Saturday, July 13, 2013

What's the NSA Story? It's Up to You

There's been a lot said already about MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry's weird "Edward Snowden, Come On Home" letter -- much of it in the comments on her website.  On Twitter, I noted how bizarre it was to hear someone non-satirically begging Snowden to help her stop talking about him ("So come on home, Ed. So we could talk about, you know, something else").  Her recognition that in America we have more than 80,000 people held in solitary confinement, and that the government's treatment of whistleblower Bradley Manning has been cruel and inhuman, coupled with her assurances that Snowden has nothing to worry about with regard to his own potential treatment by US authorities, was also strange.  And of course, most fundamentally, did Harris-Perry really believe Snowden might read this thing and think, "You know, she makes some really good points in there, maybe I should just surrender?"  Overall, the whole letter comes across as embarrassingly thoughtless and self-indulgent.

Reading Harris-Perry's piece, I wondered what would cause someone who's likely otherwise intelligent and thoughtful to write something so stupid.  And then I noticed what I think is the answer, right in the letter itself.

It's contempt.

Read the letter.  Note how Harris-Perry calls someone she doesn't know, whose first name to my knowledge has never been described in news reports as other than Edward (she identifies him as such herself), "Ed."  Not just once, but six times throughout the short letter -- "Ed."  And not merely adopting a first-name basis with someone she doesn't know, but unilaterally shortening his name to a nickname, too.  Note too the exclamation points, the ellipses, the "you know," the overall tone.  The letter is just dripping with contempt.

I think it was this contempt that blinded Harris-Perry to the ridiculousness of her letter.  And it occurs to me that this is a good reason to treat contempt with great care.  It's not just impolite to the other person.  It's dangerous to you.  It gives you permission to dismiss facts and logic and context, all in the service of indulging the pleasure of feeling superior.

Contempt is a like a drug.  It feels good, but it impairs you.  It you want to ingest it, it's best to do so only with great caution, and not while you're operating heavy machinery like a public letter or a television appearance.  And it follows that courtesy isn't something you offer only out of respect for the other person.  It's also something you offer to help keep yourself honest -- and smart.

Harris-Perry does one other thing in the letter that always strikes me as odd:  she refers repeatedly to "we."  In fact, I counted 13 instances of the word "we" in her short letter.  As I said in a recent post on another exercise in emotionally-driven embarrassment:

I have to add, I loved that "we," too.  Back in the day in Japan, the Emperor, after a particularly fulfilling meal, would lean back and proclaim, "Yo wa manzoku ja" -- literally, "The world is satisfied."  Because, if the Emperor is contented, that means all must be well throughout the entire world.  I'm always reminded of this species of royal neurosis when I encounter the Jonathan Chaits of the world, losing sight of where their preferences and feelings end and those of the rest of the world begin.

Who is this "we"?  Is it the royal we?  Has someone appointed Harris-Perry the representative of like-minded people?  Of the media?  Of all of America?  Who is she talking about, and how did she come to believe she represents that group?

This form of narcissism is fairly widespread in the news.  I was hoping it would get a specific entry in the DSM-5, but alas.  Even though it hasn't yet been formally recognized as a neurosis, though, I'd still like to point it out, along with contempt, as a danger sign.  Understanding that your opinions are your own helps keep you aware that you should have a proper basis for them.  Deluding yourself that your opinions are shared by everyone else -- that you, in effect, somehow stand for everyone else -- makes you lazy and sloppy.  Why would you need evidence when everyone else feels the same way?

I don't know Harris-Perry and she probably does a lot of good work.  If she could have been more aware of her contempt for Snowden and of the fact that her opinions belong only to her, I think she would have realized she was about to say some very stupid things -- before she actually said them.  Her mistake was a good lesson for me, and I hope it will be for others, too -- Harris-Perry included.

I want to add one more thing -- about Harris-Perry's underlying notion that the media's focus on revelations of illegal NSA domestic spying, on the one hand, and on Snowden himself, on the other, is somehow a zero-sum game, with a focus on one achievable only at the expense of the other.  I think this is simplistic.  I'm sure there are instances where a focus on one thing can only be achieved at the expense of a focus on another (the notion in implicit in the concept of "focus" itself), but is this really one of them?  I wonder if it's possible that some of the fascination with Snowden himself isn't part of what has increased attention to and awareness of the substance of his revelations.  My sense, in fact, is that Snowden's involvement in the story has made the story itself much bigger, thereby increasing the overall size of the story's substantive aspects.  I can't really prove this notion, but it's at least a possibility, and I don't know why so many people seem blind to it and instead reflexively assume that a certain amount of discussion of Snowden himself must be smothering attention to substance.

If I'm right in believing that Snowden/NSA is more synergistic than it is zero-sum, it means the way the government and its servants in the establishment media are fighting the substance of Snowden's leaks is a high-risk strategy.  The game is to convert the substantive story into a tabloid fascination with the weird, marginalized, untrustworthy loser who leaked it.  When the strategy works, people discount or otherwise stop caring about substance.  But to get to that point, the establishment first has to draw a lot of attention to the whistleblower him- or herself.  Paradoxically, the establishment's efforts to distract from the substance of the story by talking about the whistleblower means that for a while, at least, the establishment is growing the story overall.  If their overall efforts fail, they're left with a much bigger overall story than would have been the case had they not tried so hard to derail it.

