Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Going Beyond Handouts

By Eran Wade

If we are to get beyond just giving handouts to countries and the poor, we need to ask the question of what is causing the poverty in the first place. Are the people lazy? Do they simply want a free handout? Are they simply jealous of our wealth? Do they want to hurt us and our way of life? Do they simply want socialism and not capitalism? The educated people I’ve talked with here say no. They say there is a deeper injustice occurring.

The latest email of the Washington Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says, “Colombia is still a country at war. Its record on human rights is dismal. Attacks on civil society, union leaders, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous people continue with impunity. The FTA will deepen the economic disparity, which is a root cause of the conflict, and diminish human rights…Colombia is already the world's largest producer of cocaine. The FTA will threaten livelihoods and displace small farmers leaving, for some, no other alternative than to join the lucrative drug trade…

It continues, “Laws put in place in anticipation of the FTA to attract investment dismantle the legal rights related to territory, mineral and forest resources of these communities. Once the FTA is in place, under its investment rules, multinational corporations benefiting from these legal reforms will be able to sue the Colombian government for compensation for future lost profits if the laws are revoked…Enforcement of the new changes will be dependent on Colombian President Uribe who has a consistent record of undermining domestic labor and environmental law enforcement. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for union and labor organizers”

Madeline Albright writes about this in her new book, “With communism essentially dead and the victory of capitalism presumed, we might think that Marxism could safely be forgotten. Yet Marx predicted that capitalism would fail precisely because it concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. Increasingly, this is happening both within and among nations. Globalization, though celebrated for increasing productivity, has been accompanied by growing inequality. Critics allege that this split is caused by corporate interests who have used their power to impose unfair rules governing trade and tax policies. She continues, “Because the rules are unfair, the Western prescription for economic health, embodied in so-called Washington consensus…can seem the wrong medicine. Governments are forced to curtail social spending and give higher priority to pleasing foreign investors, so it is said, than to meet the needs of their citizens. When this happens, policies intended to aid development are perceived as marginalizing the poor.”

It may be hard for those of us in the United States to understand how we and our international policies are viewed regarding Colombia. It’s easy and natural for us to look out for our own self-interests, but it may be harder for us to see why it makes a difference that our international policy take into consideration the human rights violations of another country. When we do business and support another country that corruptly ignores the plight of it’s own citizens and the leaders who are trying to help, we are perceived—as Albright says—“as marginalizing the poor.”

Being here in Colombia has given me a new perspective. Maybe if I can share this perspective, it could help us to see how taking a stronger stance on human rights could benefit the United States. One leader told me, “It’s not just that the U.S. is rich. It’s how they got that way.” Our support of the Colombian government is perceived as “stepping on the backs of the poor” (who have nothing) so that corporations (who already are sustainable) can have more.

I’m all for democracy, freedom and entrepreneurship. The U.S. is a capitalist society and the economics of our country are very important. But if most of us knew that our country’s economic interests were growing at the expense of peoples lives, we might look into how we can change that. I don’t believe the average person in the U.S. wants to have our economic interests advanced at the cost of human rights and the First Amendment freedoms of people here in Colombia. I wish I could report that we look like the good guys here. I wish we were seen as the bearers of freedom, democracy and fairness. I wish we had a better reputation. But the truth is, we not only are perceived as ignoring the rights of freedom and the poor, we’re perceived as only advancing our own economic interests at the expense of freedom and the poor.

Some would say that we need to focus on protecting the interests of the U.S. and we cannot help the poor in other countries. However, I’d like to make a point that is entirely and personally mine regarding the situation in Colombia. When our economic interests in other countries encourage the human rights we ourselves value and take for granted in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, we go further to consolidate our best long-term economic interests. We create fewer enemies and more long-term friends who will be happier doing business with us later on. We support fair rules that allow people to work hard for a meaningful life. They are less likely to resent us. Making friends with people in other countries does more to solidify our economic security in our global world.

A university student here in Colombia wrote to me, “I don't know how much the vision you had about Colombia before coming here has changed, but I guess the experiences you have lived here, have changed your mind. Now you can understand what is really going on here and what kind of support the people really need. Even for me, sometimes it's really hard to try to understand how much the people have suffered in my country, because I am used to living in a city apparently far away from the conflict; but I am not blind, and I don't want to be blind. There are people who have lost their hope, and I know that every single thing I do (and other people do) to help them can bring back the hope, and encourage us to keep the faith and to build a new country with opportunities for everybody, especially for those who need it.”

There’s a great song by the Flaming Lips called the “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” from their album “At War With the Mystics.” With plagiarism being the hot topic last week, I better admit that the title of one of my blogs came from the words in the chorus of this song: It’s a great song with a very catchy tune. If you have never heard it, go to this radio station’s web site, stream the audio live, and email or call the request line to ask for this song. I end this blog with the lyrics:

“If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch
Would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich
Would you do it?
If you could watch everybody work while you just lay on your back
Would you do it?
If you could take all the love without fiving any back
Would you do it?

And so we cannot know ourselves or what we'd really do...
With all your power
With all your power
With all your power
What would you do?

If you could make your own money and then give it to everybody
Would you do it?
If you knew all the answers and could give it to the masses
Would you do it?
No no no no no no are you crazy?
It's a very dangerous thing to do exactly what you want

Because we cannot know ourselves or what we'd really do
With all your power
With all your power
With all your power
What would you do?

Click here for Eran's previous post about Colombia


The Colombia-United States Connection

By Eran Wade

Through the story in my last blog, I illustrated a point that the social justice leaders here have been telling me: that all the groups involved in Colombia—guerrillas (FARC, etc.), Paramilitary, and government—contribute to the human rights violations. In addition, the social justice leaders here say that the poor are caught in a battle over land that has great economic potential. What does this have to do with the United States?

