Friday, June 14, 2013
Douche Moves As Protest
Down there in sunny wingnutty Florida, a judge recently decided that Christian groups could “passively” distribute Bibles in public schools — that is, they could leave them on tables and allow students to pick them up. Mary Elizabeth Williams thinks that’s a bad idea, and I agree — it’s a decision that opens the door to “passive” proselytization.
The Central Florida Freethought Community decided to make a reasonable response, by passively distributing some literature of their own. And now Williams decides that atheists are just as obnoxious as Christians.
But after “1,700 students left school with Bibles” in the wake of one of those “passive” distributions in 11 schools last winter, the atheist groups decided to make a point. They asked for permission to distribute some materials of their own, including books and pamphlets with titles including “An X-Rated Book,” “Jesus Is Dead” and “Why I Am Not a Muslim.” Which if I’m not mistaken is a douche move.
Ms. Williams is mistaken. It is not a douche move. It is a responsible protest. Is the only protest that she won’t regard as a “douche move” one that is completely unobjectionable and does not annoy anyone in any way? Because that isn’t any kind of protest action at all.
I'm sure if Mary Elizabeth Williams had read this, she would've called for her faiting couch:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths...
Save it for a #slatepitch, MEW...
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Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Seest Thou These Stones In This Parched And Barren Wilderness?
Just a few more thoughts on Snowden:
- Is he a hero? Maybe, but that remains to be seen--history will judge.
- Was the leak illegal. Probably, but it also remain to be seen--the judicial system will judge.
- Was the program legal? Seems like it, but constitutionality is up in the air--the political system will judge.
While the information collected was arguably innocuous on its face--certainly that's the argument being made by defenders in Congress and the Administration--a clever person or government entity can still determine identity from disparate bits of data, meta or otherwise. And again, let's flip the equation: does our safety rest only on secrecy and is it so fragile that the mere outlines of our security will give away the game? If so, we're doing it wrong.
I always tell my infosec students--who are part of an NSA-certified curriculum, mind you--that they should steer clear of any products and services that claim some special secret algorithm or mechanism makes their stuff unique. No, you want to use open standards whose details are published and dissected by the community at large.
Similarly, in a free and open society, our polices must be out in the open. Not just to vet them for effectiveness, but because in the end we all have a responsibility to determine what our nation does to provide for the common defense and general welfare. Not necessarily all the details, just the broad strokes are generally enough.
I don't need to know evertyhing about the F-35's stealth, avionics and weapons capabilities, let alone how the DoD plans to use its 2400 fighters to decide whether it's worth spending $200M a pop. I know enough to have the plane's existence disclosed, as well as its costs, maybe some other general info about it.
Similarly, I don't care what specific protocols are used to capture Internet traffic or obtain phone records--I know enough that the NSA is not supposed to gather intel on Americans, is collecting much more than I'm comfortable with, and the oversight is less than I'd prefer. I've always assumed they've done things like this, yet we need to see it out in the daylight to discuss just what we should do to balance civil liberties and general security.
And finally, I don't care about Snowden as a person. He could be a left-handed anarcho-fascist with 30 dicks who jerks it to Maria in Metropolis on alternate Tuesdays whilst eating puppy pate. Our public debate should be about what is being done for and to us, not the perfection of the messenger.
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Monday, June 10, 2013
One Way To Create Space
I have to admit: when a friend at church yesterday suggested Obama might be about to conduct a high-profile pivot and call for the repeal or radical revision of the Patriot Act as a follow-up to his NDU speech declaring the GWOT at an end, I was very hopeful he was right.
Sadly, I doubt that will be the case, but I'm happy to be wrong.
This does have the potential, however remote, to be a good example of constructive tension and creating the space for Obama to do the right thing. When you force the issue by making such things public, it can foster the environment where changes have to be made. At the very least, it's a catalyst for debating some old, bad policies and perhaps finally mobilizing against them when official denials and excuses ring hollow to Americans of all political stripes.
On a more extreme level, what Snowden did could be considered something in the same vein as Method 194 (Disclosing identities of secret agents). No particular human agents were burned, of course, but a significant program and threat to civil liberties was exposed in a form of political intervention that could make the status quo untenable, all because of one person's act of conscience. We should seize the opportunity we've been given.
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Who Is Responsible?
Some civil libertarians have hailed leakers such as Snowden and Bradley Manning for their “courage” in leaking information about these programs. Snowden said that he did it because he believed that it was the public’s place to decide whether these are good program or not. But what makes him think that it is his place to decide to publicize those programs.
His conscience, being a sovereign member of our Republic.
Bush and Cheney were bad elected officials, but they were at least accountable to the public. Snowden and Manning are accountable to no one.
