Sunday, February 21, 2016

Truth; whole, half or none at all

Today I finished reading the latest Lapham's Quarterly edition, Spies.  Coincidentally, I watched a movie called The Fifth Estate last night. 

Spies was interesting in its recounting of how espionage can be said to predate the birth of Christ.  Any number of essays concerning the use of spies during a variety of Chinese Dynasties, as well as the days of the Greek city states, and the Roman Empire are included.  Even during the so called Dark Ages, methods to discern one's enemy's thoughts and actions, especially as related to war and religion, are documented.  It seems that gaining the upper hand on one's rivals, personal, business and national, is as old as organized communities and governments. 

Strangely, and despite the seeming necessity of employing such people, spies are not viewed as especially laudable people.  One long dead ruler discounted the use of spies deducing that the most effective of infiltrators is one who resembles in looks and thought those he is asked to betray, and that someone willing to betray one's own people is just as likely to betray those paying him to do so, if the money is better or the opportunity more advantageous.  There is also an interesting essay which expresses the opinion of some that betraying one's country is far less an indicator of integrity as betraying one's friends or family, the idea being that personal loyalty is more valuable than loyalty to country and king.

The Fifth Estate was about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a man regarded as both defender of truth, and traitor.  The movie depicted the beginnings of WikiLeaks, its minor accomplishments in bringing to light human rights abuses, bribery and corruption in various governments, war crimes committed by those purportedly on the "right" side of the conflict, and any number of secrets, whose existence is justified by those in power as a way to protect national interests and citizens' safety.  It ends with the cataclysmic release of the United States war logs from Afghanistan, and the disclosure of 250,000 diplomatic cables, names and dates not redacted as had been done when released by the world's biggest newspapers.  It also details the falling out between Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who eventually disables the launch platform for WikiLeaks, temporarily delaying the release of those cables.  Assange considers Berg a traitor to the cause; a traitor to the traitor in some eyes.   

I found it interesting to realize that journalism can be described as a form of espionage, except that those who bring the secrets of governments into the light frequently do so out of love for their country, as opposed to discovering secrets of one's enemies to help destroy them.  In the movie, Assange is portrayed as a seeker of truth, and a harbinger of an information war between those who keep secrets and those of us who are kept in the dark but also as an egomaniac who put his concept of truth, and his opinion of what should be public knowledge above the real life consequences for those whom his disclosures would injure, even when those people are merely cogs in the machine.

It is an interesting debate; how far should one go when revealing secrets.  Is the cost of truth beyond calculation, or is there a line that even whistle blowers should not cross?  And, when we decide to draw that line anywhere short of the truth, what does that say to those who have abused the public trust and engaged in activities, such as illegal interventions in other governments, assassinations without trial of those we call our enemies, and war time atrocities that are justified as collateral damage.  When is justice served, or is justice denied the price we pay for our willingness to feel safe. 

How ironic is it that there is such a ground swell of dissatisfaction with our political process, hence the popularity of Trump on the right and Sanders on the left, yet when it comes to allowing those we elect to engage in activities conveniently labeled as "counter terrorism", we generally turn a blind eye.   "If you have nothing to hide, then NSA tapping of your phone and emails is OK", we say to ourselves.  "Only criminals should fear the forced opening of that I-phone by the FBI".  We rail against government intervention in our lives, yet sleepily parrot the justifications as used by those very same people who routinely violate our privacy in the name of national security.

At last count, I believe the House has tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act over 60 times, not to mention all the hearings and meetings that have been held at taxpayer expense to justify their obsession with this law.  It has been the rallying cry for the GOP ever since its passage in 2010; the ultimate in government intrusion into our lives.  Too bad that not even 1/100 of interest and outrage has been expressed, on either side of the aisle, in analyzing and critiquing the Patriot Act which has legalized directly as well as tacitly a myriad of violations of the American citizenry. 

Based on the rhetoric I have heard so far, I envision even more violations in the name of protecting our borders, and keeping out our enemies, most emanating from the GOP presidential candidates.   Let's hope we are better able to distinguish the whole truth from 2% and skim, especially if we are going to continue to allow those we elect to trade our privacy for our safety.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

All Votes Matter

"Study after study has shown that human behavior changes when we know we're being watched.  Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.''

