American Politics: the view from overseas

Event hosted by the School of Social and Behavioral Science and Center for Global Engagement: ‘American Politics: the view from overseas’ on April 25, 2023 at 12:00 noon in the Bove Auditorium.

Discussion with our guest speakers: Viviana Mazza, Italian Journalist, NYC Corriere della Sera, and Ryan Heath, Author of Global Insider Editorial Director, POLITICO, alongside some of Mercy’s professors School of Social and Behavioral Science and School of Business.

mockup of forthcoming book from Oxford University Press, Political Automation: An Introduction to Driverless Government from Policing to Peacekeepingfor illustration purposes only

Forthcoming from Oxford University Press - Political Automation: An Introduction to Driverless Government from Policing to Peacekeeping

Governments increasingly use AI-based software to produce policy decisions according to a set of programmed instructions. These "bureaucratic bots" routinely gather information about our lives and decide matters of resource allocation; they determine, for example, who gets policed and who gets state benefits. As automation edges up the ladder of cognitive skills, increasingly complex policy-making functions will be taken over from human supervision, including on matters of national security and international peacekeeping. The role of humans in the act of policy production itself is therefore changing, as many find themselves at a new "frontier" of citizenship. This book (forthcoming 2023), will explore that frontier.

CGE Speakers Series - Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

CGE Speakers Series - Russia's Invasion of Ukraine - 03 2022 (002)

My Introductory remarks

Hello to all, and thank you for joining us today to discuss this timely, tragic, and thorny topic. Before I hand it over to the guests, and then open the floor to Q and A, I have been asked to provide an introduction to the situation in Ukraine.

This introduction will serve two purposes: First, we have quite a few students joining us today, some of whom may require a few background facts to better contextualize the conversations that will follow.

Second, in a time where journalists increasingly do the work of lawyers and politicians, someone has to pick up the work of journalists – that is, to report the facts, and just the facts.

What is evident to the world today is that a sovereign nation has been brutally invaded. As of this weak, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights verified a total of 1,151 civilian deaths as a result of Russia’s military attack on Ukraine. But what are the events leading up to this horrible war? As the saying goes, there are always three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the truth. But in this story there are far more than three sides. We have the Russian side, the aggressor in this story, that also claims to be the main aggrieved party.

We have the Ukrainian sides, as there at least two, that of the Pro-Russian separatists and that of the Pro-Western, most current, government. Then of course there is the EU, NATO, different foreign policy establishments in the US, and fence-sitters across the globe from China to Brazil. Whenever there are so many competing interests in a conflict, it is helpful to anchor the search for facts as far back in history as possible, and in as narrow a geographic area as possible. This helps us avoid the propagandistic tugs of the present, and the amateur generalizations of the armchair grand-strategist. In this spirit, let us start with the history of Crimea (or Krym as they say in both Ukrainian and Russian).

Crimea is a peninsula situated along the northern coast of the Black Sea. Its possession is one of the major bones of contention between modern day Russia and Ukraine. Controlled by Mongols and then Ottomans for centuries, in 1783 the peninsula became part of the expanding Russian Empire and then later of the Soviet Union. In 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev signed a decree transferring Crimea from the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, both of course part of the same overall Soviet Union.

In July 1990, with the Soviet Union collapsing, Ukraine declares itself an independent, neutral, and non-nuclear state. These three things are clearly stated and applauded around the world. The neutrality part is in reference to joining any military alliances, like NATO. Shortly after, in January 1991, Crimea holds a referendum in which 94% of the population, in large part Russian-speaking, elects to also become autonomous. The parliament of the new Ukrainian state at first
recognises this independence, and then changes its mind a few months later. Negotiations take place and by 1992 Crimea is granted special semi-autonomous status within Ukraine. Relations between the Ukrainian government and Crimea are tense throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Motions for more independence are met with tighter control by the central state on local government. Following the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, there are calls by some in Ukraine, and the West,
for Ukraine to join NATO.