They sure are accountable to us: heard of the criminal justice system? Whether I agree with the leaking or not, it is most likely illegal and people who disobey, regardless of their intentions or moral rightness, must be prepared and willing to suffer the consequences of their actions. And if at some point later in this unfolding drama we as a society determine that what they did was on balance a Good Thing, there are presidential pardons to be had and other support mechanisms that can help them after they've put some skin in the game.
Nor could I imagine that either of them have anything other than a very narrow view of national security programs, and where each of these fit into a broader scheme of national security.
Going Godwin here: does a guard at Treblinka know the whole Final Solution, and does that matter when he's tasked with killing people on his watch? What if you knew about efforts to cover up My Lai? Or bad things at Abu Ghraib? The point is that when you see something wrong, whether you see the whole picture or not is irrelevent.
Surely, there are senior officers in the national security or intelligence community who are questioners, and they have not leaked the information. That has to at least give me second thoughts about the wisdom of making the program public.
That has to at least give me second thoughts about the wisdom of going through channels, which would appear to be counterproductive.
The other issue is to whom this information is leaked. The government has intentionally set up an infrastructure to foster leaking...there are a number of elected officials who champion libertarian principles, so why did Snowden not seek out Mark Udall or Chuck Grassley (famously solicitous of government leakers), or Rand Paul or Bernie Sanders? Instead, these programs were leaked to Wikileaks and the Guardian—if going to the press, why not at least go to the New York Times?
And why not blast this out there so everybody can assess the information without establishment filters? You're already violating laws and norms for ostensibly a moral purpose, and this clearly puts the greatest pressure on those in power.
All this focus on whether leakers should leak misses the real point: if there's something being done to us (or others) in the name of protecting our liberties, we have a right and an obligation to make informed decisions about how such things should work. The fact that there's no nice, clean way to allow that to happen is simply a part of maintaining a free and open society.
Our job now is to take the information we've been given and debate its merits. Is the NSA being reasonable in its zealous acquisition of fairly innocuous data, or is their execution of USA PATRIOT going too far and repugnant to the Constitution? Legality of the leaks is not really our concern; that's for judges, prosecutors and the defense to grapple with.
Let's turn the old canard on its ear: if the government has nothing to hide, it has nothing to fear from exposure. If it does fear leaks, then perhaps it's doing something wrong, for which we are all responsible in the end.
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Saturday, June 08, 2013
A citizenry that’s constantly on guard for secret, unaccountable surveillance is one that’s constantly being remade along the lines the state would prefer. Foucault illustrated this point by reference to a hypothetical prison called the Panopticon. Designed by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the Panopticon is a prison where all cells can be seen from a central tower shielded such that the guards can see out but the prisoners can’t see in. The prisoners in the Panopticon could thus never know whether they were being surveilled, meaning that they have to, if they want to avoid running the risk of severe punishment, assume that they were being watched at all times. Thus, the Panopticon functioned as an effective tool of social control even when it wasn’t being staffed by a single guard.
In his famous Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that we live in a world where the state exercises power in the same fashion as the Panopticon’s guards. Foucault called it “disciplinary power;” the basic idea is that the omnipresent fear of being watched by the state or judged according to prevailing social norms caused people to adjust the way they acted and even thought without ever actually punished. People had become “self-regulating” agents, people who “voluntarily” changed who they were to fit social and political expectations without any need for actual coercion.
But my biggest fear regarding observation comes not from the government, but the neighborhood girls who have very little sense of boundaries or timing...
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Friday, June 07, 2013
At Least Smuts Made The Trains Run On Time
A first class seat was booked for me. It was usual there to pay five shillings extra, if one needed a bedding. Abdulla Sheth insisted that I should book one bedding but, out of obstinacy and pride and with a view to saving five shillings, I declined. Abdulla Sheth warned me. 'Look, now,' said he, 'this is a different country from India. Thank God, we have enough and to spare. Please do not stint yourself in anything that you may need.'
I thanked him and asked him not to be anxious. The train reached Maritzburg, the capital of Natal, at about 9 p.m. Beddings used to be provided at this station. A railway servant came and asked me if I wanted one. 'No,' said I, 'I have one with me.' He went away. But a passenger came next, and looked me up and down. He saw that I was a 'coloured' man. This disturbed him. Out he went and came in again with one or two officials. They all kept quiet, when another official came to me and said, 'Come along, you must go to the van compartment.'
'But I have a first class ticket,' said I.
'That doesn't matter,' rejoined the other. 'I tell you, you must go to the van compartment.'
'I tell you, I was permitted to travel in this compartment at Durban, and I insist on going on in it.'
'No, you won't,' said the official. 'You must leave this compartment, or else I shall have to call a police constable to push you out.'
'Yes, you may. I refuse to get out voluntarily.'
The constable came. He took me by the hand and pushed me out. My luggage was also taken out. I refused to go to the other compartment and the train steamed away. I went and sat in the waiting room, keeping my hand-bag with me, and leaving the other luggage where it was. The railway authorities had taken charge of it.
And the rest, as they say, is history...
