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16 Jun

Bin Laden's Dirty Underwear and Civilian-Based Defense

in Civil Rights, Law Enforcement, Nonviolence, Surveillance Society, Terrorism, TSA / Homeland Security
From the photograher, Dean Shaddock: This was ...

Image via Wikipedia

When you fly trans-Atlantic as frequently as I do, the trips tend to blur into one another.  One constant, however, is the frenetic and arbitrary suspicion I encounter at the U.S. entry points.  Be it drug-sniffing dogs, the Egyptian stamps in my passport, or the general contemptuous stares from under-trained TSA yahoos, there may as well be a sign above the jet bridge reading “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Add the TSA’s plan to capture and track your airport movements through your personal gadgets, an air marshal program that costs approximately $200 million per arrest (the marshals themselves have been arrested with far higher frequency), the constant pillaging of our first, fourth and fifth amendment rights, and our $30 billion annual losses of public and private funds (countless billions more in its assault on the tourism industry), and you’ve got a boondoggle of paranoia combined with egregious corporate cronyism to produce a system whose expense is exceeded only by its utter uselessness.

Festering underneath all of this is the industries’ dirty little secret – that for all reforms elsewhere in law enforcement and intelligence, airport security is running the exact same playbook that failed so miserably to prevent 9/11.  You can put as many badges and blue uniforms you want on them, but the TSA are nothing more than the same old cast of players, spasmodically trying to dazzle us with their shiny new (yet demonstrably ineffective) props while phoning-in dialogue from the same, tired script.  This kind of expensive theater may have been appropriate in the weeks and months following 9/11, but it’s time we grow up.  The bottom-line is that none of this Madison-Avenue bravado is helping to capture actual terrorists - nay, of the 29,000 or so arrests from the DHS, nearly all were for unrelated charges such as counterfeiting, narcotics, and child pornography.  Of the average 50 or so of those arrested annually on “terrorist-related” activities (based on incredibly broad metrics) culminating in convictions, nearly all have resulted from investigations operating well outside airport jurisdictions.

Considering that 9/11 was an aircraft-centric attack (and planes always make attractive targets), our disproportional obsession with airport security (at the expense of more potentially catastrophic targets such as shipping ports, network infrastructures, etc.) had a certain short-term logic.  Yet as seductive as this may have been, the time has come to recognize that in the near decade since 9/11, not a single one of these airport security programs has withstood an independent investigation of its efficacy.  Rather, on the occasion that an actual terrorist – say, the shoe or underwear bomber – managed to pull off an attempt, what prevented casualties was not the billions we spend in anticipating absurdly-specific attack scenarios, it was not the endless hours of theater spent removing shoes, and it certainly was not the confiscation of a four-year olds play-do or the destruction of an old man’s rectal seton.  No, in each case it was not the TSA but us - fellow passengers who understand that sometimes our safety is in our own hands.

In the ad-hoc sense, this is the perfect example of civilian-based defense (open-source security in the modern vernacular) and I would not be the first to point out that this is generally a good thing.  After all, surrendering your security to a third party not only breeds complacency but dismantles our most effective means of front-line defense.  I believe moreover that this kind of self-determination fosters a more committed civic engagement while providing substantial returns on effectiveness.  Yet I would level the same criticism at civilian-based defense that I would at our “professional”  systems – namely that security must be carefully balanced with a clear definition of precisely what it is we are securing.  If we want to secure the safety of our physical bodies, whatever the costs, then marshal law is probably our best option.  If, however, we want to secure our right to life – that is, our right to preserve and freely participate in our socio-cultural system of choice – then we must be certain that our means do not dismantle our ends and become a causal factor in the very problem they purport to address.

Case in point is the FBI’s sudden realization that, thanks to programs like New York City’s ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign, all terrorists need to do is leave a harmless bag of underwear lying around in order to cause mass panic, disrupt commerce and distract law enforcement.  Ordinarily I would file this under the ‘no duh’ folder and move along.  But the fact that the chief federal law-enforcement agency of the United States has just figured this out – and that the media outlets find it newsworthy – demonstrates that after nearly ten years, most people still have little to no clue – no clue about who terrorists are, no clue why they hate us, and no clue how to fight back.

