Tag Archives: activism

Responding to critics of my article about Snowden

22 Nov

I recently wrote an article criticizing Snowden’s push for reformist policies. Whether you support him or not, it is clear that Snowden calls for reform of surveillance programs. This is undeniable. This article aims to answer some criticisms I saw on reddit:

Criticism 1:

Not a very good deconstruction. Starts going into using terms like “elitist” and “privilege”. End of the article accuses him of being a “reformist”.

Wanting to post the Inigio Montoya meme in response to this blog entry.

One last little bit, the critic in the blog post pulled this quote to showcase Snowden’s elitism:

The issue is too abstract for average people who have too many things going on in their lives.

I would say to that blog author, get on public transit, or go down to a suburban supermarket, and ask people who Edward Snowden is, or if they know anything about the “Five Eyes”. From my perspective after several public conversations, Snowden was being optimistic, not elitist.

There is no doubt that I use terms like “elitist” and “privilege” in the article. Let me explain first, the idea of privilege as I see it. His white skin color and male gender no doubt also makes his ideas palatable to the public. Imagine if Snowden was a poor black woman. The credibility of Snowden would then be immediately questioned and there would undoubtedly be racist remarks thrown around.  The form of respect that Snowden can get by being a certain race and gender, along with the ability to just walk away from a job in order to engage in whistleblowing is, I would argue, a form of privilege. Even though he is currently in Russia thanks to the US government, which I would argue is undeniable, his proposal of self-sacrifice I would say is a privileged act, because not everyone that is a whistleblower can engage in such a sacrifice. Imagine a worker who has long hours, is barely making ends meet and works a second job.  There is the possibility that someone in that position could be a whistleblower, but there is the possibility that they could lose their job because of it, causing their family to go into turmoil. That is what I fundamentally mean by privilege. Snowden had a cushy job, which he left behind, before he went to Hong Kong. Not every person has an opportunity as Snowden did, to leave their job and whistleblow, especially if their family is depending on their income to live.

This critic then brings up the point that I falsely identified Snowden as elitist, saying that I should “get on public transit, or go down to a suburban supermarket, and ask people who Edward Snowden is, or if they know anything about the “Five Eyes”.” This critic then writes that “from my perspective after several public conversations, Snowden was being optimistic, not elitist.”Before going any further, what did Snowden say? Well, here’s the quote I used in the original article:

“…I said there are two tracks of reform…the political and the technical. I don’t believe the political will to be successful…The issue is too abstract for average people who have too many things going on in their lives. And we do not live in a revolutionary time. People are not prepared to contest power. We have system of education that is really a sort of euphemism for indoctrination. It’s not designed to create critical thinkers. We have a media that goes along with government intended to provoke a certain emotional response.”

I described this at the time as “almost a bit elitist.” I said that because he is basically saying, in the bolded section, that mass surveillance is too abstract for the ordinary person. While I think undebatable that mass surveillance is definitely complex, and average people do have a lot going on in their lives, it seems that ordinary people can understand it. That was why I said he was being possibly, a bit elitist, since he is almost saying that ordinary people can’t understand mass surveillance. I do not believe that is true. Onto the rest of his quote. I think Snowden is right with his criticism of the education system and the mass media, but I disagree with his idea that we do not “live in revolutionary time” and that “people are not prepared to contest power.” Activists and advocates fighting on the ground, especially eco-radicals and those who are part of the occupy movement would no doubt scoff at this notion.

Criticism #2:

As soon as someone starts talking about the difference between a democracy and a republic they have lost me. Must be a US thing.

There’s a lot of words in that article. Pity hardly any of them contributed anything much to any kind of coherent argument.

Well, not surprisingly, I disagree with the last two sentences that say it wasn’t a “coherent argument.” One must remember that the article was a response to an interview, not just a straight article, so that is why one could argue it wasn’t “coherent” which I would disagree with. Onto the more pertinent claim: the idea that there is a difference between a democracy and republic. One could definitely argue that there are democratic elements of the US government which would comprise the US congress (House and Senate) and the Presidency because both are voted into power. However, there are some anti-democratic elements like the US Supreme Court, the court system at-large, and the Electoral College. All of these elements are in theory accountable to the public, but in reality, they are not. This is why I feel that the US is a representative republic, mainly with the evidence being representation in the two houses of Congress. I know that many use the term “democracy” to describe the United States. My conception of democracy is not through government, but control of something by the populace, like community-owned banks, co-ops, industrial/economic democracy, collectives, and so on. Even if you did consider the US and other Western states to be democracies, then one would have to first define what they mean by democracy and then say these states are indirect/elite democracies (i.e. the Athenian city-state) rather than direct democracies, which is in my view the truest form of democracy.

That’s really all I have to say.

Questioning Snowden’s reformism

11 Nov

Edward Snowden (middle) interviewed by the editor of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel (right) and contributing editor to The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen (left).

As I promised in my previous article for this blog, this article will focus on Edward Snowden’s recent interview for The Nation which can be read here. Specifically, this article will question Snowden’s emphasis on reformism as a solution to countering government surveillance and focus on a number of other issues he brought up in the interview.

Moving beyond Snowden has to say about the US-government-imposed exile in Russia, he first told The Nation about his concern about the “bigger picture”:

“…that the post-World War II, post-Cold War directions of societies were either broadly authoritarian or [broadly] liberal or libertarian. The authoritarian one believed that an individual’s rights were basically provided by governments and were provided by states. The other society–ours–tended to believe that a large portion of our rights were inherent and couldn’t be abrogated by governments, even as this seemed necessary.”

Snowden then went on to ask a number of open-ended questions about societies becoming more “liberal” or “authoritarian.” While what Snowden says sounds nice, I don’t necessarily agree with the underlying narrative. Rather than labeling societies “liberal,” “authoritarian,” or “libertarian,” its probably better to recognize the the recognition of individual rights was a struggle by people from numerous social movements over the years against governments and corporations. Its not like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the Civil Rights Act of 1963 came out of nowhere. They came as a result of struggle and determined effort.

Not long after Snowden makes this point about different types of societies, he deems the United States as a “representative democracy”:

“We [the United States] are a representative democracy. But how did we get there? We got there through direct action. And that’s enshrined in our Constitution and our values.”

Firstly, I’ve always cringed at the term “representative democracy” as I feel it is completely inaccurate since the United States is a representative republic, not a democracy. Secondly, and more importantly, this type of analysis misses the fact that some people engaged in direct action, especially the disenfranchised and disempowered, to fight in the revolution and engage in social movements that created the original fabric of the United States as we know it today, during the Revolutionary War. However, there were others that did not participate, and those people are mainly the wealthy elite despite the fact that some of them were in the Continental Army structure. Beyond the Revolutionary War, those in the poor and middle classes were those who continued to create the social fabric of the United States, the rich lording over them, but not engaging in direct action per say. To say that the creation of a representative republic was enshrined in the Constitution is correct, but it misses the historical context.

This quote leads to Snowden’s argument about the “right of revolution” and civil disobedience:

“We [as Americans] have the right to revolution. Revolution does not always have to be [about] weapons and warfare; its also about the principles that we hold to be representative of the kind of world we want to live in. A given order may at any given time fail to represent those values, even work against those values. I think that’s the dynamic we’re seeing today. We have these traditional political parties that are less and less responsive to the needs to ordinary people, so people are in search of their own values. If the government or the parties won’t address our needs, we will. It’s about direct action, even civil disobedience…They [the state] put us in “free speech zones”; they say that you can only do it at this time, and in this way, and [that] you can’t interrupt the functioning of the government. They limit the impact that civil disobedience can achieve. We have to remember that civil disobedience must be disobedience if it’s to be effective. If we simply follow the rules that a state imposes upon us when that state is acting contrary to the public interest, we not actually improving anything. We’re not changing anything.”

This all sounds nice and great, despite it being couched in traditional conservatism, perhaps, but what is Snowden’s example of this working?…it turns out to be an unexpected answer: Occupy Wall Street, saying it was the last time that civil disobedience brought about “change”:

“I believe strongly that Occupy Wall Street had such limits because local authorities were able to enforce…an image of what proper civil disobedience is…the individuals who were loader, more disruptive and, in many ways, more effective at drawing attention to their concerns were immediately castigated by [the] authorities. They were cordoned off, pepper sprayed, thrown in jail…[Occupy] had an impact on consciousness [but] it was not effective in realizing change…but getting inequality out there into the consciousness was important.”

Firstly, I think its great that Occupy was used an example of civil disobedience, but I feel it is false to say it was the last time that civil disobedience brought about “change.” To give one pertinent example, think about the eco-activists working to stop pipelines across the US. Were they not successful? Are they not an example of civil disobedience working? Lest us remember what someone told me in response to my article about the climate march about civil disobedience, specifically in reference to arrests and blockades

“From personal experience, I can tell you that arrests and blockades are merely tactics, not a strategy. There has to be an overall strategy that hits the bosses in the pocketbooks and threatens a political shift. The latter is much harder to organize, require much more time and effort. It requires a lot more people, and we have to find them. Where better to find them when 400,000 show up in the same place at the same time?”

Anyway, there is no need to address Snowden’s declaration that the internet is the equivalent of “electronic telepathy,” that a “deep state” exists, or even that the revelations about surveillance are fundamentally about “liberty.” Firstly there is Snowden’s idea of “noble” self-sacrifice:

“…I’ve said this from the beginning: it’s not about me. I don’t care if I get clemency. I don’t care what happens to me. I don’t care if I end up in jail or Guantanamo or whatever, kicked out of a plane with two gunshots in the face. I did what I did because I believe it is the right thing to do, and I will continue to do that.”

While I think its wonderful that someone would engage in such self-sacrifice, it seems that engaging in this sacrifice shows that he has a level of privilege. Some people have such a poor state of affairs, especially people of color in the United States (and worldwide), that self-sacrifice for them might not be worth it since it may hurt their family’s future or their future. Snowden, is not one of those people who has such a poor state of affairs, despite the US-government-imposed exile in Russia.

What Snowden says about social movements and political action is very pessimistic and disturbing in a number of ways, as he says that now is not the time for revolution. First he says the following, which is almost a bit elitist (see the bolded part)

“…I said there are two tracks of reform…the political and the technical. I don’t believe the political will to be successful…The issue is too abstract for average people who have too many things going on in their lives. And we do not live in a revolutionary time. People are not prepared to contest power. We have system of education that is really a sort of euphemism for indoctrination. It’s not designed to create critical thinkers. We have a media that goes along with government intended to provoke a certain emotional response.”

Later in the interview, he outlines a non-confrontational way of confronting “great powers” and saying (again) that people are not ready for revolution:

“I don’t want to directly confront great powers [mega-corporations?], which we cannot defeat on their own terms. They have more money, more clout, more airtime. We cannot be effective without a mass movement, and the American people are too comfortable to adapt to a mass movement…As tensions increase, people will become more willing to engage in protest. But that moment is not now.”

What type of revolution does Snowden really want? Well, it seems that he supports encryption, saying it is a civic responsibility and duty, but more importantly, the idea of “technical reform,” but he admits that these reforms have to be uniform everywhere:

“Of course I want to see political reform in the United States. But we could pass the best surveillance reforms, the best privacy protections in the world, in the United States, and it would have zero impact internationally…But if someone creates a reformed system today–technical standards must be identical around the world for them to function together.”

This is also reflected in his statement that we wants the system “changed,” not overthrown:

“Sometimes misunderstood is that I didn’t stand up to overthrow the system. What I wanted to do was give society the information it needed to decide if it wanted to change the system.”

Once again, how does “society” get to decide it wants to “change” the system if they aren’t in the policy-making apparatus. As for overthrow, well, in a sense, society can decide that, but it is usually only a small part of society that makes such an overthrow possible.

On a completely different topic, Snowden interestingly argues that calling someone a whistleblower or hero “otherizes” them:

“As for labeling someone a whistleblower, I think it does to them–it does to all of us–a disservice, because it “otherizes” us. Using the language of heroism, calling Daniel Ellsburg a hero, and calling other people who made great sacrifices heroes–even though what they have done is heroic–is to distinguish them from the civic duty they performed, and excuses the rest of us from the same civic duty to speak out when we see something wrong…We have to speak out or we are party to that bad action.”

Near the end of the article, Snowden laughs at the idea that he is a celebrity. Here’s the exchange from the interview:

The Nation: Speaking of films, we understand that in addition to Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour, a couple of others will be made about you.

Snowden: Anything to get people talking about the issues is great. I’m not a movie guy. I don’t know all this stuff that comes with celebrity. I don’t know who the actors will be and stuff like that. But anybody who wants to talk about the issues—that’s great.

The Nation: You already are a celebrity.

Snowden: People say that, but I’ve only had to sign autographs for “civ-libs” types. And I autograph court orders.

The Nation: Maybe, but you need a strategy of how you’re going to use your celebrity, for better or worse. You own it. You can’t get rid of it.

Snowden: [laughs] Well, that’s kind of damning!

The Nation: And you don’t know what lies ahead. Fortune sometimes turns very suddenly, 
unexpectedly.

Snowden: Then let’s hope the surprises are good ones.

Finally, in the last paragraph of the interview, Snowden expands on his “personal politics,” further explaining his “personal philosophy,” showing that he is not a radical for sure (bolding is my emphasis):

“As for my personal politics, some people seem to think I’m some kind of archlibertarian, a hyper-conservative. But when it comes to social policies, I believe women have the right to make their own choices, and inequality is a really important issue. As a technologist, I see the trends, and I see that automation inevitably is going to mean fewer and fewer jobs. And if we do not find a way to provide a basic income for people who have no work, or no meaningful work, we’re going to have social unrest that could get people killed. When we have increasing production—year after year after year—some of that needs to be reinvested in society. It doesn’t need to be consistently concentrated in these venture-capital funds and things like that. I’m not a communist, a socialist or a radical. But these issues have to be 
addressed.”

His views on economic policies such as than increasing employment, reinvesting production, reducing inequality seem to make him as a moderate who wants the system preserved, worrying about social unrest. I don’t know why, but this reminds me a bit of Aristotle really wanting to preserve the existing system.

I know that this article did not cover a good amount of the interview, but hopefully this article shows that Snowden is clearly a reformist, which provides more room to question what he believes and stands for. That is all.

Fareed Zakaria’s false narrative and mass surveillance

6 Nov
A screenshot from Juice Rap News's rap about Australia's mass surveillance law, the G20, etc...

A screenshot from Juice Rap News’s recent rap about Australia’s new mass surveillance law, the G20, and much more.

