The sifting cloth is binding

18 08 2013

I’m not much disappointed in the Obama’s administration’s approach to national security.

I hate it, but I never expected anything else.

I’ve said in the past that presidents are so keen to go overboard on national security issues because a) they can and b) because they’ll be punished if they don’t. I think “a” still holds: presidents have far more leeway in foreign policy and national security matters than they do in domestic policy, not least because Congress is (in part due to fear of “b”) almost always willing to go along with the president when he says certain powers are needed to protect the (sigh) “homeland”.

President Bush almost certainly acted outside of the boundaries established by Congress when his administration authorized the torture of prisoners, but everything else by Bush and Obama? Okey-dokey by them. Detention. Rendition. A FISA court which never says no. Restriction of oversight to, well, oversight rather than overseeing. The gulping down of any and all data transmitted electronically. And who do you think authorized the expenditures for that massive data-storage complex in Utah?

This is not confined to the US: Glenn Greenwald’s partner was detained by the British security service for the full 9 hours (which almost never happens) allowed under the horrendously loose provision of Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000—passed by Parliament a year before the September 11 attacks.

I’ve also argued in the past that we, the people, basically authorize Congress to authorize the president to grope around in our private lives: we want to be safe, are willing to give power to those who promise to do everything possible to keep us safe, and will punish those who are unwilling to do everything possible. We won’t tolerate failure, I’ve asserted, so will tolerate almost everything else.

I’m no longer so sure that’s true, at least the part that we’ll punish leaders if something bad happens. In fact, I think I was badly, grossly, wrong about that in ways that should have been obvious.

What have been obvious failures of security in the past century or so? William Randolph Hearst trumpeted “Remember the Maine!” and pushed McKinley toward war, but was McKinley himself punished for the alleged Spanish perfidy? Pearl Harbor was attacked on FDR’s watch, and, again, the result was war—but not punishment for the president. LBJ trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which led, yep, to war, but not to a diminution of his power.

Carter was considered weak in the wake of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran, but it’s not at all clear that the determination of weakness was due to the takeover itself rather than the long siege or the lousy US economy. The Marine compound was attacked in Beirut under Reagan and the Black Hawk Down incident occurred under Clinton, but because both presidents chose to cut the US’s losses, it’s not clear to what, if any, extent either man was punished: each was re-elected after these events.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing? Again, Clinton wasn’t punished for that, easily winning a second term the following year.

And, of course, there’s the example of President George W. Bush. The worst attack by foreign terrorists on US soil and not only did he not pay a price, his approval ratings went up.

Now, it is common to talk about a rally-round-the-flag effect in response to national crises, but if this effect is real, then the punishment thesis doesn’t really work: they’re mutually exclusive.

This is just so goddamned obvious I have no excuse for having missed it.

I do think it’s possible that politicians are afraid they’ll be punished by constituents, but the real threat is less from constituents than political opponents, and from worrying that they’ll be called “soft” on terrorism or crime or drugs or whatever. If they don’t have any response to that charge, then they might get tagged as weak—but the weakness (if it is really even a weakness) may be due less to the alleged softness than to the lack of response itself.

Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Johnson, and Bush responded with war; presidents Reagan and Clinton responded with cut-and-run, and President Carter, the one considered weak, didn’t seem to have a clear response. In Carter’s case, that lack of clarity was read as lack of competence.

There’s a lot I’m throwing out, here, and much that I likely should be considering and am not. But on that basic point, that politicians act aggressively so as not to punished for [the consequences of alleged] softness, I’m pretty damned sure I was wrong.

I may be wrong on this, too, but I now think the issue isn’t punishment for an attack or even for lack of aggression following that attack, but lack of clarity  in the response.

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Can you hear me calling you?

11 06 2013

Howza ’bout a quickie?

Personal experiences, privacy, disclosure, spying, blah blah: When I was in college I worked for The Daily Cardinal, the radical campus newspaper.