Authoritarian conceptions of security diminish our ability to protect ourselves.  At their core, ‘See something, Say something’ programs and their ilk are not only the worst possible perversion of civilian-based defense, but as evidenced by the panic they reap, are actually themselves a form of insecurity.  Even putting aside the fact that such campaigns have never once (repeat: not once) resulted in a terrorism-related arrest, the entire concept reeks of the same self-aggrandizement inherent to all forms of domestic counter-terrorism since 9/11 – that terrorism is somehow akin to conventional warfare and therefore remains the domain of government.  It is a nod to the fact that only an engaged citizenry can defend against a diffuse and nebulous network of attackers yet a simultaneous refusal to cede central authority in the solution.  It infantilizes people by providing the  illusion of open-source security without any of the concurrent tools and empowerment.  Worse, they come with the implicit admonishment that we should all remember our place in this conflict and leave security to the professionals.

Why must it be this way? Perhaps there is some plausibility to the assumption that the government has failed to focus on the only demonstrably effective avenue of security because they simply have no expertise or awareness of civilian-based defense.  Suspending our disbelief for the time being, this would indicate such a tremendous oversight that we must seriously question the leadership in the DHS.  No, the more logical, albeit tremendously more cynical, explanation is that the continued focus on centralization is tied into the governments twin obsessions over ownership and indispensability.

With regards to the latter, the government is more than aware that it is running out of things to justify its present incarnation.  After decades of ceding political authority to international corporations and simultaneously eroding its own regulatory powers, security is virtually all it has left.  As we the people have defined the job, this is the state’s primary responsibility – to ask the people for help would be akin to an admission that they are not up to the task.  There is no such thing here as ‘change we can believe in’ – as in the final days of the Soviet Union, security-related expenses account for more than half of the national budget.  While this fact may be part of a far larger discussion that needs to take place, for the time being the government will continue to claim a monopoly over the means and direction of security.

Of course, the state is likely also aware that this need not be a zero-sum issue.  After all, an effective civilian-based defense requires coordination, training, study, planning, instititutionalization – all the things that government is really good at.  Yet while centralized bureaucracy may pursue such indispensability, it will find it nearly impossible to maintain ownership.  When those who wish us harm are unified only by ideology, security is affirmed only by articulating a counter-ideology; an explicit yet fluid vision of the world we would like to see and a set of principles by which this will be actualized.  And therein lies the contradiction of ownership – when real people are asked to provide for their own security, we are going to demand returns – we will not be content to view this as a permanent state of warfare, but rather insist on a proactive and sincere analysis of the underlying causes.  And this will seriously undermine the case for the corporatist, neo-liberal planet upon which those who control government now depend.

15 Jun

Tea Party campaign ad calls for armed rebellion against the government

in Elections, Tea Party, Video

UPDATE: As Doug Kendall was kind enough to point out, "we know precisely how President Washington would have responded if the armed rebellion suggested by Barber materialized: he would have crushed it. We know this because just such a rebellion - the Whiskey Rebellion - happened during Washington's presidency ... President Washington would have "gathered the armies" if Barber made good on his veiled threats, not in support of, but in opposition to, Barber's objectives.

Apologies for the radio silence over the last week. I have contracted some kind of lung infection (whooping cough?) back in April that flared up again this past week. Nothing like oxygen-deprivation to make you appreciate your health! In any case, I've been trying not to upset myself by consuming too much news, so was more than a little perturbed to wake up to find this video in my inbox featuring an imaginary conversation between Rick Barber, a frothing lunatic (who, incidentally, is running for Congress under the Tea Party umberella) and the founding fathers during which he claims that simply impeaching Obama "may not be enough", that the government should maintain no oversight or regulatory authority over business, and that taxation should be abolished. The climax comes at the end where, after erroneously claiming that the founding fathers rebelled over a tea tax, a very stern-looking Samuel Adams implores him to gather his armies.