While you may not agree with her politics or her affiliations, Madeline Albright offer poignant advice in her new book, Memo to the President Elect. She writes as if speaking to the actual next President Elect, “Reducing poverty should be a central theme of your administration. This is smart politically, right morally, and makes sense economically. With this goal in mind, you should reevaluate our policies on trade, aid, farm subsidies, the environment, and women’s rights. To dramatize your commitment, you might visit some of the poorest countries early in your term and, while there, draw attention to the linkages that exist among disease, hunger, corruption, and conflict.”

She continues, “Twenty years ago, Hernando de Soto developed an economic strategy for Peru based on the extension of legal rights to participants in his country’s informal economy—that is, farmers without deeds, businesspeople without certificates of incorporation, and families without title to the houses in which they lived. Backed by the government, de Soto’s program gave new legal standing to people in areas preyed upon by a violent guerrilla group.”

According to Albright, “As de Soto’s research reflects, families living in poverty already have assets many times greater than the amounts received through foreign aid…The catch is that many of these assets exist outside the formal legal economy, and thus cannot be leveraged into capital, investments, or loans…Mr. de Soto’s team found that months, even years, can be required in some countries to establish legal title to a house or to register a new business.

She concludes, “This leaves millions of small entrepreneurs—such as cabdrivers, jitney runners, street-side venders, laundresses, small farmers—without enforceable rights at home or on the job. Many don’t even have birth certificates or proof of identity. Lacking power, they are vulnerable to those with power, including criminals, predatory government officials, and single-minded developers, who may, for one reason or another want to move poor people out of the way.”

These are the kind of discussions I’ve had while here in Colombia. The stories and the leaders talk about the way each armed group violates the rights of the poor to move them out of the way.

One thing I’ve learned while volunteering at the Freedom Museum it’s that freedom is something we have to work at and struggle at protecting. It is not a guarantee. It is certainly not a guarantee in Colombia. One of the social justice leaders here asked the question, “If we try to raise people’s level of conscious on these issues, our government tries to make us disappear.” Yet, in the United States, we have the freedom to discuss these questions and opinions. We can have a discussion that questions our government and the rights of people. But this is not simply a question to be relegated just to the Freedom Museum. It’s a question that infiltrates other areas of life, including faith.

The Washington Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recently sent an email about U.S.-Colombia International Policy. It seriously questions the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and highlights some of the same concerns I have been hearing from the people here. The email goes into detail about each consequence, but I’ll just mention them: “If passed the U.S.-Colombia FTA will: Undermine human rights and fuel the fires of conflict….Destroy small farmers…Increase drug trafficking...Harm Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians...Hinder access to life-saving medicines...Harm workers and environment…Increase the burden on women, children, and the poor…Undermine U.S. and Colombian sovereignty…Threaten the Amazon and wildlife…Pirate traditional knowledge.”

It continues, “People of faith all over the world are calling for international trade and investment systems that respect and promote the dignity of the human person, ensure the development and well-being of people in all nations, foster gender and racial equity and lead to environmental sustainability.”

Does the United States international policy support a country that fails in basic human rights protection? Can a government have an economic policy that doesn’t just care for the bottom line, but also takes into account how that policy affects basic freedoms like freedom of speech, freedom of petition, freedom of the press, freedom of religion? Can we use our economic power to demand that the assassinations, the corruption, and the injustice stop?

In one of my first blog entries, “Can religion and Politics Mix?” I explored the relationship of government and faith. A reader responded by saying, “The question is not can religion and politics mix…They mix all the time. I think it is inevitable. One will inform the other, unless these beliefs are not as deeply held as we are led to believe. Maybe the question is how should they mix?”

In my experience here in Colombia, it has been interesting to see the Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church, and the Mennonite churches leading the way on human rights. I admit my bias, that I’m here through a Presbyterian program, and that there may be other groups involved that I’m not aware of. I know of lawyers, university professors, and other human rights organizers which are involved. But it seems the religious community has deeply committed themselves to the cause that—as I said in an early blog—is greater than any denomination, group, or political party.


Watchdog or Bomb Thrower?

By Shawn Healy
By now the New York Times story purporting an inappropriate relationship between GOP nominee-in-waiting Sen. John McCain and a telecommunications lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, is old news in a 24-hour nonstop cycle that paused for mere hours to consider what one McCain aide described as a "hatchet job."

The rapid response of the McCain team was certainly effective as right wing critics who wanted none of the maverick candidate rallied behind him as the "Gray Lady" took her shots. He held a press conference first thing in the morning when the story hit page one, answering questions from all comers and citing his disappointment in the paper that endorsed him only four weeks earlier. In all likelihood, McCain will weather this passing storm and his campaign will live on for what promises to be an epic battle this fall against the likes of Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton.

The larger issue are the methods employed by the Times in releasing this story, namely their use of anonymous sources. The story landed above the fold and ran a full 75 inches. It began and ended with the allegations of a potentially romantic relationship with a lobbyist who conducted business before McCain's committee (both denied this charge), and cited two anonymous sources close to the campaign in 2000 when the infractions supposedly took place. This was wrapped around a story that spoke of McCain's frenetic on-again, off-again relationship with lobbyists in general and his efforts to reform the system as a result in light of his ties to the Keating Five scandal of the 1980's.

The Washington Post ran a similar story, but without the romantic innuendo. Both had information suggesting that McCain and Iseman were friends, that his campaign staffers were concerned that the relationship threatened his image as a reformer, and that meeting between the Iseman and a high-level staffer occurred where she was told to distance herself from the candidate to avoid charges of impropriety. Most critics in the field have suggested that this was the preferred route of addressing a newsworthy story in a responsible manner.