As I have stated many times before, I receive emails from an organization called MegaVote, which details the bills voted upon by Congress, and informs me how my particular representatives and senators voted.  I also look for and read similar summaries as posted in my Sunday newspaper. 

I found this past week's votes illustrative of why Americans must stop whining about our elected public officials not being accountable, and start investing some time in noting how those public servants actually vote so, when we next cast our ballots we can do so with a clear understanding of why we support or do not support a particular party or specific candidate.

Last week in the House, a bill passed that requires the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explain in writing how its research grants are demonstrably in the national interest.  In accordance with these guidelines, seven areas of national interest were determined.  The bill passed pretty much along party lines with GOP support, DEMs against.  A proposed DEM amendment to the bill, which would have designated research into gun violence an NSF priority was defeated, again along party lines.  GOP support was based on the belief that the $6 billion in tax payer money controlled by the NSF should be put to its best use, an admirable goal.  Unfortunately, some believe that there may be environmental research grants that offend certain fossil fuel business interest that may be denied, just as the idea that understanding why America is so rife with gun violence, offends the NRA and its advocates, and is therefore not in the national interest to study.

The GOP controlled House also approved a bill delaying a new Food and Drug Administration requirement for restaurant chains of 20 or more to prominently post nutrition info for standard items.  In their minds, I imagine that this burden to the business community outweighs (get it outweighs) the growing obesity problem in America, especially in our children. 

Also, the GOP passed a bill which will require the secretary of the treasury to provide detailed information regarding federal borrowing and the growing national debt.  Sounds good.  Except that a DEM amendment was defeated that would have sought to broaden that report to include wage and salary disparities, consumer spending and the effect of spending cuts of economic growth.  In other words, lets not make sure that we understand fully why so many people require federal and state assistance to live (perhaps low private sector wages?), how much lower (collected) tax rates for corporations and the highest earners has contributed to our debt, and how spending cuts which over proportionally effect the middle and lower economic classes, lead to less money available to purchase goods and services. 

Certainly there are those who believe that all the above bills are good for America.  That is fine, we will agree to disagree.  The point is that if you do not think they are good, but are unaware of these kind of bills, are only aware of rhetoric that proclaims an overreaching federal government that needs to be restrained, you may not be cognizant of the fact that is the business community that these bills will protect, frequently at the cost of the everyday citizen.  You may think that your personal freedom is at stake (and there are government programs that do restrict your freedom), but those voting in Congress, especially the GOP, vote for programs that expand NSA intrusion into our private emails and phone calls, and only propose less government controls when those controls hold businesses accountable for shoddy products, misleading advertisements and outright abuses of their customers.

Now, in light of the recent passing of Supreme Court Justice Scalia, we have the ugly appearance of "a tradition", of not presenting a new Supreme Court nominee during an election year.  Odd, considering how sacred Justice Scalia held to a strict interpretation of the constitution that his death would result in those of similar mind set to prefer a newer, more modern interpretation of our founders. 

Which all means that the next presidential election matters, and more importantly, the election of any and all candidates running for office, be it local school board, state rep or senator or federal representative or Senator.  All votes matter means all elections as well as all ballots cast.  We must spend more time and energy scraping away the bullshit of campaign rhetoric, and examine what the candidates actually stand for, and who they stand behind.

By the way, if you are wondering about the quote which began this post, it is attributed in the Laphapm's Quarterly, Spies which I am reading to Edward Snowden.  One might say it is a nutshell justification for his revealing how the NSF has been spying on American citizens.  I have added it to this post as my way of connecting the importance of voting to freedom.  Remember, if we no longer participate in the democratic process, if we accept that less than 50% voter turnout is OK because we are too busy, or too cynical about the process, then we accept that our freedoms will be eroded from the inside out, and that our country will no longer be equated with "that shining city upon a hill", but merely just another country that fell victim to a citizenry that took its freedom for granted and abdicated its right to determine its future by failing to believe that all votes matter.