The editorial editor was always a Marxist (almost always of the Trotskyite persuasion, although the brilliant and scary Karen once referred to her “Stalinist friends”), and the former editor (who the staff loved when he was editorial editor and hated as editor-editor) was prosecuted and imprisoned for failing to register for the draft. Oh, and one of the bombers of Sterling Hall (mentioned a few posts back) had worked at the Cardinal before heading underground.

So: It was not inconceivable that mere association with the Cardinal was enough to land someone on a a government list somewhere.

I never worried too much about it, even though I was quite active politically (anti-nukes, anti-apartheid, US-out-of-Central-America, etc.): I just didn’t rate. I joked that if the FBI did have a file on me, then they were wasting their damn time.

This, then, is the flipside to my flipping out about privacy: I don’t rate, so if the NSA is scooping up information on me, they’re wasting their damn time.

I’m all over the place on this NSA thing. I hated and hate the PATRIOT Act, and think any scandal over snooping is due to the fact that it’s policy, that it’s been stamped RIGHT ON! by Congress and the courts. I get why journalists and pundits (and I) are banging on about this—journalists and pundits (and I) like disclosure of governmental activity—but I’m more flabbergasted by the flabbergast of those journalists and pundits than I am by this particular bit of governmental activity.

I mean, what the hell did these people think we were getting with the PATRIOT Act and FISA and deferential courts?

And there ain’t no surprise about Obama, either: He made clear when he was running the first time that he was going to hit the national security thing hard, differentiating himself from Bush in seeking to legalize data seeking.

Any scandal is that this is all SOP, and insofar as the majority of those polled seem just fine with it all, t’ain’t no scandal at all.

I may be in the minority on this—I hate the info dragnet—but I also understand the general shrug on this: most folks just don’t see or feel any effects from this. And hell, back in the day when I might have had some, small, reason to think there might be eyes on the crowd I ran with, even then I noticed no effects.

Damn, this is getting too long: lemme truncate it. One,  I’ve long assumed any electronic transaction was not confined to private wires, so the latest bit is less revelation than confirmation. Two, in sucking up every last bit of info about every last person, I find a kind of safety in numbers—I and tens of millions of my fellow Americans (and hundreds of millions of my fellow Earthlings) don’t rate. Three (and this requires an argument I’m not going to give, because already tl;dr), I’m more worried about corporate than govt info-hauls precisely because I think corporations are more likely to use the info than is the govt.

Finally, what matters more than the info-haul is the mindset behind the info-haul but I am not going to get into it tonight because this post is not the 3-or-4 grafs I was thinking it was going to be and it’s time to go to bed.

So, whomsoever may be reading this (wink, wink): nighty-night!





The rest is silence

9 06 2013

Say nothing.

I am, as you may have guessed, a talker, someone who always has something to say and almost always knows how to say it. I can be quite obnoxious—always something to say—but also useful in social situations. And as a professor who glances at rather than reads her notes, the ability to float words into air comes in handy.

Like a lot of talkers, I can be unnerved by spaces without sounds. I almost always have the radio on, and in class I’ve had to force myself after tossing out a question to wait one, two, three or more beats for a student to grab it, rather than reeling it back in immediately. I’m a pushy broad who has to restrain herself not always to push so hard, to give time to the laconic to make themselves heard.

Yet whether despite or because of that need for words, I know the force of silence.

When I was an undergrad I went into therapy, briefly, with a psych resident, J. She was. . . fine, I guess, but I was pissed off and messed up and deeply, deeply ambivalent about therapy. I was abashed at my need to talk to someone, so—I could see this only in hindsight—cast about for any reason not to talk.

J. gave me that reason.

Not on purpose, of course. It’s just that she had this rule that she would follow no matter what: the client had to start the conversation. Well.

The first coupla’ sessions I’d wait a bit, and then start in. J. would follow up, but too often in that Interviewing-101 kind of way.

Me: I’m just, I’m always worried what people are thinking of me, like I’m doing something wrong.