Additionally, the Times conveniently used legislation that allegedly showed that McCain worked for the interests of the telecommunications industry Iseman lobbied for, when it could be argued that deregulation is in line with his libertarian economic tendencies. Moreover, the story fails to document the legislation supported by McCain that conflicted with the industry's interest. Telling half a story in a lengthy piece is simply unacceptable.

I first caught wind of the story during my morning workout as news streamed across the network and cable morning shows. They focused extensively on the story's lead, picturing McCain and the lobbyist side-by-side in separate photos, losing the larger message embedded in the story, and implicating guilt by default. Journalists ethicists tell us that sequencing is everything, as is the competition between eyes and ears, where the former always wins.

Also important is the backstory here. The Times has been working on this piece since November, and there was tension in the newsroom as the editors demanded verification of the alleged ties. The Drudge Report first aired public details of the story in December, triggering a New Republic piece on the tension between Times writers and editors. It ran on Thursday, the same day as the Times piece, but the latter was posted on the web by Wednesday evening. According to Times executive editor Bill Keller, there is no connection between this sequence of events and the fact that the story ran when it did. The story was merely being vetted by lawyers and finally reached his desk as of last Tuesday.

Regardless of what account we choose to believe, the Times would have done all of its readers a service by shedding a light on these inner newsroom workings. In response, many newspapers across the country refused to run the Times story, opting for the tamer Post piece. In an article that could have derailed the nomination of a lesser candidate, McCain arguably emerges stronger as his party and the conservatives that make up its base coalesce around their presumptive nominee, for better or worse. The Times, on the other hand, raised even more questions about its objectivity, as conservatives shun the "newspaper of record" and the industry itself questions the integrity of its standard-bearer.

Without doubt the press plays a pivotal role in vetting our political candidates and has not only a right, but also a responsibility to hold our elected leaders accountable. If McCain used the spoils of office to further his own career, than the Times and every other enterprising newspaper should dig for every scrap of information that would make such a case. In my mind, it failed on this ground in a story that is dated, relies almost entirely on sources we cannot confirm, and places the burden of proof not on the candidate, but the "Gray Lady" herself.


Using an Ambulance to Save some Lives

By Eran Wade
Santiago (name changed) began his story, “It is very sad what I see and know. It is very sad the story of them. I am able to tell a story of one woman in 1997 that lived near a mountain. One afternoon, one group of paramilitaries came to her house, and killed her husband and her two older boys. They told her she better leave because her family had collaborated with the guerillas. They didn’t, but that’s what they were accused of. She came to live close to my house with her other four children. The smallest one was still in her arms. She lived 15 days in the area, when the chief of one of the armed actors came with the army. They told her she had to leave and she could never come back. She came to me and asked me to take her to a nearby bigger city. She had nothing. Only her children. And a lot of fear. That year, I was driving an ambulance. I had to decide if I would help her and take a chance that I too would be assassinated. The only way of taking people from that place was by ambulance. If they left another way they would be attacked. I finally decided to take her. We left in the night with her kids and nothing else. She would leave with absolutely nothing—no food and no extra clothing. They arrived in the nearby city at 1 in the morning of a wintry rainstorm. It was a very sad moment for me because they had no place to go. When I dropped them off, they didn’t know the city. I let them out and they went under a bridge to protect themselves during the winter storm. I never heard of them since. I hope they are alive.”

While here in Colombia, Santiago and other human rights advocates like him have told me there are many, many stories like this.
Why would anyone want to threaten and kill church workers, lawyers, and university professors who advocate for human rights? Who would cut down people who stand for freedom of speech, freedom of petition, and the democracy we espouse in the United States?

Lonely Planet’s guidebook on Colombia explains the political and military situation of those involved by saying, “Talks began in January 1999 and inched on and off with practically no results. The guerrillas refused a cease-fire as a precondition of the peace dialogue. So the war went on as it had for decades. The FARC also wanted the government to dismantle the right-wing paramilitary groups, but the government denied any links with them…Since the state has been unable to control the areas lost to guerrillas, private armies (so-called paramilitares or autodefensas) have mushroomed with the Colombian military turning a blind eye and even supporting them. These right-wing squads operate against rebels in many regions including Uraba, Cesar, Cordoba, Antioquia, and Cqueta, and have committed some horrendous massacres of civilians allegedly supporting the guerrillas.”

Here’s how the situation is described to me by the social justice leaders. The two groups are fighting over land and the rural farmers are caught in the middle. Let’s pretend group A is fighting with paramilitary group B. One armed group will come to the farmer with a gun and force them to give them something that helps their group. Group B will then come and accuse that farmer of collaborating with the other group. The farmer and/or family will be killed or intimidated and will have to flee to a city or somewhere to get help.

The leaders here allege that the paramilitary is supported and tied to the government. If a social justice worker does anything to stand up for or help a displaced person, they too are labeled as a terrorist, threatened and/or killed. At the very least, human rights violations done against the social justice worker by the paramilitary is ignored by the government. Seven lawyers were assassinated in 2007 in Barranquilla (a coastal city of 2 million people).

Santiago told me, “In my pueblo both the FARC (rebel group) and the AUC (paramilitary) have left victims. On February 4th, there was a huge march in Colombia, “NO MAS FARC!”-- No more FARC! My position is that the church needs to march in the defense of life, there are no other marches, but in defense of life.”