Recently, Fareed Zakaria, a managing editor of Foreign Affairs recently wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post which pushed a false narrative. This article aims to criticize Zakaria’s column since mass surveillance seems to be the talk of many activists, concerned citizens, and pissed-off Americans these days.*

One of Zakaria’s main points is that whistleblower Edward Snowden should face trial in the US. He says this again and again, couched in supposedly pro-Snowden rhetoric:

“He [Snowden] comes off [as]…intelligent and well-intentioned. I say this as someone who believes that Snowden broke the law and should be accountable but also that he performed a public service that lacks proper democratic oversight and judicial checks. There is a way to reconcile these positions: a trial…The Obama administration should make clear that Snowden would get an open, civilian trial in the United States…It would be the trial of the century, shining a spotlight on something that has been hidden deep in the shadows for too long. And that is what Snowden says he wanted from the start.”

Beyond this ridiculous, absurd, and flowery language is Zakaria’s claim that what Snowden revealed had “limited consequences,” with very little that was “morally scandalous” and his strange argument that US hacking on Chinese computer systems is ok (what?). Oh yeah, and add in Zakaria’s construction of a straw man, guessing what Snowden would argue if he was part of the trial. He even found some anonymous legal scholars who said that “Snowden could get a fair trail” and David Pozen of Columbia University to claim that since Snowden’s case is “so highly publicized already…that the basic fact of the disclosures is old news, as is much of content, some of which is not declassified.”

There is one main problem with Zakaria’s piece: there is NO talk of calling government officials, mainly in the NSA, to trial. They are the ones who should be sitting in a prison, not Snowden. As Snowden himself said in a recent interview with The Nation (which I will analyze in depth in a later article):

“…Richard Nixon got kicked out of Washington for tapping one hotel suite. Today we’re tapping [phone lines and reading emails of] every American citizen in the country, and no one has been put on trial for it or even investigated. We don’t even have an inquiry into it.”

The tapping of phones, reading emails and storing information of Americans, and people all across the world is no doubt violating some law or another beyond the 4th Amendment of the Constitution, which is obviously being violated. You might ask: what has the NSA, and government at large, done that would result in government officials going to jail? Well, let me tell you of the NSA’s misdeeds, some pertinent examples of mass surveillance, and more [1]:

  1. The DOJ was wiretapping the cloakroom of the House of Representatives
  2. The NSA tried to wiretap an unknown member of Congress
  3. The NSA is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon due to a a routine renewal of surveillance by the FISA court
  4. The NSA had set up a program called PRISM to collect data from tech giants including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, all of whom, are all participating in top secret spying program
  5. The NSA has developed a powerful tool for recording and analyzing where its intelligence comes from called Boundless Informant
  6. Such wide NSA surveillance might, as David Seaman noted, allow for the government to blackmail, shame, or discredit any activist or journalist who threatens status quo which follows Thomas Drake’s claim that we are all “persons of interest” for the government
  7. The NSA repeatedly from 1999 to 2007 kept trying to access the data of private companies with only Qwest refusing access
  8. The NSA is monitoring credit card transaction as part of its supposed effort to target possible terrorists
  9. The NSA is building the country’s biggest spy center to store our information
  10. In March 2013 alone, the NSA collected 97 billion pieces of data from worldwide networks!
  11. The NSA is getting an “electronic copy” of detail records of all Verizon phone calls within the US and between the US and abroad.
  12. The NSA wants to collect, know, process, and sniff “all” (or as much info. as they can get) in part by partnering with intelligence agencies in other countries; the idea of “collecting it all” seems to be a big goal of the NSA
  13. The NSA has processed, as of December 2012, more than a trillion pieces of metadata
  14. The NSA has “strategic partnerships” with companies such as: At&T, Verizon, Motorola, Qwest, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, EDS, Oracle, and Qualcomm
  15. The PRISM program and the “collection of communications on fiber cables and infrastructure” are completely interlinked.
  16. The FBI and CIA can select info. from PRISM if they wish at any time
  17. The NSA shares data with Canada’s equivalent (of the NSA) called the Communications Security Establishment (CSE)
  18. The US has signal intelligence partners such as coalitions like NATO and countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom
  19. Signal Intelligence is exchanged with Israel, which includes private data of Americans, is driven mainly by their interests
  20. Parts of the NSA focus on “trade activities” of countries such as Mexico, Belgium, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, Brazil, and Mexico, because of their “importance to U.S. economic, trade, and defense concerns,” with reports from these divisions informing diplomats at specific summits who were informing President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
  21. Spying on leaders such as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff (and key advisors) and Mexico’s Peno Nieto
  22. The NSA spied on UN Security Council members (such as Brazil, France, Japan, and Mexico), with the US’s UN members saying that thanks to this spying their real position on sanctioning Iran
  23. The NSA places implants into devices such as servers and routers in order to spy on their internet use and computer use, without detection
  24. The NSA is having a challenge at storing, ingesting and processing all the data they receive
  25. The NSA can spy on anyone’s email they want, they just need to name a certain query and a specific justification
  26. The NSA can access a broad range of data on Facebook thanks to the FBI
  27. A claim in a leaked NSA document that there is “nothing to worry about” if you “accidentally” target a person living in the US
  28. The “NSA now has the capability to store all content from all communications, both phone and computer” and in the view of NSA whistleblower Russ Tice
  29. In January of 2014, the US army in January of this year, deployed two surveillance blimps “called aerostats, for three years of testing over Maryland” which “will have a surveillance range of over 300 miles.”
  30. NSA and FBI are spying “on Muslim leaders, particularly Muslim leaders who were lawyers, civil rights leaders, and academics.” Also see here.
  31. Plans by the NSA and US government at-large to use spying to benefit US corporations
  32. The NSA’s secret “Google-like” search engine, IREACH, where they share “more than 850 billion records about phone calls, emails, cellphone locations, and internet chats” with more than a dozen U.S. govt. agencies
  33. The NSA is partnering with Saudi Arabia’s brutal state police, is a partner with the Israeli intelligence service on every act of military aggression and gives Turkey info. about the PKK even as Turkey is a key target of US spying
  34. The possibility that the NSA or any govt. agency could hack into your computer if you watch a funny cat video
  35. The terrorist screening database of 680,000 people, with almost half not even classified as terrorists, and the CIA, DIA, NSA and FBI being the top people who nominate people to the list.
  36. A program where “huge volumes of private emails, phone calls, and internet chats are being intercepted by the National Security Agency with the secret cooperation of more foreign governments than previously known.”
  37. Germany serving as the NSA’s biggest listening post in Europe
  38. The NSA “secretly intercepting, recording, and archiving the audio of virtually every cell phone conversation on the island nation of the Bahamas.”
  39. The NSA and GCHQ having a list of 122 leaders, including Angela Merkel, who are being spied on
  40. The NSA tracking “down the private email and Facebook accounts of system administrators (or sys admins, as they are often called), before hacking their computers to gain access to the networks they control”
  41. Governments and government agencies regularly tapping into private license-plate tracking databases even if casts many as suspects
  42. The NSA infects millions of computers with malware, even making fake facebook pages and servers at certain times. Also see here.
  43. The CIA searched US senate computers. Also see here.
  44. The NSA has an advice columnist who complains about being spied on…what?
  45. For years, the “DOJ had utilized warrantless electronic surveillance to identify suspects…[and] no criminal defendant had received such notice.”
  46. The GCHQ and NSA “targeted WikiLeaks and other activist groups with tactics ranging from covert surveillance to prosecution.”
  47. The NSA “is using complex analysis of electronic surveillance, rather than human intelligence, as the primary method to locate targets for lethal drone strikes,” which interestingly is centered on a focus on the metadata in one’s phone or cell-phone tracking
  48. NSA can use US data without a warrant, according to a revealed FISA court order
  49. The NSA collected email records in bulk for two years of Obama’s presidency and continues to do so up until the present
  50. The NSA, along with other intelligence services like the CIA and FBI, are “spying on the European Union mission in New York and its embassy in Washington,” along with “38 embassies and missions” which are considered targets, which include “traditional ideological adversaries…snsitive Middle Eastern countries…EU missions and the French, Italian and Greek embassies, as well as a number of other American allies, including Japan, Mexico, South Korea, India and Turkey.”
  51.  Microsoft and the NSA are collaborating over user data, allowing user’s data to be intercepted and stored by the NSA
  52. The NSA paid the GCHQ to continue spying
  53. The NSA somehow has “secret backdoor permission to search databases for individual Americans’ communications”
  54. The NSA “paid millions of dollars to cover the costs of major internet companies involved in the Prism surveillance program” such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo! This falls in line with what the NSA general counsel said: that big tech companies like Yahoo and Google provided ‘full assistance’ in legally mandated collection of data
  55. The NSA and GCHQ worked to “unlock encryption used to protect emails, banking and medical records” while the NSA itself has tried to crack the encryption of Tor, but that they haven’t been fully successful.
  56. The NSA shares raw intelligence data including personal info. of Americans with Israel
  57. The NSA spied on the Indian embassy and the UN. This falls in line with US diplomats spying on the top officials of the United Nations as revealed by Wikileaks cables.
  58. The US monitored Angela Merkel and numerous other phones of world leaders, and not surprisingly they won’t let Merkel see HER OWN NSA file
  59. Snowden claims that the NSA caused the Syrian internet blackout in 2012 accidently in an attempt to infiltrate it
  60. The NSA recruits people at hacker conventions but has recently, and justifiably, taken a lot of flack
  61. When the NSA “intercepted the online accounts of legally targeted foreigners over a four-year period it also collected the conversations of nine times as many ordinary internet users” many of whom are US citizens
  62. The NSA “searched through its data troves of emails and other communications data for 198 “identifiers” of Americans’ information in 2013 alone.”
  63. Vodafone “revealed the existence of secret wires that allow government agencies to listen to all conversations on its networks, saying they are widely used in some of the 29 countries in which it operates in Europe and beyond,” likely some of those agencies are the NSA, CIA and FBI.
  64. Top NSA officials “wrestled for weeks with how to respond to an unprecedented surge in open records requests from members of the public in the wake of the first mass surveillance revelations” from documents provided by Snowden
  65. Ironically, US secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the US “obtained intercepted phone calls that prove Moscow is deliberately trying to destabilise eastern Ukraine”
  66. Snowden claims that the NSA spied on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch
  67. The NSA “created ‘back doors’ into…Huawei['s] networks.” This is what Fareed Zakaria supports for some stupid reason
  68. The GCHQ collected Yahoo! webcam images and then fed them to the NSA
  69. The NSA spied on rival states during the 2009 climate summit according to Snowden
  70. The NSA and GCHQ have been “been developing capabilities to take advantage of “leaky” smartphone apps, such as the wildly popular Angry Birds game, that transmit users’ private information across the internet.”
  71. The increase in mass surveillance could be because of a “need” to brunt climate activism
  72. The NSA has a tool to hack into iPhones by using a backdoor
  73. U.S. tax dollars are being used to monitor “Americans who voice dissent against the extraordinary influence that some of the world’s most powerful corporations have on our elected officials”
  74. The FBI has used drones to monitor citizens on US soil. This isn’t a surprise as tar sands drones seem to be coming soon
  75. Rice Tice has said that the the US engaged in “illegal use of space-based satellites and systems to spy on U.S. citizens”
  76. Not only is the FBI engaging in intimidation to some degree, but it is also clear that “state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies are systematically monitoring First Amendment activities…in the name of safety and security in a post-9/11 age.”
  77. According to a New York Times article, all U.S. mail is being scanned and put into a database which is called Mail Isolation Control and Tracking. Funny enough, Gizmodo contemplated it three years earlier, asking if people could imagine if the Postal Service scanned and emailed all your letters
  78. The FBI conducts its own signals intelligence as part of the Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU) which feeds data to the NSA, possibly doing even more surveillance than even the NSA
  79. There’s the Magic Lantern program developed by FBI to log keystrokes and there’s the  Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier, another FBI surveillance program
  80. Finally there’s DCSNet which is the FBI’s “sophisticated, point-and-click surveillance system that performs instant wiretaps on almost any communications device”

These crimes by the NSA especially, are now anomaly, since, as Kirk Wiebe said

webe

I could simply say that NSA officials should go on trial and be put in jail. Snowden has alluded to this. I could even say that the NSA should be abolished, just like the CIA, as I have previously advocated for. However, the mass surveillance apparatus is more expansive than just the NSA, or just the CIA. After all, corporate and government surveillance are intertwined, which is in part because after 9/11 the US intelligence community “found itself in control of a huge amount of money, contracting with domestic and foreign companies to build and proliferate tools needed to spy on the world” which led to what some call a “surveillance-industrial complex.”[2] Hence, there is more to worry about than what some claim to be a “surveillance state” since it is MUCH more complex and intricate than that. It is important to also recognize a valid point by Zaid Jilani:

“Government can be an incredibly positive force when it is transparent, accountable and empowering. When it is not those things, not only should we oppose it, but we should be proud that there are people on the Right who are willing to join with us in that cause—they’re helping us actually increase faith in the positive aspects of the public sector by addressing its abuses. Not only can we advocate for rolling back the national security state and implementing positive government programs like Medicare for All and a national living wage, but if we are to win over the American public, it may very well be necessary to do both.”

And please, do NOT claim as this article says that because of mass surveillance, “Equality has finally come to the shores of America in the form of surveillance. We are all in the same boat now and when the lights go out, we are all black.” That is not only insensitive to blacks, but it is bypassing the reality of racial domination and oppression in the United States. There is no doubt that the US is a surveillance society (I’ll agree with the ACLU on this one). But, that term in and of itself is too mild. It is best to call the US what cryptohippie calls an electronic police state, which they define as follows [4]:

“An electronic police state is quiet, even unseen. All of its legal actions are supported by abundant evidence. It looks pristine. An electronic police state is characterized by…State use of electronic technologies to record, organize, search and distribute forensic evidence against its citizens…In an Electronic Police State, every surveillance camera recording, every email you send, every Internet site you surf, every post you make, every check you write, every credit card swipe, every cell phone ping…are all criminal evidence , and they are held in searchable databases, for a long, long time. Whoever holds this evidence can make you look very, very bad whenever they care enough to do so. You can be prosecuted whenever they feel like it – the evidence is already in their database.”