J: So you’re feeling kind of judged, huh?

(I don’t know if that’s exactly what I said, but I do remember, for whatever memory is worth, her saying that exact phrase back to me.)

It got worse from there. There was a large plant next to the loveseat on which I sat, and while I could see J. concentrating the hell on me as she shifted from one attentive position to another in her office chair, I’d  lean back, finger the leaves of that plant. And say nothing. Five minutes. Ten minutes. By our later sessions, I was silent for 20, maybe even 30 minutes.

Did I mention that, because she was a resident under supervision, all of our sessions were taped?

I was an asshole, and while some of the jerk things I did while I was messed up were due to my being messed up, this wasn’t one of them. I knew I was being an asshole, knew that she’d have to go back to her supervisor with that half-blank tape—knew that by not talking I had power over her—and I enjoyed it. You gotta rule about who talks first? Yeah, well, here’s what you can do with that rule!

I did, finally, put an end to it all. I don’t remember if I thought, Okay, quit being a jerk or This ain’t working or some other mashup of decency and practicality, but I knew that this particular therapeutic relationship was stillborn.

The ambivalence over therapy remained, even throughout two good, if difficult, therapeutic relationships (as well as a number of abortive ones), but in those good relationships I tried not to be an asshole, tried (not always successfully) not to use silence as a weapon. I did more often use it as a shield, but in a decent therapeutic relationship you learn—well, I learned—that the person sitting attentively a few feet away from you might just want to help, and that the best way for that attentively-sitting person to help is to tell her how you need help.

And thus the ambivalence, all the way through: The need beyond desire to tell, and not tell, on myself. Was it revelation or betrayal? The urgency of that question faded, but never entirely went away.

All of this is a verrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry long prelude to my own disquiet with the social admonition to reveal oneself. Now that I’m no longer so neurotic that I worry much about what people think of me—mainly because I folks have better things to do than think of me—I wonder about the social pressure to display oneself, be it on Facebook or Foursquare or whatever. If you don’t know me, what should it matter that I’m not visible to you? (And if you do know me, well, there are other ways to get in contact with me.)

Most folks I know who are on Facebook like it because it’s a great way to connect with or keep up on friends, and thus don’t really get my unease with the platform. It’s just a. . . thing, nothing more.

I don’t see it that way, of course. Yes, on one level it is just a thing, just a handy tool to stay on top of relationships, but on other levels it’s a signal of your interest in others, a scripted performance of oneself, a marker of one’s willingness to go along with social expectations, and, of course, a vast database for a corporation to mine for profit. To choose not to participate is to set oneself apart as an object of suspicion.

Think that’s too much? I don’t want to hang too much on example, but. . . I’m going to hang a lot on this interchange between Farhad Manjoo & Emily Yoffe on Slate:

Farhad: . . .That question came up in the context of a debate about online dating. I said that if you’re going to set up a date with someone and you can’t find anything about them on Facebook… I’d extend that to other social networks. If you can’t find a photo of them and there’s no photo on the dating site either, then you should be suspicious. That person seems to be trying to hide something.

Emily: We’re all trying to hide something, Farhad.

Farhad: Well, the person might be married or have a girlfriend, or in some ways trying to hide their activities. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk case. I don’t think that’s necessarily the situation, but I would be a little bit suspicious.

But to the letter writer’s question beyond dating, I think that it’s better to have a social networking profile for a couple reasons. You are taking control of your online life then.

[. . .]

And if you don’t have [an online presence], I think people will judge you based on that. . . .

I’ve looked at the numbers for Facebook. If you look at the demographics, it’s not like only young people have Facebook. It pretty much cuts across most demographic lines, and from what I can tell, also socioeconomic lines. They have a billion people around the world. Lots of people are on Facebook and I think you’re kind of judged now, for better or worse, if you don’t. [emph added]

Manjoo is a tech fanboy who is puzzled by any criticism of tech which is not about glitches or efficiency—he does not get the concept of social-techno-coercion—and thus ought not be considered a general representative of all social media users.