The struggle here is a human rights issue. The lawyers, pastors, and human rights workers allege there is not freedom of speech or freedom to petition one’s government. They say the government is corrupt and linked in with the paramilitary. It is not enough to be against the guerilla groups who are taking people hostage and using drugs to supply their rebellion. They are saying the cause must be a cause for the protection of life no matter where the assassinations are coming from—guerilla groups, private armies, or government. They accuse the government of doing what Lonely Planet’s guidebook says, “…private armies (so-called paramilitares or autodefensas) have mushroomed with the Colombian military turning a blind eye and even supporting them. These right-wing squads operate against rebels in many regions including Uraba, Cesar, Cordoba, Antioquia, and Cqueta, and have committed some horrendous massacres of civilians allegedly supporting the guerrillas.”

I would love to report that the government and paramilitary are shining examples of First Amendment freedoms. It would be nice to report that the guerilla groups are the bad guys and the government is the good guy in this story. It would be real easy to say the problem is only the FARC. However, the people here give a different account. But my eyes do not deceive me. I see a group of 120 displaced families trying to farm and survive after being forced from their farms. I read newspaper articles of a government that has promised to help the displaced to find new farms and new lives and then turn around and then try to give those new farms to private large agribusinesses instead. I read non-profit web sites in the U.S. that confirm the stories that are being told.

It’s weird to have dinner with a friend, who is risking their life to help the displaced. It is weird to have a conversation where he tells you that his friend was killed 2 weeks ago in the kind of scenario I describe above.

The leaders here are courageously standing up for the rights of the poor here in Colombia. They envision a Colombia where the people are protected and the conflict is ended. They dream of a government that actively works against innocent killings rather than corruptly collaborating. The rights of freedom of speech and freedom of petition are squashed by fear of and actual disappearances of those educated church pastors, university professors, and some of the brightest minds that you and I would enjoy as friends in the United States.

Click here for Eran's previous post
about Colombia


Follow the Benjamins

By Shawn Healy
USA Today published an excellent editorial this morning along the same lines of yesterday's post, focusing specifically on Sen. Obama's apparent about-face on public financing for the fall campaign. In the spirit of debate, the paper always allows for a counter-point essay in response to the lead editorial, and Obama obliged. I'll let you be the judge of whether or not he assuaged our concerns.


Money Matters

By Shawn Healy
The 2008 election cycle illustrates the profound need to raise vasts sums of cold, hard cash to run a competitive campaign for our nation's highest office, not to mention the thousands of other elective positions at the national, state and local levels. The top two Democratic contenders, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, have raised and spent unprecedented sums in one of the most gripping nomination contests in history. The protracted nature of the race is surely to blame, as is the frontloaded calendar that placed a premium on television advertising, by far the costliest of all campaign expenditures.

True, money isn't everything. Gov. Mitt Romney vastly outspend his GOP rivals only to bow out after a meager showing in the preliminary contests, not to mention Tsunami Tuesday, Feb. 5. But, it is necessary to remain a top-tier competitor. Ask Sen. John Edwards, whose underfunded campaign ended shortly after losing in his birth state of SC. He banked all of his spartan resources on Iowa, only to come up short, and the spigot remained dry afterward. He even signed up for federal matching funds, which limit spending on a state-by-state basis, but provide a dollar-for-dollar match of funds raised privately up to these established ceilings.

Matching funds are a relic of the three-decades old campaign finance reforms passed in the wake of Watergate. The set amounts offered, and limits by state are hopelessly outdated in the wake of inflation, not a mention a frontloaded primary calendar that makes small states like Iowa and NH disproportionately influential. State-by-state caps fail to account for these disparities.

Since 2000, therefore, we have seen the most formidable presidential candidates refuse matching funds in both the primary and general elections. Under current law, candidates are free to raise $2,300 from individual donors for both the primary and general election contests, and must disclose the names of all donors who contribute more than $250. These limits, updated with the McCain-Feingold legislation of 2002, are another legacy of Nixonian abuses.

Opponents contend that limits on personal financial contributions to political candidates are abuses of the First Amendment right to free speech, where money is equated with political speech. Supporters suggest that limits are necessary to remove the appearance of corruption from the political process, and the Supreme Court has generally agreed. However, its landmark 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision did strike down spending limits on candidates due to First Amendment concerns.

This leads us to our current conundrum. The First Amendment/ appearance of corruption paradigm is hopelessly outdated. This is illustrated in the Freedom Museum's conference report titled "Civic Disengagement in Our Democracy." It argues that we need to move beyond this stale argument to address the needs of the status quo. Full disclosure of campaign donors might be coupled with more relaxed limits, and the public financing system must be updated so that it is again attractive to leading contenders.

At the same time, we must face the realities of 2008. While corruption is not likely systemic, the appearance of it is nonetheless widespread. The developments of the past week are particularly disturbing. Taxpayers for Common Sense issued a study of 2007 congressional earmarks. Among the top-tier presidential candidates, Clinton received more than $342 million in earmarks for her constituents, ranking in the top-five in her party and ninth among all senators. Obama, by comparison, captured a paltry $92 million for the Prairie State, though one of the earmarks was directed toward the hospital that employed his wife.

What is most disturbing about earmarks beyond their cost is the fact that they often involve projects or contracts that benefit companies and individuals who are also sources of campaign donations.

Candidates themselves can be sources of campaign cash for their comrades. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, both Clinton and Obama greased the wheels of superdelegates with regular campaign contributions over the past several years. As it appears likely that these non-elected representatives of the Democratic Party will determine the standard-bearer this summer, one can't help but conclude that the nomination may go to the highest bidder.