It is more likely that this type of state exists in the US than a police state as traditionally defined, despite what others have to say about it. [5]

It is important to remember that the Snowden revelations are NOT the first time that people have been concerned about the mass surveillance apparatus. As Eli Pariser predicted in his 2007 book, The Filter Bubble, “by 2014, they [the NSA] anticipate dealing with so much data they’ve invented new units of measurement just to describe it.” [6] Pariser wasn’t the only one. Maureen Webb wrote about global surveillance, mainly by the US in the wake of 9/11. In a book released the same year, 2007, Webb wrote that the NSA’s electric bill was $21 million a year (likely much higher now), shreds 40,000 documents a day, and that governments were using individual private information they collected to “assess and preemptively eliminate the [supposed] risk that any of us might pose to the state” which she says requires that “everyone be evaluated as a potential suspect.” [7]  She also wrote about RFID chips used in DHS (Dept. of ‘Homeland Security”) visas which could be accessed by the US government and private companies. [8] In the book, Webb also warned that there will be the creation of a “global identity system predicated on the avoidance of risk” meaning that if one isn’t registered or has no “personal profile” then they will amount to, essentially, a “non-person,” making them a “risk to the state.” [9] Interestingly, in part of the book, Webb writes about the connection between corporations and the state on surveillance, calling it the ‘corporate-security complex’ [10]:

“…the new symbiotic relationship that is developing between an immense security/intelligence establishment and an ambitious information technology industry [can be called the]…corporate-security complex [which] is an aggressive drive of the project for globalized, mass registration and surveillance.”

Later Webb expands on this writing that billions of dollars, euros and other currencies flow into this complex and makes a bold and dark statement about a surveillance society, which almost echoes some wary-of-government themes, writing that [11]:

“In a surveillance society…[the] government need not represent the people; the ruling class [or elite] is above the law; the people and individuals are answerable to the state; their rights and protections are subordinated to the state’s interest; and the executive branch of government usurps the constitutional power of the other branches of government.”

Webb also writes in her book that global surveillance is not efficient, that it does not help catch terrorists, that it doesn’t address the causes of terrorism, that racial profiling is endemic to mass surveillance, and that global insecurity is exacerbated by such surveillance. [12] Still, Webb’s alternative to this is reformist and does not involve dismantling the “immense security/intelligence establishment” she is concerned about.

Dana Priest and William Arkin have a similar reformist aim, only to expose information in the name of transparency, but they have a few interesting things to say about the establishment that Webb is clearly concerned about, such as [13]:

  • the government spending $10 billion a year to keep “secrets secret”
  • the creation of a “national security bureaucracy” which has run amok
  • Obama continuing the expansion of this establishment or bureaucracy, which they call ‘Top Secret America,’ despite supposed signs to the contrary
  • a “culture of spending” to stop supposed terrorist attacks, which resulted in a huge bureaucracy, which has major problems
  • the NSA ingesting 1.7 billion pieces of intercepted communications every day, including telephone calls, radio signals, cell phone conversations, emails, texts and more.

Arkin and Priest also write about the connection between corporations, and the US government on surveillance, noting that the NSA hires private firms to come up with much of its “technology and innovations,” and a federal-state-corporate partnership that “has produced a vast domestic intelligence apparatus that collects, stores, and analyzes information about tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and residents.” [14]

Finally, there is a older book by Mark Monmonier, written in 2002, which is also reformist in nature, is also about surveillance. There is one good thing that Monmonier does: define specific terms. He writes that surveillance is, in his view, about “monitoring to control human behavior” while data surveillance is, in quoting computer scientist Roger Clarke who coined the term, as  “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation of [people's] actions or communications.”[15] However, Monmonier also echoes Snowden and others who are part of the corporate front, a supposed social justice campaign, called Reset the Net. At one point he writes that “data warehouses,” private companies like Axicom, which collect “detailed information on individual households” and rent that information to “retailers, insurers, and…detective agencies” is really Big Brother, not the government, while at another point he criticizes those who say that “Big Brother is almost everywhere,” and in the last sentence of the book, he declares: “for some of us, Big Business is a worse threat than Big Brother.” [16] Not only does this contradict his statement earlier in the book that “Big Brother is doing most of the watching…but corporations, local governments, and other Little Brothers are quickly getting involved” but it is completely absurd.[17] Why can’t someone be concerned about corporate surveillance, state surveillance and big business all at the same time?

While I know that this article did not come up with a way to dismantle and counter the corporate-state surveillance apparatus, that is not what this article was about. Still, I feel obliged to give some suggestions for what is a way forward. First, and foremost, I’d say making the connections between corporate and state forces on surveillance and the terror complex is clear. Then, there can be debate about what is the approach to counter and dismantle this nexis. I must be clear: working with the corporate sector in order to counter this surveillance is wholly counterproductive and it makes you a simple pawn of big business, whether you like that or not. I don’t think anyone wants that. Secondly, I think that reforming the NSA in any way, shape or form is a waste of energy. Instead, those who care about state surveillance should push for the NSA, CIA and FBI to be abolished for starters, with those who committed crimes, perhaps top NSA officials, going on trial. I would say that Snowden should go on trial, but based on the treatment Chelsea Manning got, I do not think that Snowden will get a fair trail in the US. I just don’t see it as possible.

Beyond my proposed ideas is the fact that Maureen Webb is right when she writes that “democratic societies are gradually becoming surveillance societies–or worse…authoritarian police states.” [18] I’ll end with this: what happens now, in regards of the massive America surveillance apparatus, is up to us.

Notes:

*While other countries and populations, including many countries in Latin America and Europe, are also concerned and angry about this surveillance, I write this from my perspective as a person who lives in the United States.

[1]The sources for this information come from a widely circulated article for Global Research which I have since criticized on this blog for faulty framing there is an accurate description of the mass surveillance by the US government, documents used in Glenn Greenwald’s new book shown in a 108 page PDF, and numerous other sources (here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

[2] See here and here. Also see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere, here, here, and here for other articles on the subject

[3] See here, here, here for commentaries using the term “surveillance state.”

[4] Wendy McElroy of the libertarian Independent Institute uses this term as well, writing that:

“The modern surveillance state is referred to as an electronic police state because it uses technology to monitor people in order to detect and punish dissent. The authorities exert social control through spying, harsh law enforcement, and by regulating “privileges” such as the ability to travel. But all of this starts with surveillance…State surveillance has become more secretive and increasingly exempt from both oversight and accountability [since the end of the Cold War] Fusion centers now reach into private databases such as Accurate, Choice Point, Lexis-Nexus, Locate Plus, insurance claims, and credit reports. They access millions of government files like DMV records…The foregoing is a description of electronic totalitarianism. If its creation is invisible to many people, then it manifests yet another characteristic of a police state: People do not believe their freedom is gone until there is a knock on the door—one that comes in the middle of the night.”

[5] An example of someone who uses the term police state is Michael Rattner.

[6] Pariser, Eli. 2007. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin Press, 11.

[7] Webb, Maureen. 2007. Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post-9/11 World. San Francisco: City Lights, 48, 71-72.

[8] Ibid, 84-85. I know conspiracy theorists will be giddy about me mentioning the word RFID chips, as many think it is part of some government conspiracy, but they can just wipe the grins right off their faces.

[9] Ibid, 101.

[10] Ibid, 194-5.

[11] Ibid, 196, 201.

[12] Ibid, 235, 239-240, 243.

[13] Priest, Dana & Arkin, William M. 2011. Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. New York: Little Brown & Company, 24, 51, 77, 156, 277

[14] Ibid, 133, 182.

[15] Monmonier, Mark. 2002. Spying With Maps: Surveillance Technologies and the Future of Privacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2, 152.

[16] Ibid, 151, 170, 172.

[17] Ibid, 2.

[18] Webb, 209.

Reset the Net, Snowden, and more

28 Oct
Person playing as Snowden in the YouTube video, 'NSA Blurred Lines'

Person playing as Snowden in the YouTube video, ‘NSA Blurred Lines’

Over a month ago, I challenged and critiqued of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s call for surveillance reform. I wrote that while I am glad he had revealed, “the extent of the massive surveillance state run by elements of the U.S. government, there is definitely an area for critique and criticism,” that whistleblowers “hold very reformist thoughts” and that “the system…could afford getting ride of “bulk data collection” by the NSA, since the surveillance apparatus at-large would NOT be dismantled. Still, those who benefit from such collection don’t want it to go away.” This post is meant as an extension of that critique to Reset the Net and mass surveillance in general.

Reset the Net is an anti-surveillance “campaign” created after the revelations of government surveillance. Snowden made it seem that the campaign would be opposing all types of surveillance, government and corporate, saying that we need to take our privacy “back”[1]:

“Today, we can begin the work of effectively shutting down the collection of our online communications, even if the US Congress fails to do the same…[encryption is] the first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance…don’t ask for your privacy. Take it back.”

In the same article, Tiffiniy Cheng, spokesperson for Fight for the Future, which coordinated Reset the Net basically undermined the idea that all types of surveillance, corporate and by the state, would be opposed:

“Now, they’ve got a rebellion on their hands as tech companies and internet users work together to directly intervene in mass surveillance and block the NSA and its kind from the web.”

I’m not sure how something is a “rebellion” if corporations and internet users are working together. That sounds more like a way for the companies to reassure customers and their users that they care about privacy. As Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith said,

“It’s of course important for companies to do the things under our own control, and what we have under our own control is our own technology practices. I don’t know that anyone believes that will be sufficient to allay everyone’s concerns. There is a need for reform of government practices, but those will take longer.”

This makes me concerned about this campaign. There is another problem: the campaign’s main goal is to push for “mass adoption of encryption is a tool to fight mass surveillance” even though, as Bill Blunden notes, “strong encryption doesn’t translate into cyber security…if the minions of the Deep State want your data they’ll get it” and he argues that “to seek refuge in strong encryption is to escape into denial. Bolstering security and protecting our civil liberties will require the public to mobilize and generate the political impetus to take on the Deep State.” Despite this, the EFF, the Tor Project, ACLU of Massachusetts (and likely the whole organization) Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, Natasha Leonard of Vice and New Inquiry, Glenn Greenwald (I would believe so) [2] and many others who care about government surveillance support this campaign.

Using their website, I found who supports Reset the Net:

who supports reset the net

According to their list of supporters, which compromises of fifty-six non-profit, public and private organizations, thirteen are for-profit companies (approx. 23%), twenty are non profits (including the three orgs. that back Democrats) (approx. 36 %), three are political parties, and four are mostly alternative media. The rest, sixteen organizations, are considered other, as I could not figure how I should categorize them. Think what you want about these supporters, but this doesn’t look too good to me.

I’m not the only one that critiques this campaign. Ashlin Lee and Peta Cook of the University of Tasmania wrote that Reset the Net falls short:

“A year on from Edward Snowden’s revelations around state sponsored mass surveillance programs, some of the major players in the online and technological world (including Google, Mozilla, Twitter and Reddit) have launched the Reset the Net campaign. The program aims to increase people’s awareness and uptake of privacy and security tools so they can better resist surveillance, particularly that conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). While the campaign is laudable in its efforts to raise the issue of surveillance, there are some glaring oversights present…Encryption makes any collected data more difficult (but not impossible) for authorities to interpret and act upon…While these are positive achievements, they merely address some of the more visible consequences and implications of surveillance, and fail to address what are perhaps the most worrying aspects of contemporary surveillance...The Reset the Net project acts to reinforce the idea that surveillance is primarily conducted by state authorities, with the NSA as the primary antagonist for this story…But the reality is that the NSA is only one actor in the surveillance dramaGoogle is just one of many private companies conducting surveillance today, with supermarkets, insurance companies and many Fortune 1000 companies all monitoring customers on a daily basis. This leads to the next issue with Reset the Net, and most counter-surveillance activities today: they don’t address the incredible amounts of data already circulating in surveillance databases. Surveillance today is not just about seeing into the lives of the present – it’s about cataloguing and using the past (and present) to understand the future…The focus on internet surveillance ignores that surveillance is not just on the internet, but everywhere…From smartphones to drones, there are many possibilities for invasive surveillance today…Internet surveillance is only one aspect of contemporary surveillance. The Reset the Net project paradoxically represents a small positive step in resisting and counteracting warrantless and illegal surveillance, while ignoring the bigger picture.”

Yasha Levine had a similar critique on PandoDaily, which often shills for the tech industry (but didn’t in this article), writing that Reset the Net avoids Google’s snooping:

“The virtual direct action campaign [Reset the Net] was organized by Fight for the Future, a group that organized the online anti-SOPA initiative back in 2012…See, despite all its highfalutin’ rhetoric, Reset the Net is deeply flawed. The reason: the campaign is not against online surveillance, just government surveillance. It has nothing to say or critique about the massive for-profit dragnet operations run by telecoms and Silicon Valley megacorps that target every woman, man and child in the United States and beyond. Reset the Net doesn’t mention private sector surveillance at all, acting instead as if it simply does not exist…how can these companies — which themselves stay in business by spying on us on line — help to defeat surveillance? By offering encryption apps — even if the encryption is only between our computers and smartphones, and their football field-sized server farms.To Reset the Net, Silicon Valley is our friend…Silicon Valley runs on surveillance…Google runs the largest private surveillance operation in the history of mankind…And if that wasn’t enough surveillance for you, then there’s the uncomfortable ties between Google and the US military-surveillance complex…Over the years, Google’s worked to enhance the surveillance capabilities of the biggest intel agencies in the world…Reset the Net is outraged by our government’s capability to wantonly vacuum up our personal info, and yet it unconditionally trusts powerful Surveillance Valley megacorps when they do the same thing on an even greater scale as a normal part of doing business.”

An article along the same lines was by Bill Blunden, who argued that Reset the Net doesn’t care about corporate spying:

“…Another subtle manipulation that’s being employed is to frame the narrative so that focus is placed entirely on government surveillance. This is the same caveat that haunts surveillance reform efforts like “Reset the Net”…In contrast to the inflated fanfare about disrupting terrorist plots…the global surveillance apparatus is essentially being driven by powerful corporate interests….This is the elephant standing in the corner that no one…wants to talk about. Roughly 70 percent of the intelligence budget…goes to the private sector…most of what we think of as government surveillance actually transpires in the private sector…The NSA is a mere appendage of a much larger private sector data aggregation panopticon that rakes in $200 billion every year…Google has extensive long-standing connections with the defense industry…Google has exerted a lot of effort into creating the impression of revolt. But Google hasn’t switched sides….More susceptible members of the audience who believe this storyline will continue to use Google services. This will reinforce the bottom line and subsequently reassure investors. Google will do what it’s always done: follow its fiduciary responsibility to generate profits. The public be damned!”

In the second part of PBS’s Frontline documentary, United States of Secrets, brought up this topic as well, talking about how corporations were integral to the surveillance apparatus:

TIM WU, Author, The Master Switch: There was shock and disbelief and horror. A lot of people I know, Silicon Valley-type people, just felt, “It can’t be right. It’s not possible. Google, Facebook, these guys are collaborating. It’s not just what they would do.”