By December of the same year the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice signs a Charter on Strategic Partnership, that, I quote: “emphasizes the continued commitment of the United States to support enhanced engagement between NATO and Ukraine.” However, a PEW poll conducted at the time finds that the majority of Ukrainians are opposed to joining NATO. The parliament even passes a law barring the country from joining any military bloc. This ends any real prospect of Ukraine actually joining NATO. But the majority Russian speaking population in Crimea is getting increasingly nervous. Between 2009 and 2011 the United Nations Development Program conducts a series of polls in Crimea, and finds that up to 70% of the population wants to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. We will come back to Crimea, but for the moment we must turn our attention to the history of events in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and dig up some facts there. Leonid Kuchma served as president from 1994 to 2005. Then the orange revolution happened. This was a series of protests against the winner of the 2004 elections, the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych. Protest groups preferred the other candidate, the pro-West Viktor Yushchenko, and claimed the election was rigged. The largely peaceful protest was successful and Yushchenko was brought to power. But Yanukovych returns to power and becomes president in 2010.

In 2013 a second wave of protest begins against him. This was called the Euromaidan, a series of demonstrations which began in Independence Square. Maidan means square, and Euro is in reference to the European Union. The protestors were angry with Yanukovych for delaying a what seemed like a done deal with the European Union. Yanukovych instead suggested a new trilateral agreement between Ukraine, Russia, and the EU. Violence quickly escalates and continues into early 2014. Ukrainian radical right-wing and ultranationalist groups, such as Svoboda, join the violence on the side of the protestors. The whole of Ukraine becomes increasingly unstable, and local officials in Crimea push to break from Ukraine. They are concerned about what may happen if the pro-West protestors come to power in Kyiv. In February 2014 the protestors succeed in taking over Kyiv. President Yunokovych flees to Kharkiv, a city in the east and the country is now quickly splitting in two. The new government in Kyiv goes ahead with the EU deal and officially makes joining NATO a national priority.

Undercover Russian soldiers spill into Crimea and take control of all the airports, seaports, and train stations, cutting the peninsula off from the rest of Ukraine. NATO calls this Russian presence an invasion. People in Crimea hold a referendum and organizers claim 97% elect to formally join the Russian Federation. Ukraine says the referendum is illegal. Anti-Ukrainian and anti-West jitters now spread to the northeast of the Crimean Peninsula in an area called the Donbas, which comprises two regions on the border with Russia, Luhansk and Donetsk. This area is resource rich, and before the war accounted for 25% of Ukrainian exports.

In May 2014 they also hold a referendum, in which organizers claim 89% vote in favor of breaking from Ukraine. A civil war starts and rages on for years, with Ukrainian forces portraying separatists as terrorists, and separatists portraying Ukrainian forces as invaders. On February 21 2022, Russia officially recognizes the self-proclaimed separatist republics of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, and two days later invades Ukraine, purportedly in defense of these two states. It is an interesting irony of war that a large portion of the Russian bombs are falling on pro-Russian parts of the population. What does this all mean for the future of Ukraine? What are the connections between this war, corruption, crime, and the neo-authoritarian tendencies we see in governments around the world? What will be the fate of the free media, and the open internet? How will each side prosecute the human rights violations that inevitably occur. To the Ukrainian’s credit, they have promised to  investigate violations on their own side.

Will a new Iron curtain run through Kyiv this time, instead of Berlin, and will it not only be physical but also digital – i.e the so called splinternet? Has this war inaugurated a new phase in world history, where nuclear-weapon holding states outside the atlantic alliance are emboldened to use war as a policy tool?
Will China follow suit over Taiwan? And most importantly, can sovereign democratic countries no longer elect to determine their own political and military alliances? It would not be the first time that standing up for the right of self determination of smaller nations causes a wider conflict between greater ones.

These and related questions I leave to our guest speakers. Dr Inna Melnykovska is Assistant Professor of Comparative Political Economy at Central European University in Hungary. Dr Natalia Forrat is Visiting Associate in the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. Frank Brown is Director of the Anti-Corruption and Governance Center of the Center for International Private Enterprise
in Washington DC. Before I hand it over to them, I would like to lay some ground rules for questions from the audience. Please wait until our speakers have all finished before asking questions. If you do have a questions please keep it brief and if possible address it to one or more of our speakers. You can use the raise hand
function in zoom, or ask to speak in a message in the chat. I will call on you in the order I see your raised hand or text in the chat.
Dr Melnykovska, over to you, thanks.

Global TechnoPolitics Forum Event - Artificial Intelligence & Democracy: Are algorithms inclusive of all citizens?