For the moment, the establishment's strategy seems not to be working -- amazingly, in the face of a coordinated government/establishment media demonization campaign, 55% of Americans believe Snowden is a whistleblower while only 34% believe he's a traitor.  Recognizing this, I expect the powers-that-be will double down on their strategy.  Ironically, if it continues to go poorly, they will succeed only in generating more attention to the substance of Snowden's revelations.  It's up to each of us to help make the demonization strategy fail, and a great way to do it is by recognizing that we can focus on whatever aspects of the overall story we think are most important.  Ms. Harris-Perry, that includes you.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Simple Way to Get the NSA to Tell the Truth

Today, the New York Times reported that Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the guy Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to when asked if the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans," said he believed the NSA might soon abandon the bulk collection of the telephone calling data of millions of Americans.  According to the Times:
"I have a feeling that the administration is getting concerned about the bulk phone records collection, and that they are thinking about whether to move administratively to stop it," [Wyden] said.  He added he believed that the continuing controversy prompted by Mr. Snowden had changed the political calculus in Congress over the balance between security and civil liberties, which has been heavily weighted toward security since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

If Wyden's remarks are accurate, it would be a powerful example of what NYU media professor Jay Rosen calls the Snowden Effect -- the indirect effects of Snowden's whistleblowing.  But upon reflection, I'm not optimistic. Here's why.

First, three axioms:

1.  The NSA is comprised of people, and people respond to incentives.
2.  If you demonstrate to people that there are no consequences to misbehavior, most people will misbehave.
3.  As Alexander Hamilton said in Federalist No. 15, "It is essential to the idea of a law that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience."

Now, Wyden says he thinks the NSA might rein in some of its illegal, unconstitutional behavior.  But what do we have to rely on in this regard?  Ultimately, only the word of the NSA's representatives.  And yet DNI Clapper has already proven himself willing to lie to Congress about what the NSA is up to.  And Senator Wyden has proven himself willing to overlook those lies -- that is, to accept them without "a penalty or punishment for disobedience."  Under these circumstances, if you were a simple Martian rather than a sophisticated earthling, how sure would you be that what the NSA tells you going forward is the truth?

If we want to have any meaningful level of confidence in the truthfulness of government officials testifying to Congress, it is essential -- it is a requirement -- that officials who are caught lying be punished for it in accordance with the law.  Remove punishment -- remove the disincentive for lying -- and you guarantee lying.  It's not much more complicated than that.  To believe whatever the NSA says about its activities if Clapper goes unpunished is to believe in a fairy tale.  If Congress is serious about its oversight function, if it wants the testimony it reveals to be truthful, it will punish Clapper in accordance with the law.  If Congress does not punish Clapper, Congress is agreeing to continue to be lied to, and the NSA will continue to be democratically unaccountable.

A child would recognize all this, and certainly Wyden understands it as well.  What prevents him from acting on it, I suspect, is the same sense of solidarity with other members of the ruling class that causes the New York Times to refer to Clapper's lying and perjury merely as "murky" and "misleading," that causes Walter Mondale to characterize it as "fibbing," that causes most of the establishment media to bay for the blood of whistleblowers while yawning at the notion that civilian oversight is meaningless if officials lie in their testimony to Congress.  It's a kind of professional courtesy the powerful extend to the powerful, and it's extremely caustic to democracy and the rule of law.

This is a critical moment for democracy in America.  Failing to prosecute Clapper is tantamount to Congress ceding civilian oversight over an already metastasized intelligence conglomerate.  All the pretty talk in the world about reform won't change a thing if the law is proven to have no sanction.  Wyden can't whistle past this graveyard.  There really is something lurking in there, and Wyden has to confront it.  If he doesn't, it won't get better.  It'll get worse.

P.S  Two terrific related articles:

America Against Democracy

That would have been some real democracy-promotion, right here in the homeland. What happened? Is it naive to think Mr Obama really believed this stuff? I'll admit, with some embarrassment, that I'd thought he did believe it. But this "commitment" has been so thoroughly forsaken one is forced to consider whether it was ever sincere. It has been so thoroughly forsaken one wonders whether to laugh or cry. What kind of message are we sending about the viability these democratic ideals—about openness, transparency, public participation, public collaboration? How hollow must American exhortations to democracy sound to foreign ears? Mr Snowden may be responsible for having exposed this hypocrisy, for having betrayed the thug omertà at the heart of America's domestic democracy-suppression programme, but the hypocrisy is America's. I'd very much like to know what led Mr Obama to change his mind, to conclude that America is not after all safe for democracy, though I know he's not about to tell us. The matter is settled. It has been decided, and not by us. We can't handle the truth.

What, Me Worry?