NARRATOR: The big Internet companies had different priorities. At the same time the government was expanding its intelligence gathering, the companies were trying to find out as much as possible about their users, amassing huge data troves. The NSA was watching.

CHRIS HOOFNAGLE, UC Berkeley Law School: These companies are in a very difficult spot because the types of activities they engage in is very similar to surveillance. It is surveillance, just for advertising, rather than for law enforcement. The private sector is where the whole game is.

CHRIS HOOFNAGLE: My friends at the FBI say that they love Facebook. They love it. It is a fantastic tool to see who one communicates and associates with, what they’re interested in, et cetera.

NARRATOR: Today, all the big Internet companies use advanced tracking technology, and the NSA has carefully studied their methods. For them, commercial tracking is an opportunity.

JULIA ANGWIN: The NSA sees all this data that’s flowing to these advertisers, and they’re thinking, “Look at all this data about people’s behavior that’s just flying out there to hundreds of different parties, and oftentimes not encrypted.” And so they can just snatch it.

ASHKAN SOLTANI: Because Google’s using a tracking cookie, the NSA can sit back and see all that stuff go by. They can monitor all of that activity, all those cookies, and use it in order to track your browsing history or inject malware into your computer. And if they sent you malware, it would take over your computer and essentially let them access all your data, all your keystrokes, all your passwords, et cetera.

BARTON GELLMAN: So where we are now is in a place where we’re living behind one-way mirrors. Corporate America and law enforcement and national security state know so much about us, and we know so little about them. We know so little about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it. And we can’t actually hold our government accountable because we truly don’t know what it’s doing.

The same topic came up in a Q & A session about Silicon Valley, the NSA and more which was one of the online components of the documentary:

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai: “That definitely plays a role in all this. We rely so much on these tech companies — Google, Facebook and company — that we basically create a few one stop shops for the NSA to go get our data.”

Martin Smith: “The fundamental problem is that in exchange for free services, our personal data is mined for advertising purposes. The government therefore gets easy access.”

Ashkan Soltani: “…the incentives aren’t really there for companies to invest in security. Most companies compete on new features and extra storage, not on the security of their cloud services. As a result, the NSA (and foreign governments too) can take advantage of weaknesses in companies’ services in order to collect data on billions of users…as long as cloud providers insist on having access to the raw (cleartext) data, then that data is available to the government under a law known as the ’3rd party doctrine’.”

There is one final webpage on the documentary’s site that I feel is worth sharing. It is about National Security Letters or NSLs that the US government uses to compel certain private companies and individuals to give them information, and prohibits those companies and individuals from speaking about these these letters. There seems to be one exception to this:

“Ten years later, Nick Merrill still can’t discuss the details of the data request that came hand delivered to him from the FBI. If he could, Merrill says, people would be shocked by the implications for their online privacy…The request came by way of a National Security Letter, or NSL. The letters are not well known, but since 9/11 they’ve helped to dramatically expand the government’s ability to collect information about Americans directly from phone companies and Internet providers. Any FBI office can issue an NSL, without a court’s review and with a gag order…Merrill was not even sure he could discuss the letter with his attorney, but unconvinced the order was legal, he chose to challenge it on constitutional grounds. The decision set Merrill apart.”

For those Reset the Net supporters who know the underlying truth that corporations are integral to surveillance system, and still support the campaign are being foolish. There is no doubt that the interests of those against government surveillance will overlap with the companies that want to act like they care about privacy (they don’t).  I understand why ordinary people are participating in this campaign as many are pissed off and for good reason, but I will not be signing any petitions, or participating in any actions by Reset the Net or others following their example. Some seem to think that working with the companies is a good idea and I disagree. Even though these companies have a good amount of clout, that doesn’t mean that people should be working with them. This effort, Reset the Net, is no rebellion, rather it is an anti-NSA surveillance effort serving as a front for corporations that participate (and profit from) government mass surveillance. As Eli Pariser wrote, powerful cloud giants, like Google and Amazon, have “a vested interest in keeping the government entities happy.” [3] This effort is in a sense a way of keeping the government entities happy, as it distracts from the corporate-state nexis on surveillance, but in another sense it is also about defending their bottom line, their profit margins, protecting their consumer base.

One must ask if Reset the Net is even a social movement. Noel Sturgeon, a feminist scholar and political scientist, defines a social movements as

“contestants in hegemonic power relations, through which change is produced by numerous kinds of “action” including…the deployment of symbolic resources, shifts in identity reconstruction, and the production of popular and scholarly knowledge–as well as direct action, civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, lobbying, and offer more traditionally recognized forms of political action.” [4]

There is no way that Reset the Net fits these characteristics of a social movement. It does not deploy symbolic resources, it does not shift construction of identity and it does not product popular and scholarly knowledge.What are social movements are efforts such as fighting the Keystone XL pipeline (on the ground), AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s, and the fights for feminism, gay liberation and black liberation, among many others.

While this article does not hint at what should be done or an explanation of the corporate-state nexis on surveillance, there will be a further article on this topic in the future, along with another article looking into groups like the EFF and Fight the Future. That is all.

Notes

[1] In a post on the Reset the Net tumblr blog, he showed that this was not the case, with the full quote which was partially used in The Guardian article:

“Today, we can begin the work of effectively shutting down the collection of our online communications, even if the US Congress fails to do the same. That’s why I’m asking you to join me on June 5th for Reset the Net, when people and companies all over the world will come together to implement the technological solutions that can put an end to the mass surveillance programs of any government. …We have the technology, and adopting encryption is the first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance. That’s why I am excited for Reset the Net — it will mark the moment when we turn political expression into practical action, and protect ourselves on a large scale.”

[2] According to an article in Firedoglake by Kevin Gosztola summarizing Glenn Greenwald’s speech to the Socialism 2013 Conference, he “…expanded the discussion into how private companies are working in concert with the federal government. He characterized this coopeation as “a full-scale merger between the federal government and industry” where the two are “equally important parts” of the surveillance state,” however from this account it seems he focused a lot on government surveillance and very little on corporate surveillance which is tied into government surveillance. What was his solution? Subverting the “radical transparency” of the surveillance state, groups like Anonymous, organizations like WikiLeaks, wanting “holes to be blown in the wall of secrecy” and endorsing “the use of technology that protects the identity of users.” The last endorsement sounds a lot like Reset the Net.

[3] Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You. 146. The Penguin Press: New York, 2007. One of the best examples of keeping these entities them happy is Google and the CIA both investing in a company called Recorded Future, “which focuses on using data collection to predict future real world events.”

[4] The quote used here was reprinted in Karen J. Warren’s Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters, but originally comes from Strugeon’s book, Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory, and Political Action.

Challenging and critiquing Snowden

27 Sep
How Juice Rap News perceives Snowden (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aiZjD0_mTA)

How Juice Rap News perceives Snowden

I recently read a post criticizing, mainly, the reformist ideas of NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, by the always provocative wordpress blog, The Rancid Honeytrap. You might say off the bat, well that’s some guy sitting in his basement typing away on some computer and he doesn’t need to be listened to. I disagree. The post brought up a number of valid critiques of Snowden’s belief in surveillance reform. While I am glad that Snowden has showed, thanks to journalists who have written about the top secret or secret documents that he obtained, the extent of the massive surveillance state run by elements of the U.S. government, there is definitely an area for critique and criticism This article/post is an attempt to continue that critique, but in my own words.

At the beginning of blogpost, The Rancid Honeytrap quotes Snowden in a recent interview saying some surveillance is ok, especially if the “people say they want it”, claiming that

“…we can have people in every country make that decision because that’s what democracy is about. That’s what self-government is about…[not] making these decisions behind closed doors, without public debate, without public consent. That decision, belongs exclusively to the people of that country…I think it’s wrong of any politician, to take away the people’s seat at the table of government”

I agree with The Rancid Honeytrap that this isn’t what democracy is about, and even if all of Snowden’s premises are true, it “does not rightfully empower an acquiescent majority to vote away freedom from constant and pervasive government surveillance any more than people can.” At the same time, I think Snowden’s idea that people have such a voice in government is frankly not only absurd, but not true at all. [1] As an April 2014 study by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin L. Page of Northwestern University  concluded,

“economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence…Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts”

Noam Chomsky noted something very similar to this back in August of last year, saying that:

“… In the work that’s essentially the gold standard in the field, it’s concluded that for roughly 70% of the population – the lower 70% on the wealth/income scale – they have no influence on policy whatsoever. They’re effectively disenfranchised. As you move up the wealth/income ladder, you get a little bit more influence on policy. When you get to the top, which is maybe a tenth of one percent, people essentially get what they want, i.e. they determine the policy. So the proper term for that is not democracy; it’s plutocracy.”

After this, Chomsky goes on to define the US as a “Really Existing Capitalist Democracy” where  the public is supposed to” lend their weight every few years, to a choice among the responsible men” but they are meant to be spectators and not participants.Hey, why not add good ‘ole Chris Hedges into the mix, who has his problems as The Rancid Honeytrap and others like OLAASM know well. In his book, Empire of Illusion, Hedges writes that the idea of consent of the governed is an empty one (142-3):

“The words consent of the governed have become an empty phrase…Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small moneyed group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests…The government…provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations…It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions. It perpetuates a power and democratic ethic it does not possess. It seeks to perpetuate prosperity by borrowing trillions of dollars it can never repay…corporate power…holds the government hostage.”

Add to this the controversial but well-sourced study titled ‘Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies’ which not only talked about how collapse of human civilization, in their view can be avoided if “the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably” (1) but that “the scenarios most closely reflecting the reality of our world today” (20) are what they consider, elite-commoner societies:

“the economic stratication of society into Elites and Masses (or “Commoners”)…accumulated surplus [or wealth] is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels…Elites “prey” on the production of wealth by Commoners.” [2, 5]

Keeping what Martin Gilens and Benjamin L. Page’s study, Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges and the HANDY study said, it is incorrect to say that people have a “seat at the table of government” or can even make decisions in a supposed democracy. They can’t, especially in the U.S. The same can apply to countries like Australia, which like Canada and the UK, in the words of a leaked 2005 Citigroup memo, is a plutonomy (while also being a plutocracy or a government controlled directly or indirectly by the rich) which refers to the habits of rich consumers, rather than “the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many” which is driven by a number of factors:

“Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, capitalist-friendly cooperative governments, an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation, the rule of law, and patenting inventions…six drivers of the current plutonomy: 1) an ongoing technology/biotechnology revolution, 2) capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes, 3) globalization that re-arranges global supply chains with mobile well-capitalized elites and immigrants, 4) greater financial complexity and innovation, 5) the rule of law, and 6) patent protection”

This memo also notes that “at the heart of plutonomy, is income inequality. Societies that are willing to tolerate/endorse income inequality, are willing to tolerate/endorse plutonomy.” Such societies, like Australia and the U.S., are what I once called states in crisis, or those states that “elites have more power in forming public policy than the general populace or at minimum put in place elite-friendly policies.”

Such ideas also invalidate Snowden’s philosophy, if you could call it that, which is as follows [2]:

  • as “long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision”
  • “the public needs to decide whether these policies are right or wrong.”

The people don’t have an ability to decide if policies are right or wrong because they aren’t part of the policy-making apparatus, and their views are easily brushed aside by elites in the U.S., and likely in other countries as well. Additionally, Snowden’s trust in the thoughts of the public also forgets the fact that public opinion polls can be manipulated as the GCHQ did, deceptive, or limit “people’s sense of wider possibilities,” which limits the scope of public debate.

To some extent, The Rancid Honeytrap says that Snowden’s idea that we can “register our consent” is absurd:

“…Let’s allow for argument’s sake that it’s entirely fine for people to waive their own rights and those of their dissenting neighbors. By what means does Snowden propose we register our consent? Do we get to vote on this? Or is our consent inferred from not toppling the government when it predictably makes things worse instead of better?”

The Rancid Honeytrap writes toward the end of their piece that whistleblowers themselves  are the “kind of people who get into the sort of deep, dark places from which whistles customarily get blown. Places that are uniquely attractive to patriots, ultra-conformists, imperialists and sociopaths” and that while he appreciates “their service to the truth, but with all due respect, these are not my kind of people.” It is definitely true that whistleblowers, whether Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, or Daniel Ellsberg, hold very reformist thoughts.

At one point, in the words of The Rancid Honeytrap, he rightly points out that Snowden still “insists he’s still working for it [the NSA]…[and] his only beef with the country’s gigantic security apparatus is bulk data collection conducted by that single agency.”  These reformist beliefs of Snowden are deeply problematic, as the system itself could afford getting rid of “bulk data collection” by the NSA, since the surveillance apparatus at-large would NOT be dismantled. Still, those who benefit from such collection don’t want it to go away.

One Juice Rap News segment back from September 2012, almost ten months before Snowden revealed himself to the world, encapsulates the holistic nature of the mass surveillance of the surveillance state, which has a 1984-ish vibe when the host, Robert Foster talks to General Baxter, who represents the state/military establishment/intelligence establishment all in one:

rapnews15a

Robert Foster: “Explain why the state is spying on us?”

"My fellow Oceanians, we've always been at war with Eurasia, or is it East Asia? Either way its war and we need a vision to wage it. But now the proles are connecting online passing these illusionary divisions of race, religion, and nationality."

General Baxter: “My fellow Oceanians, we’ve always been at war with Eurasia, or is it East Asia? Either way its war and we need division to wage it! But now the proles are connecting online passing these illusionary divisions of race, religion, and nationality!”

"Sounds grand to me."

Robert Foster: “Sounds grand to me.”

"Its a catastrophe. Centuries of hard work being undone, profits are vanishing, and its due to the internet. Its empowering humanity. We need to get this snafu under control rapidly."

General Baxter: “Its a catastrophe! Centuries of hard work being undone, profits are vanishing, and its due to the internet! Its empowering humanity! We need to get this snafu under control rapidly.”

Robert Foster: "How?"

Robert Foster: “How?”

General Baxter: "Behold the latest weapon in the war of terror. Our greatest invention since 9/11. Guaranteed to keep us free and safe forever. I give you the surveillance state ladies and generals."

General Baxter: “Behold the latest weapon in the war of terror. Our greatest invention since 9/11. Guaranteed to keep us free and safe forever…I give you the surveillance state ladies and generals!”

General Baxter: "Our secret wires log your case dial. Monitor every single number on your speed dial. Rewind to your position with facial recognition and pinpoint you within 0.3 of a mile!"