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Thursday, April 04, 2013
"We must move past indecision to action."
Dr King on 4 April, 1967:
As Arnold Toynbee says : "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out deperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. "The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on..."
War, climate change, civil rights...it's all of a piece (and peace).
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Tuesday, January 08, 2013
Affected With A Sincere Concern For The Essential Good Of Our Country
Last October I'd noted that some silly Quakers had petitioned the Articles Congress:
We have long beheld with sorrow the complicated evils produced by an unrighteous commerce which subjects many thousands of the human species to the deplorable State of Slavery.
The Restoration of Peace and restraint to the effusion of human Blood we are persuaded excite in the minds of many of all Christian denominations gratitude and thankfulness to the all wise controller of human events; but we have grounds to fear, that some forgetfulness of the days of Distress are prompted from avaricious motives to renew the iniquitous trade for slaves to the African Coasts, contrary to every humane and righteous consideration, and in opposition to the solemn declarations often repeated in favour of universal liberty, thereby increasing the too general torrent of corruption and licentiousness, and laying a foundation for future calamities.
We therefore earnestly solicit your Christian interposition to discourage and prevent so obvious an Evil, in such manner as under the influence of Divine Wisdom you shall see meet.
Took Congress about 3 months to get around to considering the Friends' address:
The Committee, consisting of [Mr. David Howell, Mr. Arthur Lee and Mr. Samuel Osgood] to whom was referred the address of the people called Quakers, presented to Congress on the 8th. day of October, 1783, by a deputation on behalf of the yearly meeting held in Philadelphia, for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the western parts of Maryland and Virginia, submit the following Report.
Resolved, That Congress consider this address from so respectable a part of the people called Quakers as a testimony of their sincere concern for the essential good of their Country the rights of mankind, and of their respect for those with whom the powers of Government are entrusted.
Resolved, That it be recommended to the legislature of the several States to enact such laws as to their wisdom may appear best calculated to compass the object of the second article in the association entered into, and subscribed by the Delegates of the United Colonies in Congress assembled on the 20th. Day of October 1774.
Sadly, even such a bland resolution skirting the actual mention of slavery couldn't carry the day. Human rights were always trumped by "states' rights" from the beginning. I'm sure Scalia will make a faux originalist claim based on this when helping strike down the Voting Rights Act...
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Thursday, November 15, 2012
The World Speaks To Us Like A Great Book
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Friday, October 19, 2012
Like every episode of consumer activism in every era of U.S history, the boycotters of this period drew, both explicitly and implicitly, on the theories and actions of previous groups. All of these antebellum movements linked their efforts to the nonimportation campaigns of the Revolutionary generation. The free produce abolitionists in particular built on a nearly continuous tradition of consumer protest that long preceded their movement.
Many of them were inspired by the example of John Woolman (1720-1772), the Quaker who, as a young man, made the decision to eschew all commercial connections with slavery; for example, he wore undyed clothing because slaves made dyes. Woolman's journals, first published in 1774, provided a personal model of the eschewal of slave-made goods.
As the poet and free labor advocate John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in an introduction to an edition of Woolman's journals that also nicely describes the broader phenomenology of the spread of consumer activism, "We are often surprised to find the initial link in the chain of causes to be some comparatively obscure individual, the divine commission and significance of whose life were scarcely understood by his contemporaries, and perhaps not even by himself. The little one has become a thousand; the handful of corn shakes like Lebanon."
Free produce advocates were also inspired by the Quaker Elias Hicks's Observations on the Slavery of the Africans (1811) Hicks went beyond Woolman's personal politics by imploring other Quakers to avoid slave-produced goods. In addition, American abolitionists were well aware of the organized and popular boycotts of slave-produced sugar that began in Britain in the 1790s and continued sporadically through the 1820s.
Finally, many free producers were doubtless aware of the maple sugar craze of the early 1790s, in which Benjamin Franklin and others encouraged entrepreneurial Americans to market the sweet sap of the maple tree as an alternative to slave-grown cane sugar. The successful marketing of maple sugar, claimed one advocate, would "diminish so many strokes of the whip which our luxury draws upon the blacks."
The early movements introduced tensions that continue to exist within consumer activism, occasionally divide consumer activists, and persist in frustrating their opponents within and outside the cause. For example, there were no fiercer critics of the free produce efforts than fellow abolitionists...
I certainly don't want to overstate the power of the boycott or Quakers or abolitionists in general. Clearly our Civil War settled the issue of the South's peculiar institution through violence, so we'll never know if this nonviolent intervention along with other economic factors would have, as some have suggested, made emancipation inevitable.
What I found most instructive about this example is that when actionists engage, they almost inevitably catch flak from their ostensible allies within a movement.
Which brings to mind a song oft misattributed as a Quaker hymn:
Nothing gets done unless you find your voice, and it might just start with a personal boycott or even...singing.