Monday, February 15, 2016

Fear and Respect

I managed to watch a bit of the Republican Presidential debate in New Hampshire last week, and I was struck by the theme of leadership as portrayed by the participants.  Of course, I understand that all avoidance of weakness must be maintained, especially in light of their unified attacks on President Obama as having created a global perception of America as weak on terrorism. 

But what percentage of our perception of "strong leadership" is inspired by fear, and what portion derives from respect?

As defined when you Google it, a bully is "a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker."  Additionally, when used as a verb, to bully is to "use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants."

I consider Donald Trump to be the classic bully.  The way he stands, his facial reactions to what he hears, his pattern of interrupting others as they speak, all signs that he is used to getting his way, that he does not do anything he does not want to do, and that his idea of a compromise is getting others to do what he wants.  In some way, this is a trait that many Americans admire, and, assuming they think we have been weak in dealing with our enemies, yearn for in a future president.  And, if he were to act forcefully in dealing with groups like ISIS, they may fear him as well as the prospect of being killed by the American military. 

And Trump is not the only Republican candidate to emphasize their belief that a strong hand is the only way to deal with terrorists.  Almost to a man, increased bombings, boots on the ground, and more arming of those actively fighting ISIS was the consensus.  There was even talk of expanding registration for the draft to include women, in addition to reversing the recent "gutting" of the American military by Obama. 

Notwithstanding the microscope that so many GOP elected officials train on every federal dollar spent, it seems hard to marry the idea that $600 billion a year (as much as $9 trillion dollars since the attacks of 911) represents a gutting of our military, especially in the context of the facts that we spend more on "defense" every year than the next 15 highest spending countries.

Yet that seems the very definition, at least by those on the stage that night, of how America can regain our respect in the world.  How to stop those laughing at, and taking advantage of us!  In short, it seems that our best answer to the perceived lack of respect is to use our military strength and power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker.  In other words, act like a bully.

OK, so it is easy to say that we shouldn't act like bullies.  That we should look for ways to talk to our enemies, to find common ground, to ease tensions rather than escalate them.  But what do we do when our enemies don't want to talk to us?   Are determined to use violence against us?  

Certainly, there is precedent as to how to act in these situations.  Look how our elected officials have behaved, GOP and DEM alike, since Obama's 2008 election  Always talking, always negotiating, always keeping the country's best interests at heart.  Or, even more locally, how Pennsylvania Governor Wolf and the GOP dominated House and Senate have worked closely to fashion a spending budget.

Oh, that's right.  These are examples of how NOT to act.

Hmm.  So, perhaps killing is the only option, force the only mode of action, military presence the only solution. Perhaps the only way to gain respect in the world is the be the holder of the biggest stick, and to use that stick as often as possible.  After all, look how it has worked for us so far.  We have had the biggest, baddest, strongest military on the planet for at least 30 years, we have engaged in armed conflict in other countries at least 9 times since the collapse of the Russian empire (El Salvador, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Gulf War, Panama, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq), and have military bases in over 100 other countries. 

But wait a minute.  Despite these facts, and the big one, the elephant in the room nobody likes to acknowledge, the fact that we are the ONLY country ever to use a nuclear weapon yet the most adamant as to who should get one, despite all this our enemies DO NOT fear us, according to the gentlemen debating in New Hampshire that night, and our friends ARE NOT glad to be our allies. 

Perhaps then, it is their fear we have, but their respect we lack. 

It is our fear of our enemies that drives us towards bankruptcy as we spend our selves silly, but  worse, our fear of those on the other side of the political aisle, that has polarized debate, and created a morass in Washington where the good of the party far outweighs the good of the country. 

I respect those last 6 GOP presidential candidates for believing in themselves, and ultimately, believing in America.  I respect them for their willingness to stand on the stage and face the dissection of their every word, and the ridicule of those who disagree.  But I fear that their solutions are tired, and useless.  That more war, more wagging of a big stick, more telling others nations, other cultures, what to do and using violence to back up those words rather than compassion, understanding and tolerance will only lead America further down a path where her precious resources, material as well as human, are wasted in even more fruitless attempts to be the bully of the world, even in the name of good intentions.  