I could not imagine a more scathing indicment of public education than a potential congressman reducing a bloody, historical battle against corporatism and the divine right of kings to a meaningless, self-serving quibble over beverage taxation.

01 Jun

Introducing Cognitive Bias

in Personal, THF, Wisdom
Obama Hitler

Image by Fresh Conservative via Flickr

I know many of you have emailed how much you enjoy the 'Teabonics' flickr stream running on the right-hand side of the site, but I think it has run its course.  Besides the fact that it is becoming reptitive, it's also a bit mean-spirited for my taste.  When someone is behaving like a regressive racist, I know how satisfynig it can be to laugh at their public displays of grammatical creativity.  But poking fun does little but enhance our own false sense of superiority while solidifying the in-group/out-group dynamic so antithetical to rationality.  Whatever catharsis we gain by discounting an entire sub-culture over a handful of individuals comes at the expense of progress.

The experience has, however, piqued my interest in the study of cognitive biases, the 'blindspots' in our thinking which cause us to draw false conclusions based on our own preconceptions rather than the available evidence.  Much like logical fallacies, we're all guilty of using self-serving argumentation that does little to address the issue at hand.  This is not only a defining characteristic of  politics in general, but is particularly critical to the underlying sloganeering of modern communications.  The point at which this becomes truly interesting, however, is when it is unintentional - when our conscious mind is literally incapable of seeing past the fallacious shortcuts in our own logical processes.

Naming these biases on an intellectual level can go a long way in helping us to identify them as they occur. In the context of Teabonics, for example, we may consider the notion of a "Fundamental attribution error" as the tendency to over-emphasize personality for observed behaviors at the expense of power of situational influences. The unfavorable vision I may hold of Joe Teabagger personally may certainly bear influence on his decision to paint a Hitler mustache on a picture of Obama, but there are far larger and more consequential socioeconomic injustices that lead to this form of negative expression.  Discounting Joe's concerns (or indeed, the movement at large) based on a particularly egregious form of behavior inhibits my ability to address whatever validity may underlie his anger. 

This is not to say that we must (or even should) passively condone racist or hurtful sloganeering, but rather that we must be cautious not to allow such assaults to close our minds, nor distract us from including all in our shared version of global justice.  To this end, I am replacing the Teabonics block with a new series on cognitive bias.  You should see a new one every time you visit the site and each will be linked to the wiki entry for further information.  In the meantime, you can enjoy this catchy little diddy that Brad Wray, an AP Psychology teacher, put together to enumerate serval types of biases for his students.

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01 Jun

Another "site" for your morning "giggles"

The "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks captures all those quirky signs from the urban wild with curiously-placed punctuation.  I can't help picturing them read aloud with finger-quotes ...

31 May

Pixels has it all!

in Video

This short by Patrick Jean is an 8-bit videogame nostalgia piece meets modern CGI all capped off with a post-apocalyptic catharsis.  Enjoy!

25 May

Don’t Kill Our Only Democracy – Support Net Neutrality

in Capitalism, Corporatism, Democracy, Internet, Science & Technology

Contrary to the rallying cries of various grammatically-challenged teabaggers, we have never had a functioning democratic society.  If you’re a long-time reader, you may have seen a quote from Chomsky on this page:

Personally, I'm in favor of democracy, which means that the central institutions of society have to be under popular control. Now, under capitalism, we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control.

 

Logo of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Image via Wikipedia

Indeed, the internet is the first and only example we’ve had of a truly globalized forum in which all may enjoy equal participation.  The powers-that-be hate this and have tried (will try) everything they can, from firewalls to censorship, to squash it.  Net neutrality – the principle that the equality of all internet traffic is protected by the force of law – has been long-resisted as antithetical to the free-market.  This is, of course, utter hogwash.  It is about far more than whether Comcast can throttle down their competitors bandwidth - at this point the internet underlies so much of our lives that it has become a basic necessity to participating in our global economy.