The Secret police—the NSA, the CIA, et al—are by their very nature antithetical to those ideals, because openness and transparency about rules are essential to democratic public justification, and therefore to the legitimacy of state power. What must be secret cannot be fully democratic. One may well worry whether we can afford such a demanding standard of legitimate government in such a dangerous world. Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps it is foolish to be too good. But in that case we need to be clear-headed about it, and understand that secret police are a straightforwardly anti-democratic concession we make to a dangerous world. And we ought to accept that any strengthening of the powers of the secret police—especially the secret strengthening of the powers of the secret police—is a further blow to democracy and the legitimacy of our laws. The NSA's digital dragnet is a silent coup. The filibuster is rain on election day.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled

A few months ago, I wrote a post called, "That Power of Accurate Observation Is Called Political By Those Who Have Not Got It."  The post was about critiques of my novels as being "political" because of some of their themes -- such as depicting gays as human beings deserving of equal protection under the law; depicting the blow-back costs of US drone warfare; depicting the personal doubts of western spies about the efficacy of their means and the morality of their mission.  My conclusion:  of course my novels are political (they're political thrillers, after all).  But what's important to understand is that all novels are in various ways political. Choosing "not to be political" is like choosing "not to make a choice" -- it's a logical and practical impossibility.  Choosing not to make a choice is a choice.  And choosing not to be political is a profoundly political act.

Consider these quotes:

Sooner or has to take sides -- if one is to remain human.  -- Graham Greene, The Quiet American

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.  -- Desmond Tutu

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.  -- Edmund Burke

The concept behind the quotes above seems axiomatic to me:  we cannot help but choose, and our choices are inherently political.  It's important to understand this about novels, and at least as important to understand it about journalism.

Why journalism, you ask?  Aren't reporters just objective reporters of the facts, reporting impartially without fear or favor, all the news that's fit to print, fair and balanced and all that?

No, they are not.  It is impossible not to be political (or call it biased, or activist, or polemical, or whatever else dishonest and ignorant people would have you believe) in journalism.  Because even the journalistic decision that seems least obtrusive is in fact the most consequential:  that is, what topic to cover.  If you provide coverage to what whistleblower Edward Snowden's girlfriend does for exercise and not to how Director of National Intelligence James Clapper perjured himself to Congress, then whether you're aware of it or not you are making a political decision, because you are implying gossipy bullshit is more important than governmental lying (and yes, of course, prioritizing governmental lying over gossipy bullshit is also political -- the point is, they both are).  If you obsess over the personality of another journalist instead of dedicating yourself to uncovering the truth about the NSA's massive, illegal domestic spying operation, you are implicitly claiming (and explicitly trying to achieve) that people should focus on the former rather than on the latter -- that what is best for society is that we focus on individual personalities rather than on governmental misdeeds.  I think such priorities are terrible, but that's not really the point.  The point is, these are political priorities, and inherently, inescapably so.  Not even a computer could provide apolitical coverage.  Certainly no human can.

And it's not just topics that are impossible to choose without making political decisions -- it's diction, too.  If you use phrases like "aid and abet" when you ask about a journalist's activities, that is a political choice (and so again, obviously, is the decision to focus on the reporter rather than on what's been reported).  When you choose whether to call someone a journalist, a reporter, an investigative reporter, a blogger, an activist, a polemicist… these are all inherently (albeit insidiously) political choices.  When news organizations use phrases like "harsh interrogation" to describe what they had previously described as "torture," they are making political choices.  "Targeted killing" vs assassination… "detainee" vs prisoner… "detainment facility" vs gulag… "security fence" vs wall… even phrases we might not otherwise pause to consider, such as "oil spill" rather than geyser or eruption… all of these inescapably involve profoundly political choices.

Why is it so important to understand all this?

Because so many journalists are invested in fooling you (and perhaps in fooling themselves) into believing that those bad reporters are political, while we good reporters are not.  The message is, "Trust and empower me, the good objective journalist, not that bad political one over there!"

This is bullshit intended to fool you into giving greater credence to the journalists who pretend not to be political while marginalizing the ones who don't engage in such dishonesty and denial.  Remember that great line from The Usual Suspects about Keyser Soze?  "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist" (careful about clicking on the link... there's so much amazing dialogue in that movie you might spend a half hour there, the way I just did).  That's precisely the insidious tactic of ignorant and dishonest journalists everywhere.  In fact, what should cause us to doubt a journalist's worth isn't the presence of politics, which are inescapable, but the ability and willingness of a journalist to acknowledge that he is no less inherently political than anyone else.  Trust should begin with honesty, and any journalist who tries to make you think she's not political is not being honest.

What matters in journalism isn't politics, which are as universal and inescapable as breathing.  What matters -- along with a fundamentally adversarial attitude toward government, without which "journalism" is simply public relations -- is integrity, transparency, evidence, coherence, and principle.  These are the principles on which we should evaluate the quality of journalism, and their absence is why some journalists are so desperate to get you to focus on something else.

P.S.  There's been a lot of excellent commentary on this topic of late.  For anyone as obsessed about it as I am, here are some articles.

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

Margaret Sullivan, New York Times

Jay Rosen, NYU

Frank Rich, New York Magazine

Jay Rosen, NYU

Kevin Gosztola, Firedoglake

David Carr, New York Times

Barton Gellman, Washington Post