Perhaps the most disturbing news of the past week was word of a broken promise. Sen. McCain has already committed to using public financing, $85 million in total, for the general election campaign this fall if his Democratic opponent agrees to do the same. Obama made a similar promise last fall, but last week distanced himself from his word and said that he would have to consult his campaign on the matter. The junior IL senator is certainly a prolific fundraiser, and would likely outdistance his GOP rival by a significant sum, but isn't principle more important here as both candidates seek to restore faith in democracy and the federal government?

What are we as citizens to do about an election awash in greenbacks? Begin by following the mighty dollar. The Federal Election Commission tabulates quarterly filings by candidates and offers an eye into who is backing who in the money chase.

Pressure candidates to accept federal matching funds for the general election.

Write a letter to your representatives urging them to update existing campaign finance laws to account for changes to the primary schedule and the time value of money (note: it's continually diminishing).

Even consider contributing to an underfunded campaign based on principle, especially those who refuse to take money from registered lobbyists or "bundlers" (those who actively solicit and "bundle" contributors from friends and colleagues).

Ultimately, how about voting for a candidate that sticks to his or her guns on these issues? Send a message to our candidates that democracy is not for sale!


The 82 Year Old Graduate Student

By Eran Wade
Before I came to Colombia, I had visions of myself surrounded by green jungle next to military warriors in fatigues sleeping in a small room over a shabby non-profit office. Over the last 4 weeks, the reality is that I am in a major city, on a beautiful university campus, getting to know hip people that you and I would love hanging out with in the United States. They are university professors, lawyers, teachers, college kids, and educated church and human rights leaders.

One of these men told me a story about his family. When the grandfather of the family was 65 years old he retired, but he soon became depressed. His son came to him and asked him, “What is something you’ve always wanted to do, but have never done?”

The grandfather replied that he had never finished secondary school or gone to a university. He wanted to do that. So the family decided to help him finish his schooling. Occasionally, they asked the grandfather’s professors how the he was doing. They said, “We’re scared of him. If we ask him a question, his response is written on a document half an inch thick!”

The grandfather finished his schooling and was going along fine. He was going along fine until he was 82 years old. Then he told the family he wanted to go back to school and get his Master’s degree!

One day, he came home and said to the family, “What do these professors think? That the only thing I have to do with my time is to work on their projects?” They thought it might help him if he had a computer, instead of re-writing his work on the typewriter. They gave him the computer, but he said, “I’m too old to learn to use this.” So the computer sat there.

One day, his grandson said, “Grandpa, do you mind if I use your computer.” Grandpa didn’t mind at all. The family then had an idea. They went to the 14 year old grandson and asked him if he would do something for them. Would he type and put the Grandpa’s thesis in the computer? The grandson was happy to do that—in fact, he felt proud to contribute to something important for the family.

One day, the Grandpa was complaining again about how his professors wanted him to rewrite and re-work his thesis. The family said, “Grandpa, take a look at what’s on the computer. Do you recognize this?” The grandpa saw his thesis on the computer and was shocked. The grandson started showing the grandpa how to use the computer and how easy it was to make the changes on his thesis. The grandfather started learning how to use the computer and finally finished his thesis.

This grandfather is now 90 years old and a patriarch in the human rights, social justice, and church work here in Colombia. One of my first nights here in Colombia an older man and his wife sat next to me at dinner after a meeting. I asked him how many years he and his wife had been married. In English he answered, “60 years!”

I had been speaking and hearing Spanish from people for 5 or 6 days and I couldn’t help but laugh and blurt out, “60 years he says! And in perfect English!” This was the grandfather in this story.

A few months ago, I was invited along with the other Freedom Museum volunteers to attend the opening of the elections exhibit, “Vote4Me! Inside a Presidential Election.” I remember Dave Anderson, Executive Director of the museum saying something like, “We sometimes have a discussion about whether it is right or a privilege to vote. We’re not here to tell you who to vote for or what you should vote for. However, we think you should be educated and informed on the issues.”

I have been impressed with the educational level of the people I am here with. Education has always been a high value in the religious reformed movement, but also I’ve noticed it the high education of the people in human rights and advocacy groups who usually happen to be lawyers. Others are students who come from some of the best universities in the country.

It has helped me gain their perspective as I think through the points posted in my last blog: 1) The first amendment freedom to petition and disagree with one’s government. 2) Should our international policy only be interested in the bottom line for our economy no matter how it affects others? 3) What is the best U.S. international policy for Colombia?

As I examine these issues, I have been able to visit places and people that are directly affected by many military and political forces at play here in Colombia. Like most conflicts in life, the cause of the problems here are multidimensional. When I ask people what they think about their situation, each person starts their answer with “Es muy complicado.—It’s very complicated.”

There are no easy answers. My first days here, I was overwhelmed with a sense that this was an opportunity of a lifetime. Of course, I’ve had fun enjoying “Carnaval,” other parties, great new friends, the nightlife here, gorgeous weather (what a winter to miss!), and advancing my Spanish skills. But these aspects, plus the opportunity to learn the public policy in the country and with such bright minds, have come together as a gift I will always cherish. I have the opportunity to hear stories and information of the people and their struggle for freedom here in Colombia.

Thanks to this blog, you and I can travel this road together.

Click here for Eran's previous entry about the Colombia experience


The Politics of Freedom

By Shawn Healy
David Boaz spoke to a lively Freedom Museum audience last evening who braved another batch of winter weather to hear about his new book, The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Our Liberties, and a more general discourse on libertarian principles. Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, is an articulate and principled adherent to a socially liberal and fiscally conservative political philosophy.

Boaz's book is a collection of brief essays that offer equal opportunity attacks on liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. He opposes smoking bans and gun control, but also preemptive war and a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. In his mind, nanny state liberalism is as big of a threat to freedom as is big government conservatism. At its heart, Boaz argues that the United States is the freest society in the history of civilization, and that our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and fundamentally rooted in libertarianism.