Themes under discussion include:

  • History of data collection about citizens' physical bodies
  • History of data collection about citizens' mental states
  • Some examples of current uses of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT)
  • Some examples of current uses of Facial Emotion Recognition (FER)
  • Expected future developments of the technologies
  • Ethical issues around consent, privacy, and access
  • Political issues around possibility of "nudging" mass behavior
  • Exploration of cognitive security and related challenges

William F. Olson Chair in Civic and Cultural Studies for Academic Year 2021–22

From the Office of the Provost, Mercy College.

I am pleased to announce that Dr. Eduardo Albrecht, Associate Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy in the Department of Social Sciences, has been selected for the William F. Olson Chair in Civic and Cultural Studies for Academic Year 2021–22.

The William F. Olson Chair in Civic and Cultural Studies, made possible by a generous donation in April 1997 by William F. Olson, recognizes a professor for distinguished excellence as a Core Faculty member at Mercy College, where the professor's appointment is in the former Civic and Cultural Studies Division (an academic unit under the College's old Divisions organization). The current corresponding disciplines or degree programs include: Political Science; History; Music/Music Production and Recording Arts; Philosophy; Religion; and Art History/Design and Animation. The Selection Committee found that Dr. Albrecht’s work is exemplary of distinguished excellence.

Dr. Albrecht has been teaching for Mercy College since 2015. His research focuses on international political movements and political subjectivity in a range of settings, specifically in Southern Europe and on the Korean Peninsula. He collaborates on an ongoing project that combines data analytics and ethnographic analysis to formulate predictions in international political affairs. Dr. Albrecht involves his students in authentic learning practices, encouraging their deep investigation of current and global issues; participation in Oxford-style debates; and experiential learning opportunities, including undergraduate research.

I congratulate Dr. Albrecht on winning this award. I also thank all applicants for participating in this year’s competition, and members of the selection committee for reviewing the applications.

Elections 2020

Many have done and are doing a great job describing the legal and political ways that the 2020 elections have been “historical” and “unique.” So I will steer away from that, and instead I would like to give a few broad stroke observations of what I believe are the wider societal transitions underway. These societal transitions underpin many of the political divisions we have been witnessing, and they can be described as:

1) A transition away from political parties as representative of ideological beliefs, to parties as representative of biological identities. Of course, this is not an overt nor formal position of the parties, but it has been amplified by a media quick to promote stereotypes and it is starting to take on deep psychological meaning for many voters. This development historically has been a precursor of political violence.  

2) The parallel expansion of two distinct ecosystems of mass media that are in a de-facto state of incommunicado. On the one hand an institutionally owned and endorsed system of news media, social media, and professional network based public conversations (of which this very event is a part). On the other a decentralized and unruly ecosystem of fringe opinions and unconventional beliefs.  This second system “hacks” the first, as in it uses the former’s infrastructure but without the former’s sanction. Like an immune system fighting off a virus, the official system finds itself scrambling to discredit, disqualify, and de-platform the hackers. It is an interesting development that the current President of the United States is now officially a hacker, posting what a Twitter algorithm qualifies as misleading and incorrect information. A civil servant, legally if not emotionally, represents the entire nation, from which he or she gets his or her mandate.  A private entity is mandated by its shareholders.  This public-private tension over the public discourse will not be easy to figure out.

3) A silent, yet profound, division over the role of the constitution and in particular between those that champion “unalienable rights” versus those that champion “positive rights.” Unalienable rights are those that cannot be taken away by government (right to speech, faith, happiness), positive rights are those that government should proactively give to individuals (right to shelter, food, safety). The balance between the two defines the role of the state and the very meaning of freedom (freedom “from the state” alongside freedom “guaranteed by the state”). Both have a role to play in our modern social contract.

Too much freedom from the state can lead to chaos, injustice, exploitation, and too much freedom guaranteed by the state can lead to tyranny (as it opens the struggle for power over control of those freedoms). Yet when half of society only sees and cares about their unalienable rights, and the other half only sees and cares about their positive rights, it no longer becomes a matter of how to mix the two, but of pitting the one against the other. Getting that balance right is possible when both sides see the value and danger of the other side.  I believe we are not just witnessing a “historic” election, but a re-definition of the social contract.

Can Diversity of Thought Coincide with Diversity of Cultures in the Classroom?