General Baxter: “Our secret wires log your case dial. Monitor every single number on your speed dial. Rewind to your position with facial recognition and pinpoint you within 0.3 of a mile!”

General Baxter: "We've put eyes everywhere without consulting you, keeping you safe whether or not you want us to. Soon, they'll be no freedoms left for threatening. Then we'll have won the war! Take that terrorism!"

General Baxter: “We’ve put eyes everywhere without consulting you, keeping you safe whether or not you want us to. Soon, they’ll be no freedoms left for threatening. Then we’ll have won the war! Take that terrorism!”

While there is good criticism in the rest of The Rancid Honeytrap‘s post, my take on it will have to wait for another article, another time, another day. Sorry to say.

Notes:

[1] While I say this, I am not saying that people do have have the ability to influence or push government to make certain decisions. However, I am saying that in general, the government, I’m mainly talking about the U.S. government but this could be applied to other governments, doesn’t really care what ordinary people think. They care what the people with the deep pockets say and think. That’s who they, in general, listen to. That is the current state of affairs.

[2] This was expressed in articles in the New York Times and The Guardian. Obviously, Snowden has more thoughts than this, but these are some of his major reformist views.

Questioning the US Institute of Peace: does it really care about peace?

26 Sep

At the end of July, Little Sis, a project of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), published a short article criticizing Stephen Hadley. They write that Hadley has “made a career of promoting, overseeing, and profiting from war,” as he was already responsible as a White House official during the Bush Administration “for inserting faulty intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities…in Bush’s State of the Union in 2003.” They also noted that Hadley has, since he left public office, “co-founded an international consulting firm and joined the board of weapons manufacturer Raytheon” and more importantly, he serves as the chair of the US Institute of Peace (USIP)’s board of directors, while also authoring Washington Post op-eds about the crisis’s in Syria, Gaza, and Ukraine when he could personally profit from them. GAP then writes that the agenda of the USIP can then “be described as Orwellian” since he chairs the organization which was interestingly enough established during the Reagan era in 1984. Still, I’d argue that one can’t negatively portray an institution like the USIP just by looking at one person. So, this article will continue the analysis of GAP to question the federally-funded institution itself: does it really serve the interests of peace?

It is important to look further into the USIP, starting with those that run it. There were a number of specifics not noted in the article by GAP was that Hadley was formerly the director of the Bessmer Group up to 2009, which “operates as a bank holding company for Bessemer Trust.” The trust says that it has one goal and one goal only: “preserving and enhancing our clients’ wealth” through a use of credit investments, currencies, hedge funds and more. The international consulting firm mentioned in passing in GAP’s article, at which Hadley is a principal, is called the RiceHadleyGates Team. This firm also includes former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and a former “Special Assistant to Under Secretary for Political Affairs” at the State Department named Anja Manuel. This firm is assisting a Silicon Valley-based company where British war criminal and former Prime Minister Tony Blair is a “special adviser” and advises, according to The New York , “companies about doing business in emerging markets like the Middle East, China, Brazil, India and Turkey.” Hadley also sits on the international advisory council member of APCO worldwide, another consulting firm. Finally, he is a member of the Atlantic Council which is, in the words of Allen Ruff, an “elite foreign policy NGO” that is dedicated to moving forward the “national interest” of the US and continuing “Cold War supremacy within the ‘Atlantic community’ and beyond.” Then, he is a member of Aspen Institute Homeland Security Group as well, which includes has people such as NYPD Commissioner Bill “broken windows” Bratton and Michael Chertoff, among others.

Some of the other board members make one question the institution as well. John Kerry, a corporatist Senator and now Secretary of State, and Chuck Hagel, who formerly served on Chevron’s board of directors and is now Secretary of Defense, serve as board members. One board member, J. Robinson West, was even the chairman and founder of PFC Energy which advised big oil companies, helped lease off the outer continental shelf for oil drilling during the Reagan years and is currently a member of the National Petroleum Council which focuses on advising, informing and recommending measures to the Energy Secretary on “any matter relating to oil and natural gas, or to the oil and gas industries” which is “submitted to it or approved by the Secretary.” Other board members make one lift their eyebrow, including: a member of the board of directors of the right-wing legal organization called the Center for Individual Rights; the director of the Atlantic Council; the president of the National Defense University; a senior fellow at the libertarian Hoover Institution; and the president of Quality Care Consultants. Some board members seem to not be corporate or tied to the foreign policy and military establishments like one who heads a civil and human rights group and another that is the former executive director of the National Council on Independent Living. In the past, Harriet Zimmermann, who was a member of AIPAC and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was even a member of the USIP’s board. If this isn’t enough, USIP has eight-six experts working at places ranging from the centrist Brookings institution to the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Institution has an interesting history. It was spurred by grassroots pressure initially and then it came to engage in projects that some may be disturbed by and goes against the ideas those who pushed for it, peace activists, in the first place. After all, David Petraeus called them “a great asset in developing stronger unity of effort between civilian and military elements of government” in Afghanistan. They helped convene the Iraq Study Group in 2006, which came out with a final report that urged an immediate pull-out from Iraq and a surge in Afghanistan. So much for peace as this suggestion means that war would decline in one country and increased in another. To echoe what Howard Beale said in Network about the “truth” from television, “this is mass madness you maniacs!” Then, there was the Genocide Prevention Task Force, convened by USIP and other groups, which was co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeline “the price was worth it” Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen who has played a big role in US military actions in Kosovo and Iraq in the 1990s. The 174-page report from this task force, which had thirty-five recommendations for lawmakers and other public officials, echoed the ideas of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), stating in part that: “states have a basic responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide and mass atrocities…As an element of this expression of resolve, the United States should also reaffirm its support for the principle of the “responsibil­ity to protect.” What this report did not note is that R2P has been used to justify the interventions in the Ivory Coast and Libya in 2011 along with one in the Central African Republic in 2013. Binoy Kampmark wrote in 2008 that this report, which was from a task force chaired “by key players in the Clinton administration,” pairs well with “interventionist rhetoric Obama has, at times, articulated” and through his foreign policy advisers, while the “priorities given to genocide prevention may yet again be minimized.”

USIP had other initiatives such as one that purportedly was aimed at preventing electoral violence in the two Sudans, where the US has an oil interest and is competing with China, but had no similar program in another other region of the world. Then there is the publication of something called “The Iran Primer” which claims to offer a “comprehensive but concise overview of Iran’s politics, economy, military, foreign policy, and nuclear program” which is edited by Robin B. Wright who is a scholar who works at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a group where the Vice Chairman of Morgan Stanley is the chair of its board of Trustees, which is filled with a number of business-friendly folks. A number of others write for the publication, including a director of a part of the Brookings Institution and a Carnegie Endowment’s policy analyst.

Sara Diamond in the July/August 1990 issue of Z Magazine brought another critique to the USIP: that is it close with the intelligence establishment. Diamond writes that the Institute has become “a stomping ground for professional war-makers” and has become “a funding conduit and clearinghouse for research on problems inherent to U.S. strategies of ‘low intensity conflict.’ She later writes that the USIP’s board in 1984 looked like a bunch of “right-wing ideologues from academia and the Pentagon” since, as she concludes, by law, “the USIP is an arm of the U.S. intelligence apparatus…[and] intersects heavily with the intelligence establishment.” That isn’t all. Diamond writes that the Institute has a congressionally approved board of directors, its first president worked with the State Department to disseminate anti-Contra propaganda and at the time, of the article’s writing, three of the board members presided over the seemingly defunct “U.S. Global Strategy Council which was a “shadowy clique of military intelligence strategists headed by former CIA deputy director Ray Cline.” Furthermore, Diamond noted that most of the USIP’s grant projects “through early 1990 reveals undeniable favoritism toward researchers committed to Cold War paradigms.” And the article continues on.

The problems with USIP don’t stop here. According to an archived page on USIP’s website, former fellows of the institution include Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, Ray Jennings and Albert Cevallos of USAID, Richard Joseph of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Dana Priest of the Washington Post, and the failed Vice Presidential candidate Bill Richardson. Lest us forget that the US government’s official position on Syria was “sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace to negotiate disputes among selected elements of the Syrian Opposition,” according to Professor Richard Rubenstein in CounterPunch. On the problems with USIP, Associate Professor Thomas N. Nagy added that “Dr. Waromonger” Daniel Pipes who is a premier warmonger, an obvious Islamaphobe, a supporter of the Vietnam War, a strong supporter of Israel who opposes a Palestinian state, and advocate of U.S. military attack on Iran to stop its nuclear program, was nominated to the board of USIP by President George W. Bush. This nomination was blocked by rightly angry Democratic senators, but Bush used his authority to appoint Pipes through a recess appointment (he served for two years) while Pipes was endorsed by the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, a number of senators and other small groups.

While one cannot deny that USIP engages in good work from time to time, it is clear that this federal institution is mired by connections the foreign policy and military establishments, the intelligence community and the corporate sector. These connections make clear that USIP is not promoting peace. After all, that isn’t their mission; rather it is, according to their website, a push to “increase the nation’s capacity to manage international conflict without violence.” This weak statement doesn’t even say, or even allude, that wars should be ended or scaling down of violence worldwide. If USIP doesn’t start demanding real peace, which would require a push to cut war spending worldwide, especially in the US, and rethinking war economies, then it may be time to question if it is really needed anymore.

Flashback: controversy over my Gay Inc. piece

20 Aug

A store of the Human Rights Campaign which had been “trashed” by a bunch of radical queers due to the organization’s disregard of homelessness and other issues which is bold, even if I don’t agree with everything they say here (http://pastebin.com/JwZqcJ1i)

Back in May 2013, I sent an editor of a publication a draft of my article which criticized big gay groups, or Gay Inc. which was eventually published on Nation of Change. I was originally going to publish the whole email conversation, but there is no need for that. Rather, it is best to quote what the editor-in-chief said in emails to me.

After three emails, when I had said I was open to change on my piece “about the mainstream LGBTQ movement” including edits, rewrites, etc… and saying I would publish it somewhere else if I did not get a response, the editor responded. Here is what he had to say (bolded parts are emphasized) on May 15, 2013:

Hi Burkely –Sorry to keep you waiting! I’ve been on killer deadline for the last week+ — and it’s not quite over yet. I do have your essay and I’ve spent a bit of time with it, but haven’t made a decision. It would certainly be controversial, given the nature of your critique of “Gay Inc.” It’s the kind of piece that would have to be extremely well-documented and ironclad in its assertions, as I assume it would raise the hackles of the many people who have a vested interest in these orgs. Consquently, I need to spend some more time with the piece before reaching a decision. But I don’t want to hold you up, so I would certainly understand if you decided to shop it elsewhere. I’ll be much freer next week, so please feel free to get in touch then. Thanks for your patience!

At the time, I told this editor that I knew the piece would be controversial but that I could deal with controversy, even publishing a response piece afterwards. Clearly, looking back, the editor did not share my point of view and was concerned about “controversy” and wanted it to be “well-documented” and “ironclad in its assertions.” I sent two more emails to this editor, and he finally responded at the end of May, asking if he had made a decision about my essay. Here is what he said, apologizing for his slow response, on May 31, 2013, saying he had made a decision and “put the issue to rest:”:

Dear Burkely –

Finally put the next issue to rest this AM, so now I can turn my sights to other matters. Apologies for my slowness in getting you an answer on the piece. I think you’ve done some good research and drawn some interesting connections between “Gay Inc.” and the corporate world — which, by the way, is far from a new discovery. The very coinage “Gay Inc.” suggests that many others have complained about corporate involvement in GLBT orgs. But I have a number of substantive concerns about the piece beyond the question of originality: It seems to me the kind of piece that should carefully lay out the evidence without judgment, then ponder what it means to be so dependent on corporate sponsorship, and finally conclude that this has a corrupting influence. Instead, you begin with the judgment that corporate sponsorship — indeed corporations themselves — is bad, so the rest is just backup material. Everyone knows that the major GLBT orgs rely heavily on corporate sponsorship — it’s the way of the world. Another problem is this: while you document lots of cases of corporate sponsorship of mainstream GLBT orgs, I don’t think you’ve made the case that this is ipso facto a terrible thing. Certainly the potential for abuse is there, but I’m sure all of these orgs would tell you that they couldn’t survive without corporate sponsorship. If true, the question becomes whether we’d be better off without them. Another question: is this any different from every other public interest group in America, whether disaster relief or animal rights? I think they all rely on corporate sponsors to some extent — but feel free to prove me wrong. In any case, I think you need to make the argument that the GLBT movement is uniquely corrupted by corporate influence. BTW the companies that tend to sponsor gay orgs — Microsoft, the airlines, etc. — tend to be the ones with the best policies on gay rights. You don’t see Exxon/Mobil as a major sponsor, am I right? I’m just sayin’. So, I will have to pass on the piece as written. As implied in paragraph 3, perhaps there’s an article there based upon your research. It might be useful for our readers to know exactly which companies are sponsoring which organizations. And certainly if you can document any examples of how this influence has affected their actions or policies, that would be of great interest. I guess your complaint is that Gay Inc. doesn’t criticize big corporations for their many sins. But who does? This is America. In any case, why is it up to the GLBT movement to provide this critique? I’ll stop there and let you reply — if you’ve made it this far!

Thanks much,

As you can expect, this response made me annoyed and madder, especially when he said that corporate sponsorship of GLBT organizations, as he called them, was “the way of the world” which later was used as the title of my article for Nation of Change. His assertion that certain corporations have “good policies” on gay rights is bull. That ignores the fact that such policies do not make them better corporations but rather more mischievous, I would argue. If other groups are funded by corporate sponsors, they definitely should be criticized too.  If I was to find evidence of any corporate sponsor influencing any of the big gay organizations in a direct and a notable way, then I’d have to probably request internal documents or something which they would never give me. As a result, such an endeavor is literally impossible. Despite this, I am glad he praised my research…

At the time, in response to this editor, I said that if corporate sponsorship is the way of the world, it should change and I said that the organizations must be rejected as corporate leeches, just like I said in my article for State of Nature and that since “corporations control and dictate our lives…it seems fair to criticize them.”  Months later, he responded with much of his critique still intact, responding to an email I can’t seem to find (bolded parts are my emphasis):

Hi Burkely,

Thanks for your follow-up to our earlier correspondence, with apologies for my very slow reply. There’s not much I can add to my earlier critique of the piece, which still stands. Yes, corporations are powerful and pervasive in our lives — so much so that they are indeed unavoidable in all walks of life. The idea that orgs. like the HRC and Task Force would have no corporate sponsorship is quixotic in this day and age. Your war is with the corporate state, as it used to be called, of which the current gay movement is but one manifestation. But how is the GLBT rights movement more corrupted by corps. than anyone else? Also, for what it’s worth, corps. that sponsor gay orgs invariably have very gay-friendly policies. So it goes. I still think there could be the nub of an article there, but it would require some down-and-dirty research to make it work IMHO.