There is an interesting parallel here with the advent of electricity.  While most of us take for granted the ability to plug in our refrigerator, there was a time when power lines were something that only rich people could use, and even then only for their new-fangled light bulbs.  Back then, there was nobody who could imagine other uses for it – the idea of using this form of fire to clean your clothes or freeze your food was preposterous.  Those who pushed for governmental intervention to ensure equal distribution were decried as socialists.  Much as with the internet, for as indispensable as it has become, we quite literally have no idea what the future will bring.

In this day and age, I would say that it's hard to believe that we're still discussing whether net-neutrality is a good thing, but this is what happens when money becomes intertwined with power and influence:

Oddly, dozens of Democrats (perhaps 70 again) have signed a letter supporting the talking points and agenda of Glenn Beck and one his major corporate sponsors, AT&T. This letter also contradicts the technology agenda of Barack Obama, Obama's Federal Communications Commission, and the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate Commerce Committees that oversee the communications industry. The "congressional" letter is being peddled by cable and phone lobbyists to the staff of Democratic Congressmen who have a history of putting their names on cable and phone industry's debunked talking points, sometimes apparently without understanding their meaning.

This letter, being pushed by Rep Gene Green (D-TX), pertains to whether or not the Internet will remain an open engine of economic and democratic freedom. In D.C., legislators and lobbyists are debating something called "net neutrality," which is a common-sense FCC proposal to keep phone and cable companies from interfering with what you can do online and how you can use the Internet. Without net neutrality, phone and cable companies can limit your online speech and freedom. I think the Daily Show explains the issue best (here (with John Hodgman) and here).

For the time being, I think that the net-neutrality debate may suffer from poor branding - the phrase itself reeks of techno-elitist packaging that makes all but the geeky among us sglaze over.  But however much you may care about the issue itself, you should know by now that the 21st century is the age of the internet.  The series of tubes is not just about watching videos of cats - it is how you talk on the phone, watch TV, do your banking, and participate in our democracy.  It is far too important to allow the so-called 'free' market to destroy it through greed.  We need to start thinking long-term about having alternate sources of bandwidth just like we have alternate sources of fuel.  But in the short-term, we also need to ensure that our fledgling global democracy is not co-opted by those who would destroy it for profit.

With the present structure of cable-TV, is it so hard to imagine the internet's future to be something like this:

YZeFm


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23 May

Rand Paul and the Hypocrisy of Mainstream Libertarians

in Capitalism, Civil Rights, Corporatism, Elections, Libertarianism, Politics, Racism, Republicans, Tea Party

Libertarians embrace a worldview trending towards anarchism (or at least government minimalism), a position with which, as a Neo-Gramscian Marxist, I have an abundance of affinity.  In fact, on a long enough timeline (where units are measured in centuries anyway), I’ve little doubt that this is where the human condition will trend – presuming we manage not to destroy ourselves in the process.  For those of us in the present tense, however, Libertarianism, like Marxism, gets a bad rap for the fact that some of its most visible proponents are either vacuous, dangerous opportunists (Palin being the most obvious example) or else otherwise intelligent individuals who are transparently inconsistent and self-serving. 

One in a series of posters attacking Radical R...

Image via Wikipedia

Case in point of the latter is Dr. Rand Paul, the movement’s latest media darling, who was elected to the Kentucky Senate seat last week.  The news outlets and blogosphere are in an unusual flaming accord this week over his recent example of government overreach in the Civil Rights Act of 1964: (WSJ: Paul's Civil-Rights Remarks Ignite Row, Wash Post: Rand Paul comments about civil rights stir controversy, Eugene Robinson: GOP's Tea Party invite might still be in the mail, The Hill: Rand Paul causes Civil Rights Act controversy with desegregation remarks, AP: Rand Paul Is 'Kentucky Fried Candidate' Over Civil Rights Comments, Lexington Herald-Leader: Paul's statements on discrimination stir controversy, NYT: Tea Party Pick Causes Uproar on Civil Rights, Salon: More historic legislation Rand Paul wouldn't have supported, PoliticsDaily: Rand Paul: An Anti-Government Conspiracy Theorist? (h/t Americablog).