His talk began with lamentation about how the left and right selectively celebrate the Bill of Rights. While the ACLU trumpets the magic of the five freedoms of the First Amendment, it largely ignores and can be outright hostile to the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. The conservative Heritage Foundation is apt to promote a similarly bipolar arrangement, only turned upside-down.

Boaz payed homage to the legacy of Robert R. McCormick and the publishing empire he helped build while standing in the Tribune Tower. He pleaded that the First Amendment is not self-executing, but instead requires the daily tutelage of journalists.

He then dove into a discourse on the principles of libertarianism. Defined as "the application of science and reason to politics and policy," libertarianism is premised on private property, rule of law, and tolerance. The latter are the "rules of the world," and are discovered through the reality of the ways the world works.

With this in mind, are we less free than we used to be? Boaz suggests that in many ways we are better off than we were even 30 years ago, although we have strayed significantly from our founding principles. That said, slavery is no longer legal, women now vote, and society as a whole has become increasingly tolerant of diversity.

At the same time, we are apt to confuse wealth and openness with actual political freedom. Wealth, although widespread, is not liberty. Similarly, we are a society of merit, not status, as social barriers have declined across time. Our political freedoms are increasingly encroached upon, yet we are more free today than in the past, and as suggested above, perhaps more free than any people in human history!

Moving from soaring philosophical platitudes to practical politics on the ground, Boaz quoted widely-syndicated journalist Robert Novak, who often addresses college graduates in commencement addresses with the advice: "Always love your country, but never trust your government."

In this light, Boaz proceeded to rail against the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress that accompanied him through 2006. Bush was the first president to submit both a $2 and $3 trillion budget to Congress, expanding the size of government by more than 50% over the course of his presidency.

The Bush White House suspended the writ of habeas corpus for "enemy combatants," and contributed to the stationing of American troops in more than 130 countries worldwide. The mother of all evils from the perspective of a libertarian, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, contributed to the largest expansion in the size of the federal government since the days of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

American voters rejected the Republican record of ballooning budget deficits and a protracted war in Iraq by handing the reigns of Congress to the Democratic Party in the fall of 2006. The Democrats have proceeded to load spending bills with excessive earmarks, have failed beyond belief in their ability to end the war in Iraq, and thus have offered much of the same as their GOP predecessors.

What is a libertarian to do in the wake of concurrent failures by both parties to live up to the ideals of our founding creed? Boaz counseled his sympathizers to speak up in defense of freedom without fear of the repercussions. When someone suggests that "there ought to be a law..." or "the government should help those people," respond with a resounding "NO," and suggest more plausible alternatives to address the underlying problems. Write letters to public officials and to newspaper editors. Donate to like-minded political candidates and think tanks. Lend a book (wink, wink) to a comrade in arms.

The Politics of Freedom is certainly a worthy candidate for the latter, for it promises plenty more nuggets of wisdom from Boaz.


Eternal Search for Hope into Spring

By Shawn Healy
Sen. Barack Obama's convincing sweep of four state caucuses this past weekend clearly places him on the side of momentum, and he is poised to run the table again tomorrow during the Potomac State primary. Sen. Hillary Clinton saw the writing on the wall and fired her campaign manager as she looks to regain her footing for the WI primary on Feb. 19 and the contests in OH and TX (also RI and VT) on Mar. 4. Obama actually has more delegates assigned as a product of ballots cast, but Clinton retains a narrow overall lead on the backs of pledged superdelegates.

According to an internal memo leaked by the Obama campaign, we should expect a continuation of this protracted battle on the Democratic side as they expect neither candidate will capture the requisite number of delegates to clinch the nomination outright after the conclusion of state contests in early June. This sets up the prospect of a) the superdelegates picking the nominee; b) a lawsuit to seat the delegates from MI and FL, which would throw the nomination to Clinton; or c) an old-fashioned floor fight at the Democratic National Convention in late Aug. The reality is that even letter "d," all of the above, is an option, as is "e," none of the above, where one candidate rides the wave of momentum to seal the deal, perhaps by Apr. 22, the day of the PA primary.

The Republican race is easier to decipher, although too early to call just yet for frontrunner Sen. John McCain. Indeed, former Gov. Mike Huckabee has vowed to continue the fight until McCain clinches the nomination outright. Short of a miracle, Huckabee has no chance to claim the mantle as his own, but he could deny McCain the crown. His hopes are buoyed by a blow-out victory in the KS caucuses on Sat., not to mention a narrow win in LA and a disputed defeat in the WA caucuses.

However, look for McCain to clean up tomorrow in the Potomac primary, followed by a decisive win in the Badger State next Tuesday. The Mar. 4 primaries in OH and TX could all-but wrap up the nomination, although the Lone Star State is a place where Huckabee should find more even footing. The former AR governor appears to be a regional candidate, and as I said last Wednesday, he boasts strong appeal in the South and in states with substantial evangelical populations.

In the spirit of the Freedom Museum's ongoing coverage of the 2008 campaign, we are hosting David Boaz tomorrow for a book lecture. He will present the soon-to-be-released title, "The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Civil Liberties" at 6pm. Unfortunately, if you have yet to RSVP, the event is booked to capacity, but thankfully Five Freedoms Intern Winne Monu will be there to report and provide a full summary of the evening's events on Wednesday morning.


What Would You Do?