But he ain’t alone, either. Consider Senator Lindsay Graham’s response to concerns about the NSA’s vacuum-cleaner approach to electronic information: “I don’t have anything to worry about because I’m not talking to terrorists.”

And there it is: If you have nothing to hide, you shouldn’t be afraid to show—with the barely concealed implication, If you don’t show, you must have something to hide.

Do I have something to hide? Like Emily Yoffe, I’m of the belief that “We’re all trying to hide something”, that it’s normal to keep a few things to oneself and not something which has to be justified.

It’s also normal to want to share oneself, not to hide away everything. Even as I’m a non-Facebooker, I am a blogger, and I call and text friends and colleagues and regularly go out in public. I’m a private person in society, someone who believes one ought to be able to be both private and social as she sees fit.

 

To bring this back around, not all or even most of my political beliefs can be traced in any direct way to my personal experiences, but my views on privacy and sociality are most definitely jacked into something deep inside of me. Even as I write that “I’m a private person in society” I fret over the tension contained within that assertion, wonder if it is possible to be both without betraying either the private or social side of me.

In the end, I think I ought to be the one who decides whether to speak, or not. More than that, the conditions under which I choose to speak ought not unduly pressure me one way or the other. I get that there will always be some pressure, but there should be freedom, too.

And if not, well, I like to talk, but if you tell me I have to talk, I’ll enjoy your frustration as I lean back, and say nothing.





Whisper to a scream

6 06 2013

Why aren’t I screaming?

After all, one guy points his camera at the windows of a nearby building and I rant about privacy and presumption; Google wants to equip people with awkward glass and I grouch about techno-coercion; and surveillance drones? Oy, don’t get me started.

So you’d think the revelations of NSA scooping up basic phone information on everyone as well as everything that’s posted online, would cause my ears to blow clean off of my head.

Except, nope.

Not because I don’t think it’s a big deal—I think it’s a very big deal—but because this is all completely unfuckingsurprising.

This isn’t about Obama or Bush, but about a dynamic of presidential politics wherein the executive will grab as much power as he can, especially when the Congress orders him to do so. Some constitutional scholars have speculated that the Obama administration’s actions are unconstitutional, but it’s not at all clear that a Supreme Court which thinks swiping some DNA from every arrested person is okey-dokey by the Fourth Amendment is going to push back against both the president and Congress on NATIONALSECURITY!!!! matters.

Will Congress do anything? Ha. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) might now be ‘extremely troubled’ by revelations over the extent of data-hoovering, but just what the fuck did an author of the execrable PATRIOT Act think would happen when said Act howled ‘AAAARRGGHH! SAAAAVE US!’ to the president.

And We the People? We want to be safe and secure, so if we have to take off our shoes at airports or belts before entering federal buildings or open our bags before getting on trains, then that’s what we’ll do. Oh, sure, we might grumble, but will we press our representatives and our senators to chop back the national security apparatus or reign in the president? We will not.

In fact, if, say, two young men happen to set off two bombs at a city celebration we’ll wonder where was the FBI and the CIA and the Dept of Homeland Security and what more can be done to keep this from ever happening again.

This is overstatement, of course: many of us will say, Hey, this couldn’t have been prevented, there are limits as to what can or should be done. But this shrug (or stoicism, if you prefer) won’t go much further than our living rooms, and those motivated to take their security-skepticism to the halls of Congress might meet a few sympathetic legislators, but not enough to change anything.

Maybe the courts will manage to rouse themselves from the stupor induced by NATIONALSECURITY!!! hypnosis and remember that the Constitution also has something to say about liberty and due process and, oh yes, ‘the right of the people to be secure in their own person‘—but I ain’t counting on it.

This, then, is why I’m not screaming: It would be a waste of perfectly good breath.

~~~

h/t for Joshua Foust link: James Fallows