So, the idea that these organizations could have no corporate sponsorship is silly? Come on. Even though I would not argue that, I would say that there are non-profits and orgs. out there that do good work and don’t have ANY corporate sponsors. To have a corporate sponsor is to be corrupted in and of itself. I don’t see why “down-and-dirty research” is needed to prove that. Once again, who cares if they have “gay-friendly policies.” That type of stuff is just BS and PR to promote themselves as caring about “equality.” In my response to the email at the time, I said that having corporate sponsorship leads to what one can call “manufactured equality” which I argued “won’t address the root causes of discrimination against them and numerous other problems facing them. And I made an even more powerful point: “as long as Gay Inc. has corporate sponsors, they will never push for what LGBTQ people need but rather for corporate-friendly equality.”

I reprint my article which I published on Nation of Change below which hit back at a number of criticisms by the editor. I also welcome comments about what the editor said and what you think about all of this.

Its the Way of the World: Bradley Manning and Gay Inc.

By Burkely Hermann

At a recent DNC fundraiser 56- year old LGBTQ advocate Ellen Sturt heckled Michelle Obama  to ask for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to be signed via executive order. This was a simple demand, as she notes in her Washington Post op-ed where she says she could no “longer remain silent.” Although this was brave, what about famed gay whistleblower PFC Bradley Manning? Would he get the same treatment? Glenn Greenwald wrote that Chair of the San Francisco Pride Parade overode the board’s decision declaring that Manning would not be one of the Grand Marshals of the parade while huge corporations like AT&T, Verizon, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo, sponsored the Parade. What he wrote next was a bombshell: “[the] remarkable shift in public opinion on gay equality…is less significant than it seems because…gay equality poses no real threat to elite factions…If anything, it bolsters those power structures.” One must ask: does the cause of gay equality “pose no threat” to the ruling elite?

First one, one must understand, that the LGBTQ rights movement has changed over time. BusinessWeek calls the gay rights movement, “one of the most successful political enterprises in history” because of its contributions in the last 40 years. However, this “enterprise” has led people to worry: lesbian host Ellen DeGeneres is perceived as the mainstream gay perspective, that there is a slow response of the movement to lynching of LGBT people in Honduras, how liberals support equal rights in rhetoric but refuse to support legislation putting it place and finally how from the 1970s on, the movement allied with the Democratic Party while the current “LGBT leadership…abandons…an agenda that stresse[s]…social [and]…economic justice…[like] the Human Rights Campaign [HRC]…ignor[ing] homelessness and poverty altogether.”

From this, I began to look into Gay Inc.  Andy Thayer defines this term as encompassing all of the big gay non-profits, from the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) to the HRC but I would expand it to include the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Out and Equal Workplace Advocates (Out and Equal), GLAAD,  Family Equality Council, and the National Gay and Lesbian Center of Commerce (NGLCC). Also it would includes other groups like the Arcus Foundation, the Gill Foundation, Log Cabin Republicans, Freedom To Marry, Equality Forum, Lesbian Victory Fund, and American Foundation for Equal Rights. Is it the way of the world that major LGBTQ organizations rely heavily on corporate sponsorship?

Before I get into the organizations themselves, as the saying goes, follow the money. The sponsorships of Gay Inc. give a further insight. The banksters who helped plunge the world economy into economic crisis sponsored a number of organizations including the HRC, NGLTF, GLAD, PFLAG,  NGLCC, Out and Equal, GLSEN, and GLAAD. As for the companies that are part of the Center for Copyright Information that devised the authoritarian copyright alert system which is commonly called “Six Strikes,” they back Equality Forum, Out and Equal, NGLTF, and GLAAD. There are many other egregious corporate sponsors of the NGLTF, HRC, GLAD, PFLAG, Equality Forum, Family Equality Council, NGLCC, Out and Equal (has 55 sponsors!), GLSEN, and GLAAD (here and here). Some might say that this is no different from any other public interest group in America, but Gay Inc. is uniquely corrupted by the business community.

How do these groups pay back their sponsors? It differs from group to group. The NGLTF inadvertently call for people to vote for Democrats and backed the healthcare “reform” bill while the HRC’s ‘corporate equality index’ praises Corporate America as this year’s report gave the highest ratings possible to some of those who sponsored them! GLAD has a Board of Directors including including former employees of Verizon, HRC, and GlaxoSmithKline while the GLSEN, who came up with the idea of Gay-Straight Alliances, has a Board of Directors comprised of most of their corporate sponsors. Out & Equal tries to help LGBTQ people find jobs has groups on their “LGBTCareerLink” page including BP, Bank of America, GE, Comcast, PNC, and Clorox, half of whom are their sponsors.  NGLCC is even worse as they making an effort to make corporate America LGBTQ “certified” and the Equality Forum has a former Comcast CEO on their Board of Governors while their major sponsor is Comcast itself.

The other groups that have less of a roll in Gay Inc. are also corrupted. The Arcus Foundation has a former member of the Rockefeller Foundation, a CNN correspondent, and IBM employee on their Board while the Gill Foundation has similar board members. Freedom To Marry, which wants gay marriage and DOMA repealed, has the vice-president of Amazon.com, and a surrogate speaker for President Obama on their board of directors while they praising Mayor 1% Emanuel, Mayor Bloomberg, and Glenn Beck, as voices for equality! The American Foundation for Equal Rights which claims to want equal rights for all has a board of Directors including the HRC president, and the Chairman of the CATO institute. Other groups just follow along like the Log Cabin Republicans and the Stonewall Democrats which advocate for gay policy in their respective parties while the Lesbian Victory Fund endorses LGBT candidates.

 

By now, it should be clear that Greenwald was right. I’d say we’d be better off without these groups, just like the Gang Green groups that dominate the mainstream environmental movement. People must remember this is not the way it was supposed to be because the movement itself began with queer sit-ins in 1965 which morphed into a protest rally, not with Stonewall riots in 1968. As Gay Inc., the corporate leeches, has been timid, there is hope: the Gay Liberation Network, which pushes for a grassroots direct action to help LGBTQ people. The corporate leeches must be thrown away and LGBTQ and allies must stand next to each other and push for full liberation not simply policies that promote assimilation like gay marriage and ENDA.

 

And here is the submission I sent to the editor, which I believe is a bit different, but still good:

Gay Inc., Bradley Manning and corporate power

 

Yesterday, I was just browsing across twitter and I stumbled across an article by Glenn Greenwald. It explained that the famed whistleblower Bradley Manning was not made one of the Grand Marshals of the San Francisco Pride Parade. He explained that while “even a hint of support for Manning will not be tolerated, there is a long roster of large corporations serving as the event’s sponsors who are welcomed with open arms…[including] AT&T and Verizon…Bank of America…Wells Fargo…Clear Channel…[and] Kaiser Permanente…Even at the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, once an iconic symbol of cultural dissent and disregard for stifling pieties, nothing can happen that might offend AT&T and the Bank of America…Thus, while Bradley Manning is persona non grata at SF Pride, illegal eavesdropping telecoms, scheming banks, and hedge-fund purveyors of the nation’s worst right-wing agitprop are more than welcome.” What he wrote next was startling to me. He said that while there has been a “remarkable shift in public opinion on gay equality…this development is less significant than it seems because the cause of gay equality poses no real threat to elite factions or to how political and economic power in the US are distributed. If anything, it bolsters those power structures because it completely and harmlessly assimilates a previously excluded group into existing institutions and thus incentivizes them to accommodate those institutions and adopt their mindset.” This is proved by simply looking at the full list of the parade’s sponsors which includes Bud Light, Virgin Mobile, Toyota, and Hilton Hotels as well. Additionally, President Obama declared in his inaugural address that “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law…for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” but has not taken any concrete steps to even put his ideas into practice because what he said was a bunch of meaningless liberal rhetoric. Greenwald’s observation is what led me to investigate more to see if he was correct.

 

One needs an informed perspective on the mainstream organizations of the LGBTQ rights movement, which have developed very much over time, becoming subsumed by the establishment. Caleb Castañeda writes that it worrying that the movement is treating Ellen DeGeneres as the mainstream gay perspective, the slow approach of the movement in response to lynching of LGBT people, the irony that in the words of the late Alexander Coleburn that the movement is trying to save the sinking ship of marriage and how in Ron Jacobs’s words that on the “liberal side of the US political spectrum one hears words in support of equal rights only to be all to often followed by a refusal to support those rights when it comes to actually passing legislation.” To cap it off, there’s an article by Tommi Avicolli Mecca noting that “by the late 70s, a more mainstream movement had emerged. Gay rights bills were pushed through legislatures, inroads made with certain Protestant denominations, support gained from the Democratic Party…[now] the new LGBT leadership often abandons multi-issue coalitions and an agenda that stressed social as well as economic justice…[for instance] the Human Rights Campaign [HRC]…ignores homelessness and poverty altogether, and wants Congress to pass a federal gay rights bill that doesn’t include transgenders, the group that needs protection the most.”

From this, I began to look into Gay Inc. Andy Thayer defines this term as encompassing all of the big gay non-profits, from the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) to the HRC but I would expand it to include the Arcus Foundation, the Gill Foundation, Log Cabin Republicans, Freedom To Marry, Equality Forum, Lesbian Victory Fund, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Out and Equal, GLAAD, Family Equality Council, and the National Gay and Lesbian Center of Commerce (NGLCC).

I start with the HRC. This organization is the most celebrated LGBTQ organization in the United States, which according to a back of one of their stickers, “envisions an America where all LGBT people are ensured equality and are embraced as full members of the American family at home, at work and in every community.” However, a further look at their website puts this into question. Looking at their “platinum,” “gold,” “silver,” and “bronze” corporate partners there are some startling companies that are helping them. Such companies include: Citigroup which participated in a conference that is hosted by an organization that denies the horrible Armenian genocide, Microsoft which increased their offshore profit holdings by $16 billion last year, American Airlines which will probably merge with US Airways creating the world’s largest airline, Bank of America which is currently in court over lost mortgage investments, Coca-Cola which needs excessive water use to make their products, the Toyota-made Lexus which was sued by customers because of sudden acceleration, Chevron which was issued criminal charges by Brazilian prosecutors for massive environmental damage, BP which paid no corporate income taxes but got a rebate, Google which admitted that its “Street View” program violates privacy, Nike which runs sweatshops for profit in the Southeast Asia, IBM which put over $6.5 billion dollars offshore last year, TD Bank which has investments in TransCanada which is building the Keystone XL Pipeline, Goldman Sachs which paid no corporate income tax, Shell Oil which is now responsible for all of the oil spills in the Niger Delta, Starbucks which was fined by a Chilean Court $50,000 for anti-union practices in the country, Dell which was found by a New York Court to be guilty of fraud, JPMorganChase which has recently been more vigorously investigated by federal authorities in cases including a flawed review of loans and lying to investors, and Morgan Stanley which admitted that it knew about the housing bubble in 2005 before it burst but did nothing to stop it. Also, one can even get a BankAmericard for the organization! All of these partners make it seem that the HRC really doesn’t really care about equality, but that it’s just a façade. They say their ‘corporate equality index’[CEI] will “propel equality” and their President writes that “Corporate America continues to raise the bar in workplace fairness. we hope Congress will follow corporate America’s lead and create a level playing field – including passing fully-inclusive workplace non-discrimination legislation.” This year’s CEI report gave high ratings to General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., IBM, and Freddie Mac, among others.

 

The next biggest part of Gay, Inc. is the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force or NGLTF. First off, one should consider their sponsors include one major group of banksters (Wells Fargo), a bus line that is owned by Greyhound (Grey Goose), a CBS-owned television network (Showtime), Comcast-NBCUniversal, a major US airline (Southwest) and an LGBTQ weekly called the Washington Blade. In the issues section of their website, they take a stand against the “anti-gay industry,” they have a vote guide that lists their positions but doesn’t mention the Democratic Party even though they clearly are telling people to vote for the Democrats, they want the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to pass which is backed by groups ranging from the HRC, NAACP, American Bar Association and yes, Nike, which are the same in both Houses of Congress. The same goes with the Matthew Shepard Act which was backed by numerous gay rights organizations in the Senate and was tied to a military spending bill in the House which further shows the non-threatening nature of the bill. Then, they praised the Affordable Care Act which was a bailout for the healthcare industry. None of this is surprising considering the Board of their Action fund includes a pro-Obama message service (Progressive Victory), a holding company of diversified commercial and industrial businesses (CIC Group), and an organization that consults different groups on gender issues (Botzer Consulting). One shouldn’t forget that their Board of Directors includes members of a global consulting firm (McKinsey and Company), a huge hospital company (Brinker International), and the program officer of the Gates Foundation.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is one of the most corrupt of them all. Their Board of Directors includes a former employee of GE Healthcare, the US Treasury Department, Verizon, HRC, and GlaxoSmithKline. From this it’s no surprise their sponsors include Macy’s, Bank of America, Liberty Mutual, and DLA Piper. Maybe this is why they don’t have much in the realm of legislative advocacy. A similar organization, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) has a similar situation. They have corporate sponsors including AT&T, Wells Fargo, Disney, Target, Disney, IBM, HP, Goldman Sachs, Google, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. As a result, their Board of Directors includes members of Disney, Kodak, Sodexo, JPMorgan Chase, Cisco Systems, Wells Fargo, DreamWorks, and IBM. This is a major problem because they are the originators of the whole idea of Gay-Straight Alliances in secondary educational institutions (I had one in my high school).

 

Consider an organization that doesn’t seem that bad: it advocates to help LGBTQ people find jobs. This group called Out & Equal has its problems. These stem from the companies that group lists on its “LGBTCareerLink” page which include a company that helped George W. Bush fix the Florida elections (WellPoint), BP, Bank of America, GE, Comcast, PNC, and Clorox among others. This won’t really help the well-being of LGBTQ folk and improve their place in society. Then there’s the organization named GLAAD which officially says it will secure “full and lasting equality.” However, this is put seriously into question when Comcast and Wells Fargo are two of their “premier partners” and their other sponsors include AT&T, IBM  and Microsoft.