By Eran Wade
I visited and saw the film at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum even before I started volunteering. It tells three stories of current debates surrounding first amendment freedoms. The last story is about some widows of 9/11 petitioning and questioning the United States government to shed light, clarity, and truth on "that fateful day." The story of these courageous women demanding answers from their government really moved me. This is one of the freedoms guaranteed in the first amendment that I know very little about. It seems to have to do with the right to voice our opinions and question the conduct of our government. (Of course, there are certain limitations within the first amendment). We can say if we disagree with and petition our government.

Switching gears, in Madeleine Albright’s recent book, “Memo to the President Elect,” she asks, “What is our republic’s rightful role? Should the United States be content to serve as a model for others or seek actively to spread freedom? Should our presidents be guided by narrow considerations of national self-interest or by our zeal to lift lives and solve global problems?” How much should the U.S. only be concerned with our economic interests and how much should we also be concerned about how our international relations affect human rights, fair trade, and other social questions? These are two seemingly opposite points of view and two valid questions.

Currently I’m asking questions related to these points: 1) We are a people that have the freedom to question our government. 2) Should our international policy towards other countries be solely our own economic self-interest or should it go beyond that? 3) What are the best ideas for international policy regarding Colombia?

Before I left for Colombia, people asked, “What exactly are you going to be doing in Colombia? Are you going to build something? Are you going to teach or do some sort of project?” In the United States I was used to hearing about poor people who needed assistance. I heard about starving children because of famine. I heard of Rotary International working to eradicate diseases. I led a youth group to help finish a building on a Native American Reservation. All over the world there are poor families—even in the U.S. What’s so unique about Colombia? Helping the social services needs of the poor is valid. However, the people here are able to provide social services, do their own building, and do work with their own people. My objective here was always meant to be different.

Deeper questions had been asked. Why are these people poor? Are they being treated fairly? Even more at stake are questions related to the right to disagree with one's government--the kinds of questions talked about and illustrated at the Freedom Museum. My work here is to accompany people who are standing up for the poor. This means I am spending time with them as they ask the tough questions related to the three points and questions I listed above.

I am befriending church workers, lawyers, and college student advocates to listen to their stories. They are asking their own questions. What is our organization's role in the conflict in Colombia? What is our social role? What is our civic duty? Should we question our leaders? Can we question the policy of our government? I confess I have taken this freedom for granted in the United States. This freedom was important to our founding fathers in the new democracy. They sacrificed to bring us that freedom. What if our lives were threatened because we questioned our government? What if we were in danger because we advocated for a change in the way our nation did things?

I have brought up some of these ideas in previous posts in different ways. Now I am bringing them up to set the stage for some ideas in my next blog(s). It would be great to get your feedback about the questions I'm asking. Go ahead. Post your comment at the end of this blog. I’m able to read each comment posted.

I'll end with how the Freedom Museum film ends. Just pretend there's some catchy music in the background, some captivating images on the screen (better yet, go to the museum and view the film yourself). Then the voiceover closes with questions like, “What would you do if your most basic freedoms were gone tomorrow? What would you do?”


The Morning After

By Shawn Healy
I must confess to a little bit of a letdown now that Tsunami Tuesday has come and gone. True, many interesting contests remain, and much drama will surround some of these individual states (Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas, for example), but the quasi-national primary with an evening of non-stop returns from zip codes in every corner of the country is over, and we are left to sort through the leftovers of yesterday's 24 course, or should I say state, meal that political pundits will savor long after the last bite.

Starting with the Democrats, this was an evening with no decisive outcome either way, with Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both landing several punches, but forcing the pundit class to declare a split decision and multiple rematches when the dust settled. Obama won 13 of the 21 Democratic contests, but Clinton retains a narrow lead in the critical delegate count.

The NY senator won her home state, along with delegate-rich NJ and CA. She also scored a surprisingly easy victory in MA after the Kennedy klan flocked to Obama in full force. Obama split the South with Clinton, taking GA and AL while Hillary claimed AR, TN and OK. The IL senator also defended his home turf, but snagged CT from the Northeast and the Show Me State in the heartland, MO. Obama dominated the sparsely-populated and red-trending Great Plains with superior organization in a scramble to win states to offset Clinton's delegate windfall.

On the morning after, the race is far from decided, so Clinton and Obama soldier on to LA, WA, and ME this weekend, followed by the Potomac Primary (MD, VA, and DC) on Tuesday. I expect Obama to prevail in the bulk of these contests, placing pressure on Clinton to come back in WI on Feb. 19, and OH and TX on Mar. 4. In all likelihood, this contest will not be settled until Apr. 22 in PA at the earliest, with the prospects of a split decision heading into Denver for the DNC in August.

The Republican picture is far less complicated. Sen. John McCain landed several severe body blows to upstart Gov. Mitt Romney, but the former MA governor did end the day with 7 state victories, many of them in sparsely-populated states with few delegates. McCain jumped to a potentially insurmountable lead in the delegate count as he is roughly 400 away from clinching the nomination. He won the winner-take-all states of NY, CT, NJ, DE, AZ and MO, and dominated in CA, prevailing in all but three counties across the Golden State.

The surprise of the day was Gov. Mike Huckabee's success across his native South. He began the day with a narrow win in WV, and followed that up with a sweep of GA, AL, TN and AR. Contrary to Romney's suggestions heading into yesterday's 21 state contests, this is a two-man race, but it is between McCain and Huckabee, not Mitt.

Republicans look next to LA and KS on Saturday, then their own Potomac Primary on Tuesday. VA is key for Huckabee as he seeks to rally evangelicals once more and make a case to lead the GOP ticket in Nov. Romney vows to continue on through the convention, but given his distant third place finishes throughout the South and failure to steal CA yesterday, his path to the nomination is effectively blocked. In all honestly, the same is probably true for Huckabee, though he did make a strong case to balance the ticket as McCain's wing man.