Today we will address this tough question, though perhaps not completely nor satisfactorily answer it. It may in fact not be solvable, as it is a tension, or rather a dilemma, that we have inherited from an empirical past common to all cultures and the imperfection of all people. 

This dilemma is twofold.  It is psychological and it is political.  Psychologically, we seek fellow humans that are like us and that agree with us, and we base that similitude on faith.  Not evidence of similitude, but faith in our similitude.  

The more our societies diversify culturally – through the natural ebb and flow of migration, the global push and pull of poverty and opportunity, and the immediate availability of various foods, music, and ways of thought from all parts of the world – the more the need for that faith in similitude rises in importance. 

We require more and more expressions of similitude from our fellow humans.  Those expressions thus become ritualized, and they become performances we expect to see and be pleased with.  This alleviates anxiety and discord, momentarily, but at the cost of diversity of expression.  Performances that do not adhere to a standard, that are seen as a bit off, or perhaps insincere, invite opprobrium.  

Factions rise where subgroups are seen as better performers of similitude.  Society is thus splintered, politically, culturally, and intellectually.  We break off into echo chambers while inhabiting the same physical space.  In and out groups become more clearly demarcated and identifiable.  

Out groups are essentialized as fundamentally flawed and irredeemable.  A person’s entire moral character is based on just one aspect.  We fail to see the person and the context, only looking and judging them for that one opinion we deemed distasteful. 

In sum, the more we diversify, the more our anxiety increases, the more we seek expressions of similitude, which pushes us into a frustrated and frantic search for even the slimmest signs of similitude from smaller and smaller sub-identity groups.  

This malaise affects everyone irrespective of political beliefs or ethnic heritage, and irrespective of geography and history.  In some historical circumstances it becomes statist and institutionalized.  One faction enlists the power of the state and public institutions to enforce the rituals and performances of similitude, and to ban difference.  Those that disagree have one choice: acquiesce or face sanction.   

We are all to some degree acquainted with the feeling that results.  It is the cognitive dissonance a human being endures when asked to splinter their public persona from their private beliefs.  It is the ultimate tool of power, because it targets and reins in the human spirit.  

History indicates that this makes people grumpy.  There are some that do not want to let go of what, to them, is transcendent, immovable, and not relative nor subjective.  They may resist.    

This takes us to the second dilemma, the political dilemma; for the state and public institutions do have a role to play in monitoring and sanctioning discourse.  The state has a responsibility to protect vulnerable sections of the population from harm.  

This is the rationale for banning what has been termed “hate speech.”  Speech that has the criminal intent to mobilize one section of the population to commit acts of violence toward another section of the population is, and should remain, illegal.  

Institutions of higher education also have a responsibility to combat this type of speech.  This type of “diversity of thought” should not be allowed.  That much we can all agree on.

The hard work is engaging in a conversation over definitions, over what to include and what to exclude from the list of harmful, and thus illegal, expressions of thought.  It becomes a question of defining the type of hateful expressions that are likely to result in criminal, intentionally produced harm.

There are two challenges here.  First, hate is, after all, an emotion; and emotions are notoriously hard to pin down.  Moreover, these emotions are often communicated via symbolic imagery, and symbols, which both conceal and reveal, are slippery to define.  Identifying intent becomes difficult.    

The second challenge is what happens when this responsibility to protect becomes a tool of power.  In other words, what happens if it is hijacked by one group to the detriment of another?  What happens if your simple act of existence becomes hateful, and thus a public security issue?  Does the state still have the responsibility to protect society against your very existence? 

This was, after all, what occurred in Europe in the 1930s towards ethnic, sexual, and political minorities; and is yet occurring today in many parts of the world.  Identifying this type of politicization, or rather weaponization, of the responsibility to protect is certainly easier in hindsight and when geographically removed.    

In sum, on the one side there is a need for the state to stop the expression of thoughts that can be dangerous to people, and on the other side there is a need to allow the expression of thoughts to stop a state that can also be dangerous to people.  

This is the political dilemma that is layered on top of the psychological one already described.  It is a double quandary that as educators in institutions of higher learning we cannot avoid or ignore.  While we may not be able to solve it, perhaps we can think of ways to mitigate its effects, and perhaps build bridges that allow us to have both diversity of thought and diversity of cultures.