 

One of the biggest foundations that funds much of the movement called the Arcus Foundation doesn’t seem to have direct connections to Big Business. However, on their Board of Directors they have a person who founded a group that “advances corporate, philanthropic and legislative efforts” for social justice causes, the CEO of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, one who formerly worked at the Rockefeller Foundation, a former CNN correspondent, a former IBM employee, former Director of Board Affairs for Planned Parenthood, and a former accountant. As for the Gill Foundation, it’s pretty similar. Its board members include the founder of Quark, Inc. and a former Google employee. Also, they promote a project by Out & Equal which once again promotes big business.

In a completely different realm is a family-oriented organization called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays or PFLAG. It sounds all nice and dandy but there’s one major problem: its sponsors. Those that back this organization include Wells Fargo, UPS, Credit Suisse, Barclays, Sodexo, Dow, Northrop Grumman, and Finra, the self-regulating body of the financial industry. This is then why their policy positions don’t really challenge business. On the other hand, Freedom To Marry, which pushes for Gay Marriage and ending “federal marriage discrimination” is similarly backed by business interests. The organization’s board of directors includes former members of an asset management company, vice-president of Amazon.com, surrogate speaker for President Obama, a person who has coached hundreds of corporate CEOs. These are even worse than the competing Log Cabin Republicans which advocates for gay policy in the GOP and the Stonewall Democrats doing the same in the Democratic Party along with the Lesbian Victory Fund endorses LGBT candidates in office. And don’t forget the Equality Forum which has a former Comcast CEO on their Board of Governors, and a Wealth Advisor for Merrill Lynch on their Board of Directors. Good ole’ Comcast and AT&T sponsor them as well. Then there’s the Family Equality Council which officially “represents the three million parents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender in this country and their six million children.” However, I’m not sure how those that are “represented” would like to see that the organization is sponsored by the Royal Bank of Canada, HBO, Target, Capitol One, PepsiCo, and General Mills. The last organization I focused on was the National Gay and Lesbian Center of Commerce. This is one of the worst: it has corporate partners including Wells Fargo, UnitedHealthcare, and MillerCoors while they have an effort to reach corporate America and help make them LGBTQ “certified.”

By now, it should be clear that Greenwald was right when he said that gay equality does not threaten the American power structure and possibly even bolsters their power through the backing of Gay, Inc. by the Business Community. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. The LGBTQ rights movement which didn’t begin in Stonewall but actually in “in 1965 [in] the first queer sit-ins on record took place at a late-night Philadelphia coffee shop and lunch counter called Dewey’s, a popular hangout for young gays, lesbians and drag queens.” This action morphed into a protest rally, “an informational picket line protesting the lunch counter’s treatment of gender-variant youth….[and] another sit-in” which spread across the country in numerous incidents as described in a history of the movement by Tommi Avicolli Mecca. However, Stonewall was marked as the beginning by many because after it was the founding of the militant Gay Liberation Front or GLF which tied gay liberation to other struggles for liberation. This has been lost in Gay Inc. There has been no confrontation of heterosexism or fostering of understanding to mitigate homophobic violence or an end for all restrictions for LGBT people in the workplace. A new path must be forged, by using the direct action organization called the Gay Liberation Network run by Andy Thayer, which aims for a grassroots approach to help LGBTQ people as basis for the new movement which would reject the establishment parties and the power of the business community. Otherwise, this social movement will increase the power of those who are screwing the world every day.

 

Why I oppose ENDA

29 Jul

An example of the rhetoric of those opposing exemptions to ENDA

This has been reposted from ZBlogs.

There has been a recent ruse over ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. As Katie McDonough noted in Salon, after the recent Hobby Lobby decision “progressive and LGBTQ groups one-by-one withdrew their support from the measure” including groups like the “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force [NGLTF], the Transgender Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.” What was their reason for not supporting the bill? The measure’s “gaping exemptions for religious organizations” specifically, making the bill, in their view, worthless. At worst, some said that this exemption locked in discrimination for millions as argued by groups like the Center for Inquiry in their statement withdrawing support of ENDA. Even 100 religious leaders sent a letter to President Obama telling him to remove a religious exemption from an ENDA-like executive order (Obama has since signed the executive order). On the religious exemption in ENDA alone, one of my friends, who is trans*, told me that she did not want to participate in lobbying for the law, after I had sent her an article about groups dropping their support since I thought she’d be interested in the subject.

One group remained a strong supporter of ENDA: the Human Rights Campaign or HRC, the biggest Gay Inc. organ, with Fred Sainz, as noted in the liberal gay publication The Advocate, saying that they support ENDA “because it will provide essential workplace protections to millions of LGBT people.”Other groups such as Freedom to Work and the National Center for Transgender Equality still support the bill, as do weird allies: Republican backers like the gay conservative group Log Cabin Republicans and the American Unity Fund. Even gay conservative Andrew Sullivan, who has some reservations about the law, supports it. In contrast, Matt Barber, who has previously claimed that homosexuals openly ridicule Christianity and engaged in fearmongering by falsely claiming that a House bill on HIV/AIDs prevention paid for gender-reassignment surgery, absurdly claimed that ENDA was “the crown jewel of homofascism” and that left-leaning groups were mad since it did not “outlaw” Christianity.

It is strange that the religious exemption in the law is being brought up as an issue now. Back in April of last year, if not earlier, the ACLU, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and others criticized the law’s religious exemption but they did not withdraw their support for the bill. If the Hobby Lobby decision had never happened, it is a likely that these groups would still be supporting the bill, despite their ‘reservations.’ Lest us forget that even though the Democratic Party theoretically supports ENDA, but they “have allowed it to languish on paper for a decade without ever hitting the floor of Congress,” as noted by Sherry Wolf in CounterPunch. More importantly, as Wolf noted in the same article, then-President Bill Clinton “held a closed-door meeting in 1997 with advocates of ENDA” which she said had “been chiseled away at to include notable exemptions for small businesses, the armed forces and religious organizations.”

In my critique of ENDA, in an article I wrote for Dissident Voice last November, I said I was uneasy with a section that showed that the law applied “to a great majority of the workforce, but only to a sliver of the overall businesses.” I further noted that volunteers are not covered by the law, that “those fired for gender ID or sexual orientation before the act is enacted will not benefit from the legal repercussions of the law” and a section of the law I still find utterly chilling, since it “allows employers to continue (or begin) to set ‘dress or grooming standards’ of employees.” In this article, I also went through all of the corporate sponsors of the bill, most of whom were part of the so-called “Business Coalition for Workplace Fairness,” ranging from Intel to Microsoft to Chevron, showing that the corporate sector believes that the lesbians and gays (mainly) constitute a new “marketplace to sell goods and services.” I concluded the article saying that ENDA reinforces “the capitalistic status quo by not challenging corporate power or the power elite in any serious way” and I warned that the “the corporate sector is going full-speed ahead” as they try to rapidly turn the whole community of gender, sexual and radical diversity “into a market so they can get millions of dollars in profits.” Looking back, my argument was a moderate one which didn’t even oppose ENDA, but I still agree with most of what I wrote, other than the multiple uses of the term GSRM, which I’ve since learned is not a positive term.

Most supporters of the law do not realize the obvious reality that surrounds the law itself. The business community wants to tap a new market, while using it boost their profits with policies of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusiveness’ that follow the law’s enactment and subsequent implementation. Still, the law itself, as I noted in the previous paragraph, has deep problems. People like Robyn Pennacchia of Death and Taxes magazine say that ENDA should be passed because it is “geared towards protecting the rights of American citizens” but not with any of the religious exemptions, because it is an “exercise in futility.” Even if there was no religious exemption in the law, there would still be the section allowing “an employer from requiring an employee, during the employee’s hours at work, to adhere to reasonable dress or grooming standards,” or another defining one’s sexual orientation as “homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality,” rather than using an open definition like that of the American Psychological Association. A pro-ENDA article, in Gay Star News, interestingly enough, notes that the law “bars significant remedies available under the Civil Rights Act in cases of race or sex discrimination” and doesn’t allow LGBT plaintiffs to “file disparate impact claims seeking to show that an employer’s policy has disproportionately negative consequences on [their] community.” Any sort of program that mimics affirmative action for gays, lesbians, trans* people, bisexuals and others, is also not required under the law which declares that

“nothing…shall be construed or interpreted to require or permit…any covered entity to grant preferential treatment to any individual or to any group because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity…[or] the adoption or implementation by a covered entity of a quota on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Georgetown University law student Noah Baron brought this up in an article published last month in the Huffington Post, and went even further. He argued that the law was awful before the Hobby Lobby decision, noting that it “prohibits both public and private employers from making use of most affirmative action programs” but only when it is “applied to LGBT people” and it “may roll back significant progress made in protecting transgender Americans from employment discrimination.” Baron later called ENDA “a token, but ultimately simply another reminder that LGBT persons are regarded as less-that,” while noting that the Title VII protection that has been won by transgender people could be lost with ENDA’s passing. In the final sentence of his article, he remarked that ENDA “would achieve” something that is deeply disconcerting: the “enshrining into federal law anti-LGBT bias as an officially more-acceptable form of bigotry.”

There is something disturbing that is getting little coverage: how restrictions put in place by President George W. Bush which allow “faith-based hiring” would not be affected by the law or by Obama’s executive order. Additionally, the law basically institutionalizes discrimination not only through the religious exemption, but it also does so through “dress and grooming standards” which infringes on the freedom of expression of individuals especially those such as trans* or queer people, who are not as accepted by society than others, could be forced to groom or dress a certain way that would be harmful to their well-being. Why are groups not putting up a fuss about that? Why just this religious exemption? And why now?

There is another deeper problem with ENDA, which could easily be called the Ensuring National Discrimination Act. It could be an example of how efforts to make “social injury” illegal “powerfully legitimizes law and the state as appropriate protectors against injury and casts injured individuals as needing such protection by such protectors,” as argued by political theorist and political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Wendy Brown, in the introduction to her book, States of Injury (see page 27). If applied to ENDA, the “injured individuals” would be people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer, etc… and the mechanisms of enforcing the anti-discrimination measures would be the legitimization of the state. In the instance of ENDA, it is hard to apply this idea completely since the law has many exemptions and leaves out the power of the state in many instances, giving individuals more leeway at times.

Some folks in the vast community of gender, sexual and radical diversity will be angry and enraged at this article, saying that there must be non-discrimination measures that protect their community. I agree that such measures can be useful and can help. Stopping discrimination of people of any sexual orientation, color or creed is a laudable goal. However, ENDA as it currently stands, is a bill that institutionalizes discrimination, even without the religious exemption, whether supporters of the law will admit it or not. The nature of ENDA and the corporate support behind it, which is connected to an exploitation of ‘new’ market of ‘wanting’ consumers, is why I cannot lend my support to this legislation. There are a number of questions you could ask of the legislation (What will the law do about homelessness and poverty? What will it do to address the harassment of trans* individuals by police? What will it do to stop the criminalization of young trans* and queer people?) and the answer is always: NOTHING. In the end, it is best to remember what Linda Zerilli, a professor at the University of Chicago, writes in her book, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom (page 122), something that supporters and their allies pushing ENDA often forget, but should not be forgotten: “rights are not things to be distributed from above, but a demand for something more made from below.”

Resisting digital personalization

8 Jun

Reposted from Z Blogs.

There is always talk about how the internet is a magically decentralized system. Eli Pariser, the former head of the liberal, pro-Democratic Party group, MoveOn, challenges this notion in his 2011 book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You, in which he sounds off on the dangers of digital personalization. This article will review the book and also attempt to offer some methods of resisting digital personalization.

Pariser focuses much of his book around the ‘filter bubble.’[1] Basically, the filter bubble is a set of algorithms used on sites such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Yahoo! to name a few.[2] Filtering is, as Pariser describes it, is personalized tailoring of information to your liking. Such personalization, he says, could narrow our thoughts because we are inundated with those perspectives that agree with our views, not those that challenge us. In addition, the storage of our personal information by private companies and corporations is used to blast personalized advertising at us and filter our content through ‘click signals.’ Pariser worries that such filtering concentrates the control of the internet in the hands of a few American multinational corporations.

Digital personalization itself is the subject of a recent Warner Brothers film, Her. On the surface, the movie is about a relationship between the lonely and rarely social protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who works for a company that writes letters for those in intimate relationships, and an operating system (OS) with artificial intelligence named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johanson). Theodore, who is still married to a wife he has been separated with for years, tells Samantha his deepest thoughts as he falls deeply in love with her, and gets his life back together. Samantha is one of the many OS’s, commercial products that purport to make people understand their lives better, which evolve to meet the needs of the user, and personalize the content, so that they feel like a trusted friend. However, they are deceptive since the OS’s are not really human and their artificial intelligence creates a ‘lock in’ to their technology.[3] They also suggest what you may like based on your activities, thoughts, a bit like the function on sites such as Facebook or Amazon saying ‘if you like this, then you’ll like this!’ Theodore finds out the true nature of Samantha when she tells him that she is talking to more than 8,000 at the same time as him and is in love with about 1/10 of them. He is shocked as he thought Samantha was only his and possibly commits suicide (its open to interpretation) as the film closes. In essence, this movie warns of the dangers of digital personalization and how it can control human life.

After reading through this book I was a bit depressed about the future predicament of netizens.[4] US netizens, as they are called, are likely concerned about personalized ads being directed toward them. However, there is little action to counter such digital personalization. Interestingly, there has been more concern about the NSA engaging in mass surveillance on Americans and the rest of the world through the massive public-private national security complex, than the collection of personal data by companies such as Google and Yahoo!. This is not to say that NSA mass surveillance is not important, but rather that it is connected to what can rightly be called corporate surveillance. In the second part of the recent FRONTLINE documentary, United States of Secrets, it notes how the personal information which the

NSA collected to spy on Americans and people across the world was first exploited and stored by American multinational tech companies to benefit their bottom line.

Still, there is one major difference between collection of personal information which is digitally personalized by American multinationals and the ‘collect it all’ doctrine of the NSA & its partners. Digital personalization, as noted by Pariser, has the potential to seep into every part of our lives, as noted in the movie Her (talked about two paragraphs ago). NSA surveillance on the other hand is not all-encompassing, as it would be impossible for the NSA to collect all the personal information of Americans. Rather it is based on the idea of social control, where the NSA collects enough information for everyone to feel like they are under surveillance. Despite these differences, NSA surveillance and digital personalization are deeply connected, which is, strangely enough, not pointed out by Pariser, who only mentions the NSA once in passing in the book. But the book does allude to the possibility that government would exploit personal information used by American multinationals for their own uses (which they have done).