Nathan Richie and I recorded another podcast this morning assessing yesterday's developments, along with future projections and extensive analysis of McCain's continued vulnerabilities with the conservative base of the GOP. Due to the blizzard that is sweeping the area, tonight's Smart Mouth program at the Freedom Museum has been postponed. Stay tuned for details of its new date and time, and also for continued analysis of this historic election.


Tsunami in Sight

By Shawn Healy
Greetings from one of the 24 states set to hold a primary or caucus for either the Democratic Party, Republican Party, or both tomorrow. We've been waiting for a long time for the race to finally pass through our neck of the woods, although it meant only brief touch downs by Sen. John McCain on Friday and former Gov. Mitt Romney yesterday. Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama have set their sights elsewhere, an acknowledgment of Barack's favorite son status in the Land of Lincoln.

Polls here show wide leads for Obama among the lingering Democrats, Clinton and former Sen. Mike Gravel, and McCain over Romney, Huckabee and Paul in the remaining Republican field, but the contest is close in several of the two dozen or so other states where the major candidates have set their sights. The contest between Clinton and Obama is particularly interesting and difficult to call. Obama has closed the gap with Clinton in national polls and should fare well in sparsely populated states like North Dakota, Alaska, Idaho and Kansas tomorrow. Clinton may sweep the northeast, although Massachusetts and maybe New Jersey are in play. California is increasingly up for grabs, although with the proportional representation of delegates at work there and in most Democratic contests, look for Clinton and Obama to divide delegates roughly equally tomorrow.

The Republican side is a bit easier to predict. McCain holds wide leads in the polls in most of the 21 contests slated for tomorrow. Expect McCain, Romney and former Gov. Mike Huckabee, to score favorite son victories in their respective home states (AZ, MA and AR), and for McCain to sweep the balance of the Northeast with winner-take-all primaries. Romney should win convincingly in Utah, and the southern states of Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama remain competitive, three-way contests. California once appeared as a lock for McCain, but Romney is surging there and recent polls show him with a narrow lead.

What I can predict for certain tomorrow is that it will be a long evening of complicated election returns. The various state nominating processes also vary by party, and "delegate math" adds yet another layer of confusion. I expect Hillary Clinton to emerge on Wednesday morning with more delegates than Obama, but Barack may end up winning more states given his emphasis on smaller caucus states that trend "red." McCain should clean up on delegates with his substantial lead in the winner-take-all states. A win for Romney in the Golden State would provide him with additional leverage to stay in the race, and Huckabee could make a similar case should he sweep the South.

Check back here on Wednesday for a thorough analysis of tomorrow's developments. In addition to this blog, I will also record another podcast with Nathan Richie and also participate in an evening program at the Freedom Museum titled "Smart Mouth," where four young "movers and shakers" will pontificate on the state of the race one day after Tsunami Tuesday. Admission to the program is free, but please RSVP here or call 312.222.7871.

Hope to see you Wednesday, and if you are a registered voter in one of the 24 states in play tomorrow, please exercise your civic duty and weigh in on who should be our next President, not to mention the candidates down the ticket. Happy Election Eve!


Civic Disengagement in Our Democracy

By Shawn Healy
Last September, the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, in partnership with the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, convened a meeting of more than forty national thought leaders including bi-partisan political representatives, pundits, journalists, and scholars, to address the underlying causes of our disengaged citizenry in light of the 2008 election cycle we are now experiencing firsthand. At the conference, we addressed issues like campaign finance reform, the presidential nominating process, campaign conduct, with a specific focus on TV ads, election administration, and media coverage of the campaign. We sought common understanding amongst a disparate group to lay the groundwork for substantive changes to the process in time for the next four-year election cycle in 2012.

The deliberations of the conference and initial ideas for reform are articulated in this report that we proudly introduce for public consumption. The report is particularly pertinent in an election cycle where a frontloaded process has placed a premium on victories in early contests, effectively sealing the fate of all but four candidates by the end of January (Clinton, McCain, Obama and Romney). The quasi-national primary scheduled for next Tuesday, Feb. 5, shifts the contests in both parties to made-for-television dramas, as the retail politicking of the past is relegated to the dustbin. A study released yesterday by the University of Wisconsin shows the role that televised advertising has already played in the campaign. It comes as no surprise that the top four contenders are also the top spenders, with Clinton and Obama near parity, but Romney outspending all of his rivals combined.

The report also addresses some of the challenges of administering elections in light of the pockmarks of 2000 and 2004 in Florida and Ohio, respectively. In 2008 we have already learned of similar problems in South Carolina and Florida, with other states scrambling to find a way of securing paper backups for electronic voting machines.

Our emphasis on televised campaign coverage is also timely in light of the Hollywood writer's strike and the public's fascination with a high-stakes reality contest called the presidential campaign. Cable news ratings have gone through the roof as CNN, Fox, and CNBC present around-the-clock coverage on the ground as the campaign traverses the nation. The media's role as kingmaker is certainly worthy of intense scrutiny, and their power is particularly magnified during this compressed nomination calendar.

It goes without saying that in order to forestall general apathy amongst our citizenry the entire process must be examined and reformed in bi-partisan fashion. In a letter I wrote published in USA Today two weeks ago (Jan.17, 2008), I argued that both parties should consider the adoption of the so-called Delaware Plan, with later primaries spread across several months, and the smallest states in terms of population kicking off the process, following by successive blocs of progressively larger states. We are hopeful that this suggestion and others are carried into fruition as a result of the conference we convened, this soon-to-be widely disseminated report and the action that both inspire.


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at