Saturday, February 6, 2016


The initial 2016 edition of Lapham's Quarterly is called Spies.  It begins with a scathing essay by the founder of the quarterly, Lewis Lapham.  In it he details the loss of freedom that Americans have relinquished in the name of national security.  From the Patriot Act and its authorization of unlimited domestic surveillance of the citizens of our country, to the exponential growth of government agencies tasked with preventing future 911 attacks, to the everyday messages broadcast in our media asking us to be alert for subversives among us, and enabling that alert by providing the characteristics of those who would want to do harm via religious and racial prejudices, we have willingly traded freedom for safety.  But what does such a trade mean?

One of the first quote in Spies puts it bluntly, and is attributed to Rebecca West.

"I cannot think that espionage can be recommended as a technique for building an impressive civilization.  It is a lout's game." 

Her quote was in reaction to the number of British citizens who were put on trial after WW2 for spying, and in particular Anthony Blunt.  Her focus is as much on the fact that rich people are allowed to break the law without the same consequences as the poor, as it is that when traitors are discovered they are so often granted immunity to break their trust with the other side and reveal the others' secrets.  She seems to be saying that the cost of loyalty is easily purchased.  And, she also wonders aloud in The New Meaning of Treason, why those responsible for allowing such breaches of secrecy seem to be the very people conducting the trials of the traitors suggesting that this closed circle of secrecy is never full revealed to the citizens of the country those involved are supposed to protect.

For me, the ever extending reach of paranoia that routinely infects those at the highest levels of government (and business), might suggest profound insecurity.  Are we so distrustful of our beliefs, so faithless, that we believe that only in killing those with differing ideas can we protect ourselves?

Adding insult to injury, are the human and monetary costs of the path we seem to be following.  What have we spent in our war against terrorism since 2001?  Google "cost of war on terror" and $1.6 trillion dollars pops up a few times.  Military deaths - over 6700 lives lost with another 50000 injured, not to mention the psychological damage that so many of our veterans face after multiple deployments.  When news of the poor state of the Veterans Administration hit the papers, outraged abounded.  But proper medical care costs money, and in these 'lets slash the budget" times, we can't spend billions on defense, while providing the necessary care to those who do our dirty work, let alone fix our crumbling infrastructure, address our failing urban schools, or face the future cost of climate change. 

All the flag waving and patriotic fervor don't pay the bills, yet at the same time we all profess our love for America, we do our utmost to pay the least amount of taxes possible, especially those with the most.  Perhaps Uncle Sam should be renamed Mom and Dad Sam because it appears that, like children, we want all we can get from our government with the least amount of cost.  And, like children, we want to believe we are safe because we have the greatest killing capabilities on earth, as if ideas and ideologies can be killed.

Even worse, one might say we are bankrupting our country morally as well by turning a blind eye to the use of torture, or worse, condoning it in the name of saving future lives.  We condemn those we oppose when they commit atrocious acts in the name of their safety, yet commit those same atrocities to protect our own hides.

Is it not clear that we become, not just lout's in our use of subterfuge, espionage, assassination, and torture to thwart our enemies, but just like our enemies?

But Joe, certainly you are not suggesting that we allow foreign tyrants to kill their own citizens with impunity, and acts of terror to go unpunished?  Would it be so radical approach to try it once?  To show by example that freedom means being able to pursue one's own happiness while allowing others to pursue theirs?  To encourage democracy by actually voting in our own elections?  To stop the cycle of violence by not responding to violence with more violence? 

In Spies, there are many stories of people withstanding torture, some who were eventually freed and whose stories did as much to bring down their torturers as bullets and bombs, some who died but whose conviction inspired others to further the cause. 

We love to recount the success of World War 2 in defeating the evil of Hitler, and resort to that analogy when talk of dialogue with an enemy is proffered.  Yet we so quickly forget the actions of Gandhi who fought an enemy of a different nature and won the day.  Or those that used non-violent protest to bring down the walls of discrimination, whether they be in America or South Africa. 

Perhaps then, the greatest security cannot be found behind the tallest walls, or the biggest guns, or the most widespread surveillance systems, but in a certainty of beliefs, and a faith in humanity and humane acts.