In the last chapter of the book, Pariser outlines what he believes are effective strategies for resisting digital personalization. They are pretty moderate in general. They include breaking your digital habits (looking at different things every day) and using technology where you have more control of the filter bubble imposed on you by the certain service. Pariser, for example, says that Twitter is better than Facebook because you get to control ‘your’ filter bubble. He also advocates for implementing and enforcing the Nixon-era Fair Information Practices as well.[5] Also, he writes that “to rescue our digital environment from itself, we’ll ultimately need a new constituency of digital environmentalists—citizens of this new space we’re all building who band together to protect what’s great about it.”[6] In a hopeful tone, Pariser says that “if the great mass of us decide that an open, public-spirited Internet matters and speak up about it…the lobbyists won’t stand a chance” (which was the case with the defeats of SOPA, PIPA and CISPA)[6]. But he worries that a “small group of American companies may unilaterally dictate how billions of people work, play, communicate, and understand the world.”[7] He concludes with the though that for “all of us,” protecting the “early vision of radical connectedness [on the internet] and user control should be an urgent priority.”[7]

I think that Pariser’s call to action to protect “radical connectedness” on the internet and resist digital personalization should be applauded. However, I feel that he does not go far enough. Companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and others who are exploiting user information and selling it to advertisers and, at times, giving it to the government, are simply “digital imperialists…[who] violate the basic right to privacy…[and constitute] part of the globalization of the surveillance state.”[8] Pariser’s book is a reminder of the increasing control of the internet by corporate power, but he does not mention, sadly, the “corporate concentration of the [online] blogosphere” or the growing power of a small number of internet service providers (mostly American multinationals) in the US. [8] To be fair, Pariser is focusing on digital personalization and highlighting its dangers in his book, not the issues I just talked about. On the other hand, I agree with Pariser’s view that as users, we should choose services which give us more power over our information flow: Twitter instead of Facebook, a digital dictatorship. Additionally, efforts to fight government or corporate censorship, through the law or otherwise, should be fought off.

Still, it is not enough to just leave Tumblr (before Yahoo! took it over), Blogspot (after Google introduced an intrusive new privacy policy), or permanently delete your Facebook account as I have done. Rather, it is better to support privacy-centered and open-source technology that gives people power. On top of this, there should be a push for a more democratic internet, with communities building “next-generation networks that are directly accountable to residents and local businesses,” and owned municipally, by cooperatives, nonprofits, or otherwise, as advocated by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). This may not be perfect, but its a better alternative than the status quo. Such a challenge to what is exists is the reason why “publicly owned high-speed internet” in Wilson, North Carolina, and Thomasville, Georgia have been attacked by the corporate bill-mill called ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). In the end, while it is clear that the internet is a free marketeer’s dream, there must a concerted effort for the people to exert control of the internet, hopefully without government structures, to fight off further efforts to privatize the net.

Notes:

[1] Other than Pariser’s book, most of the results are interviews with Pariser or reviews of his book. But there are also other articles like ‘Algorithms and the Filter Bubble Ruining Your Online Experience?‘ on Huffington Post, and ‘Tim Berners-Lee: Facebook could fragment web‘ in The Guardian.

[2] Much of the internet is tied into digital personalization, even constituting sites like the main feed on academia.edu (you can somewhat control it), Myspace (yes its still around), and others.

[3] Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: what the Internet is hiding from you (p. 40). New York: Penguin Press. Pariser defines this as “the point at which users are so invested in their technology that even if competitors might offer better services, it’s not even worth making the switch” (40).

[4] Michael Hauben defines this term, also called Net Citizen, as someone who exists “as a citizen of the world thanks to the global connectivity that the Net makes possible [since]…you physically live in one country but you are in contact with much of the world via the global computer network.” TechTarget adds that a netizen is a “a citizen who uses the Internet as a way of participating in political society” or an “internet user who is trying to contribute to the Internet’s use and growth.”

[5] Pariser, 239-40 and more directly defined the summary of the report of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems in July 1973 as the following: “[1]There must be no personal data record keeping systems whose very existence is secret. [2] There must be a way for an individual to find out what information about him is in a record and how it is used. [3] There must be a way for an individual to prevent information about him that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent. [4] There must be a way for an individual to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about him. [5] Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuse of the data.”

[6] Pariser, 242.

[7] Ibid, 243.

[8] My article on Nation of Change titled ‘The Digital Imperialists Strike Back.’

Expanding on the term ‘state in crisis’

7 May

Screenshot from 2014-05-06 20:56:16

Recently, I wrote a paper for my comparative politics class titled ‘Mexico: A state in crisis’ in which I proposed a new concept: a ‘state in crisis’ and countered what I believed to be a neoliberal strand among the students in the class. In order for everyone to read about this, I posted it on academia.edu. This article aims to expand the definition of a ‘state in crisis.’

While there are a number of different results when one searches for a ‘state in crisis,’ a term which many have used, my definition of the term has seemingly not been used before. In the PowerPoint for my presentation on paper, I defined this term as the following:

“A state which has not systematically broken down, but it has encountered some sort of domestic crisis which threatens the legitimacy and integrity of the state. Such a state has certain social conditions which threaten the well-being of the general population.”

For Mexico, the ‘domestic crisis’ was the drug war which is ravaging the country from top to bottom. The same could be said for the large amount of poor in Mexico.

In a section titled ‘Questions about the paper and presentation‘ I expanded on this term, writing:

“…Most importantly, I don’t want to use the term failed state because as a person in the First-World, in an imperialist nation in fact, I don’t want to impose a term onto Mexico, a Third -World country, but not be able to apply it to my home country, the United States. The term ‘state of crisis’ gets around this, and allows one to apply it to ALL countries in the world, whether rich, poor or middle-class countries.”

I added that even the US could a ‘state in crisis’:

“The United States, like Mexico has not had a systematic breakdown of the state. Also, there are a number of situations that could be classified as a “domestic crisis” in Mexico that threatens the legitimacy and integrity of the US state. These include rising poverty, massive student loan debt, the rise of mass incarceration and so on. As a result, there are social conditions present in the United States which “threaten the well-being of the general population”

Still, there needs to be some expansion of this definition. Some states which could be considered a ‘state in crisis’ are plutonomies. A controversial Citigroup memo in 2005 defined plutonomies as “economies powered by the wealthy” and classified the U.S., Canada and the UK as pluonomies (and later Australia).  The memo further noted:

What are the common drivers of Plutonomy? Disruptive technology-driven productivity gains, creative financial innovation, capitalist-friendly cooperative governments, an international dimension of immigrants and overseas conquests invigorating wealth creation, the rule of law, and patenting inventions…There are rich consumers, few in number, but disproportionate in the gigantic slice of income and consumption they take. There are the rest, the “non-rich”, the multitudinous many, but only accounting for surprisingly small bites of the national pie…The six drivers of the current plutonomy: 1) an ongoing technology/biotechnology revolution, 2) capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes, 3) globalization that re-arranges global supply chains with mobile well-capitalized elites and immigrants, 4) greater financial complexity and innovation, 5) the rule of law, and 6) patent protection are all well ensconced in the U.S., the UK, and Canada…At the heart of plutonomy, is income inequality. Societies that are willing to tolerate/endorse income inequality, are willing to tolerate/endorse plutonomy.

As Noam Chomsky noted that basically, “Plutonomy refers to the rich, those who buy luxury goods and so on, and that’s where the action is…They claimed that their plutonomy index was way outperforming the stock market. As for the rest, we set them adrift…. These days they’re sometimes called the “precariat”[1] — people who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society.” In a following memo, Citigroup analysts noted:

Asset booms, a rising profit share and favorable treatment by market-friendly governments have allowed the rich to prosper and become a greater share of the economy in the plutonomy countries…in the plutonomy countries, the rich are such a massive part of the economy, that their relative insensitivity to rising oil prices makes US$60 oil something of an irrelevance. For the poorest in society, high gas and petrol prices are a problem. But while they are many in number, they are few in spending power, and their economic influence is just not important enough to offset the economic confidence, well-being and spending of the rich.

Still, not all ‘states in crisis’ are plutonomies. The same goes for plutocracies, which Investopedia defines as:

“A government controlled exclusively by the wealthy either directly or indirectly. A plutocracy allows, either openly or by circumstance, only the wealthy to rule. This can then result in policies exclusively designed to assist the wealthy, which is reflected in its name”

However, there is a higher likelihood that those states that can be considered ‘in crisis’ are “unequal societies” with ‘Elites’ and ‘Commoners’ rather than egalitarian societies (no elites) or equitable society (with workers and non-workers). Such terms come from the classifications used by Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay at University of Maryland, and Jorge Rivas at the University of Minnesota in the controversial but well-sourced study titled ‘Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies’ released in March of this year which concludes that ” Collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state at maximum carrying capacity if the rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed equitably.”

There is something more. Usually in states ‘in crisis’ elites have more power in forming public policy than the general populace or at minimum put in place elite-friendly policies. Recently, scholars have concluded that this applies to the US, writing:

“economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence…Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts”

Also, it is possible that a state ‘in crisis’ have “extractive institutions.” Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson define this as corresponding to “extractive societies, where an elite controls the economic and political system and uses its power to extract wealth from the society at everyone else’s expense” in contrast to “inclusive societies, where political power and economic benefits are shared broadly among the population.”

It is important to note that states which can be classified as a ‘state in crisis’ are usually capitalist governments but can have a number of different regimes: ‘liberal democracy’ [2], authoritarianism, psuedodemocracy/competitive authoritarianism/hybrid regime/illiberal democracy, or anything in between.

To review, a ‘state in crisis’ is:

  1. A state which is experiencing a domestic crisis(es) which threatens state legitimacy and integrity but has not systematically broken down
  2. State has social conditions which threaten the population’s well-being
  3. State usually has a capitalist government
  4. State is likely an ‘unequal society’ with elites and commoners rather than an equitable society or an egalitarian society
  5. State might be considered a plutonomy, or an economy powered by wealthy consumers with a group of members in society that are in a precarious position, a
  6. State might be a plutocracy or a government by and for the rich and powerful
  7. Elites in the said state may have more power in forming public policy than the average citizen and at minimum elite-friendly policies, often called ‘neoliberal’ like investor-rights agreements, privatization of public services, tax cuts for the rich, etc…
  8. State can have a plethora of different regimes, ranging from ‘democracy’ to ‘authoritarianism’
  9. The state might have an “extractive society” leading to extractive institutions which is more likely than an “inclusive society”

 

Notes:

[1] Guy Standing wrote on Policy Network in 2011 about the precariat:

“Every progressive political movement has been built on the anger, needs and aspirations of the emerging major class. Today that class is the precariat…The precariat has emerged from the liberalisation that underpinned globalisation. Politicians should beware. It is a new dangerous class, not yet what Karl Marx would have described as a class-for-itself, but a class-in-the-making, internally divided into angry and bitter factions. It consists of a multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development, including millions of frustrated educated youth who do not like what they see before them, millions of women abused in oppressive labour, growing numbers of criminalised tagged for life, millions being categorised as ‘disabled’ and migrants in their hundreds of millions around the world. They are denizens; they have a more restricted range of social, cultural, political and economic rights than citizens around them…Growth of the precariat has been accelerated by the financial shock, with more temporary and agency labour, outsourcing and abandonment of non-wage benefits by firms…The precariat has no control over its time, and no economic security. Many in it suffer from what I have called in the book, a precarity trap. This is on top of the familiar poverty trap created by the folly of ‘targeting’ on the poor via means-tested social assistance. The precariaty trap arises because it takes time for those on the margins of poverty to obtain access to benefits, which means their hardships are underestimated, while they have no incentive to take low-income temporary jobs once they are receiving benefits…The worst fear of all is that a large part of the precariat, and those fearing a life in it, could be drawn to neo-fascism…The precariat observes with growing anger. The politicians had better respond or we will reap a harvest of discord. We can do better.”

A comment below an article on Karmas Project continues this:

“Many folks consider precariat to just be a new way of saying proletariat–specifically referencing the phenomenon of “proletarianization” going on for former members of the “middle class” in 1st world countries. It can be argued that the proletariat as such is always precarious, and that the experience of precarity by 1st world workers is simply what most workers everywhere would experience anyways. Such precarity was also perfectly common in early capitalism within the US and Europe as well… However this does not exhaust the use of the term precariat. The precariat is the name for a specific SEGMENT of the broader working class — and it is the name for something that IS novel, something that is new in today’s form of capitalism, something which never rightly existed for the historical proletariat. The precariat is the name for entire national economies that are disproportionately reliant on service industries and fictitious capital. All of that is more or less true — there still exists a proletariat as such and within that proletariat exists what we call the precariat.”

There are a number of good other articles on this subject: ‘A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens – review, ‘Why the precariat is not a “bogus concept””, ‘Youthful members of the full-time precariat, ‘The “Precariat,” the New Working Class”, ‘Is there a precariat?, ‘Paying Attention to the Precariat, ‘The rise of the precariat promises a renewal of the left‘, ‘Is There A Precariat? An Interview with Charlie Post‘, ‘The Precariat’ on rise in America‘, ‘Word of the Week: Precariat, ‘The American Precariat‘, ‘Preventing an American precariat, ‘Professors Join the Precariat‘, ‘Welcome To The Precariat, ‘The rise of the “precariat”?‘, ‘Zen Over Zinn: Avoiding Unpleasant Truths With David Brooks, ‘A Specter Is Haunting Precarity‘, ‘Towards a Charter for the Precariat‘, ‘The Precariat by Chris Dunkley‘, ‘Standing replies on the ‘precariat’, ‘The ‘precariat’: fighting for real jobs, ‘The new ‘precariats’‘, ‘Book Review: The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class by Guy Standing‘, ‘The Precariat and Climate Justice in the Great Recession‘, ‘Working on the Margins: Japan’s Precariat and Working Poor‘, and so on. There is however, debate if it is separate from the working class or if it is part of the working class. In my view, it seems that it would be a bit of both, because it could include unemployed people, along with those who have low-wage jobs, and those tied to ‘wage slavery. This relates to the Marxian concept of the lumpenproletariat which Karl Marx defined in 1852 as “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers…pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers…pimps…brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème”

[2] Marxists define this not as a liberal democracy, but as a ‘bourgeois democracy’ as noted in the Encyclopedia of Marxism:

A government that serves in the interests of the bourgeois class. The word Democratic is attached to such a government, because in it all people in such a society have certain freedoms: those who own the means of production , the bourgeoisie, are free to buy and sell labor-power and what is produced by it solely for their own benefit. Those who own only their own ability to labor , the proletariat, are free to sell themselves to any bourgeois who will buy their labor power, for the benefit of maintaining their own survival, and giving greater strength and power to the bourgeoisie. The state fundamentally represents the interests of one class over others.

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