If you’ve been asleep at the wheel on this one, Paul’s position is that the act, which covers a wide range of civil rights issues on interstate commerce, is but a single an example of federal intrusion in the individual liberties of business owners to determine the nature of their clientele.  In the context of this example, Rand concedes that this would naturally expand to the right refuse service to people of color, gays, Jews, etc.  Paul’s continued inability to staunch the blood flow on this kicked the GOP spin machine into overdrive and lead Paul to cancel his appearance on Meet the Press – only the third person in 62 years to do so.

I care far less to what degree Paul may personally be racist than I do in the fact that this degenerative myopia is completely consistent with the Libertarian platform.  However persuasive I may find this mode of thought in the abstract, it presumes a fundamental faith in humanity to do the right thing without the force of law.  Individual liberty is not an absolute - it comes with the caveat that one person't liberty cannot infringe on anothers.  With regards to the Civil Rights Act, we state that you are free to operate a business in our country, but you are not free to restrict your operations based on the color of someone's skin.

Indeed, the universe may trend towards global justice, but it has a long, long way to go.  The restaurant owner who hangs a no-blacks sign up in his window will, in the 21st century, probably get run out of (most, though not all) towns by a combination of enlightened objectors and those too embarrassed to wear racism on their sleeve by frequenting a regressive patron.  But what about no-gay, no-Democrat, no-punk, no-Catholic policies or the every-more-likely no-Arab policies?  Sometimes our laws exist to compel American ideals even when our citizens find them offensive for the simple reason that we share our national identity and don’t want bigots forming an outward part of our cultural landscape.

For the time being, I still manage to disconnect my emotional processes from the issues enough to understand the difference between personaility and ideology, but herein lies the problem – this may be a particularly egregious example of Libertarianism carried to its logical conclusion, but it is nevertheless conssistent with the overall platform.  Where the movement’s present incarnation really breaks down is in its outward hypocrisy in preferencing the liberty of commerce over individual or collective liberties.  Indeed, lost somewhat in the row over lunch-counter segregation is the fact that Paul also had harsh words for Obama's supposedly ‘un-American’ stance in blaming the oil spill on, well … the company actually responsible for it.  In Paul’s universe, the same liberty that allows corporations to escape the regulatory oversight of those who would be affected by disaster should likewise extend to absolving such entities of blame when their self-policing predictably breaks down.  As Robert Slayton points out:

Advocates like Dr. Paul claim that they are speaking on behalf of the little guy, against the steam-roller of a large institution like big government.  The problem with this claim is that there is another big institution that harms the ordinary citizen in our world, and that is big business. And in that case, libertarians have little to condemn, and thus show their true colors. … So their dirty little secret is out. Libertarians are not really for the little guy, against structures that would grind down our individuality. They're really just right-wingers, pro-business and anti government, the only institution with the power to limit large corporations when they commit abuses. Rand Paul is sincere, but in his blindness and dogmatism, he becomes a shill for big business, not the champion of citizen's rights he claims to be.

Without doubt, we exist in an era where power is increasingly consolidated into the hands of a few multi-national corporations which, unlike government, have no responsibility for social welfare.  In the U.S., capitalist malfeasance has been kept in check through a strong judiciary whereas in Europe there is strong regulation.   Yet if we are to judge the Libertarian movement by it’s leaders, then we must conclude that it is a facade for what right-wingers have always pushed for – a system of commerce in which neither mode of enforcement remains available to protect citizens from the dark side of the profit motive – a conservative nanny state where the government is expected to stay out of the way - expect when necessary to ensure that capitalist movements are free from civilian oversight.  In this manner, it is a disease masquerading as a solution, spouting the ideals of liberty while covertly working to dismatle the very freedoms it's adherents espouse.


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