate warfare.” It added that “these attacks constitute war crimes,” and concluded that “in some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians.”

Those are serious charges to inject into the middle of a war, especially one as saturated with media coverage as any conflict involving the Jewish state (in a recent Harvard study, Marvin Kalb noted that the Israel-Hizballah war summoned the heaviest international media coverage since the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991). None of HRW’s calumnies, it should be added, has been substantiated in a credible way.

But sensationalism and good timing, after all, were precisely the point, and attacking the legitimacy of the Israeli war effort proved highly effective in getting Human Rights Watch into the headlines. To that end, the report was titled “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon.” Is this a straight-to-video action movie, or an objective report on a serious subject? But never mind.

What is relevant about all this is that HRW has just announced the release, thirteen months (!) after its libelous claims against Israel, of the companion study to “Fatal Strikes,” this one about Hizbollah’s violations. The media frenzy that surrounded the war last summer has long since subsided, but Hizballah has seen to it that HRW does get a little bit of publicity for its efforts: The press conference in Beirut announcing the study had to be cancelled because of security threats. But HRW is a courageous and principled organization, and will not be deterred from finally, and no doubt cathartically, releasing its report over a year late and into an indifferent media environment. The Hizballah study has just been posted on HRW’s website and it is much more boringly titled than the hit piece on Israel: “Civilians Under Assault.” You may wish to be sitting down to hear this news, but Human Rights Watch has concluded, after thirteen months of investigation and dozens of pages of analysis, that Hizballah fired rockets at Israeli civilians.

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Tribal Revolt

At the blog of the Small Wars Journal, Dave Kilcullen offers some fascinating perspective on the significance of the tribal revolt that began in Iraq’s Anbar Province and is now spreading elsewhere. Dave is a former Australian army officer (and Ph.D. anthropologist) who recently ended a stint in Iraq as General David Petraeus’s chief counterinsurgency adviser.

The entire piece is long but worth reading for his subtle and sophisticated delineation of what is driving so many Iraqi Sunnis to flip against al Qaeda in Iraq. Here are three key points from Dave’s post:

1) “[T]he tribal revolt is not some remote riot on a reservation: it’s a major social movement that could significantly influence most Iraqis where they live. The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40 percent of the country. It has spread to Ninewa, Diyala, Babil, Salah-ad-Din, Baghdad and— intriguingly—is filtering into Shi’a communities in the South.”

2) “[T]he current social ‘wave’ of Sunni communities turning against AQI could provide one element in the self-sustaining security architecture we have been seeking. And if the recent spread of the uprising into the Shi’a community continues, we might end up with a revolt of the center against both extremes, which would be a truly major development.”

3) “It also does much to redress the lack of coalition forces that has hampered previous counterinsurgency approaches, by throwing tens of thousands of local allies into the balance, on our side.”

In other words, the attempts by some skeptics to write off security progress in Anbar as an isolated phenomenon with no implications for the larger political picture in Iraq won’t wash. If current trends continue (and of course they may not), Kilcullen suggests, what started in Anbar could transform Iraq politically as well as militarily.

At the blog of the Small Wars Journal, Dave Kilcullen offers some fascinating perspective on the significance of the tribal revolt that began in Iraq’s Anbar Province and is now spreading elsewhere. Dave is a former Australian army officer (and Ph.D. anthropologist) who recently ended a stint in Iraq as General David Petraeus’s chief counterinsurgency adviser.

The entire piece is long but worth reading for his subtle and sophisticated delineation of what is driving so many Iraqi Sunnis to flip against al Qaeda in Iraq. Here are three key points from Dave’s post:

1) “[T]he tribal revolt is not some remote riot on a reservation: it’s a major social movement that could significantly influence most Iraqis where they live. The uprising began last year, far out in western Anbar province, but is now affecting about 40 percent of the country. It has spread to Ninewa, Diyala, Babil, Salah-ad-Din, Baghdad and— intriguingly—is filtering into Shi’a communities in the South.”

2) “[T]he current social ‘wave’ of Sunni communities turning against AQI could provide one element in the self-sustaining security architecture we have been seeking. And if the recent spread of the uprising into the Shi’a community continues, we might end up with a revolt of the center against both extremes, which would be a truly major development.”

3) “It also does much to redress the lack of coalition forces that has hampered previous counterinsurgency approaches, by throwing tens of thousands of local allies into the balance, on our side.”

In other words, the attempts by some skeptics to write off security progress in Anbar as an isolated phenomenon with no implications for the larger political picture in Iraq won’t wash. If current trends continue (and of course they may not), Kilcullen suggests, what started in Anbar could transform Iraq politically as well as militarily.

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