Competing journalistic models

The 1970s had two major events that had implications for journalism. One was the publication in June 1971 by the New York Times of a top secret history of the US military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967, now called the Pentagon Papers, that had been leaked to it by a then-unknown mid-level intelligence analyst named Daniel Ellsberg.

As Wikipedia says:

The papers revealed that the U.S. had deliberately expanded its war with bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by media in the US. The most damaging revelations in the papers revealed that four administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had misled the public regarding their intentions.

What was devastating about the Pentagon Papers was not that they revealed great secrets. After all, these ‘secret’ wars and bombings were not really secret at all. The people in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam knew they were being bombed and this news was well known around the world and even known among the elite circles in US government and the media. The only group for whom it was a secret was the American public.

Doonesbury had a series of cartoon strips ridiculing this state of affairs. Perhaps the one that most people who remember those times will recall immediately is the one in which Phred, a Vietnamese guerilla with the National Liberation Front, is searching for a famous museum in Cambodia and comes across an old couple standing amidst the ruins of a bombed out building. The old couple strongly resembles the pair in Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, except that they are wearing traditional Cambodian clothing. The strip has this sequence:

First panel
PHRED: The museum! What happened to it? It’s… It’s totally demolished!

Second panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I know, boy, I know! I was the curator.
PHRED: You wretched soul! Did this happen during the secret bombings?

Third panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: Secret bombings? Boy, there wasn’t any secret about them! Everyone here knew! I did, and my wife, she knew, too! She was with me, and I remarked on them!

Last panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I said “Look, Martha, here come the bombs!”
OLD WOMAN: It’s true, he did.

Ellsberg said he released the documents to expose unconstitutional behavior by a succession of governments of both parties in prosecuting a wrongful war. What shocked and angered the government about Ellsberg’s action was not that this leak created any danger for anyone. After all, it was just a history whose timeline ended four years earlier. What caused the consternation was that this information was now in the public domain and people realized how much the government had been lying to it during the critical period when it was escalating the war.

The other major journalistic event of the 1970s was the expose by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the shenanigans of Richard Nixon’s administration that eventually led to his resignation in 1973. They had access to a high level and anonymous source within the government nicknamed Deep Throat (revealed in 2004 to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt) whose information was helpful in guiding them in their investigations.

The Pentagon Papers and Watergate represent two very different models of journalism. The former model involves making public the actual documentary record of events, the internal reports and memos that the government produces so that the public could see for themselves (at least partially) what high level government officials saw and make their own judgments. Official government documents almost always have useful and reliable information, as legendary journalist I. F. Stone knew full well. He uncovered the truth about what was going on in the Korean War (revealed in his excellent 1952 book The Hidden History of the Korean War) by reading official documents and communiqués and not paying much attention to press briefings and the like where officials can say one thing one day and another the next, depending on what they want the public to believe.

Victor Navasky says that Stone,

although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

Internal memoranda and other documents are prepared by professionals and people on the ground who know what is actually going on and are obliged to tell it like it is to their superiors. They often have less of an ideological ax to grind or turf battles to fight and in fact are often idealistic people who actually care about truth and honesty in public life. But their reports are often distorted or suppressed by high-level political appointees pursuing a political agenda and the professionals are aghast and outraged by the discrepancy between what they know to be true and what is told to the public. Some of them, like Daniel Ellsberg, are pushed over the edge and become willing to become whistleblowers at great risk to their careers and provide information to journalists without expecting anything in return, except to get the truth out to the public.

Next: The rise of the Watergate model of journalism and the challenge of WikiLeaks

POST SCRIPT: Elizabeth Warren for Sheriff!

It looks like Elizabeth Warren is getting quite a posse in support of her being named as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

To CAPTCHA or not to CAPTCHA?

One of the interesting things about a blog is the comments section that enables readers and author to interact. The problem, as I have written before, is spam comments that just clog up the boards and waste people’s time. I have an open and unmoderated comment system which means that anyone can comment without registering or getting my prior approval but the catch is that it can be exploited by spam. The people who run the servers have filters for detecting and eliminating or quarantining spam but it is not foolproof and sometimes genuine comments may be excluded while spam comments may be allowed.

Spam is not generated by people who are merely being pests but because there is an underlying economic reason. Some email spammers seek to gain access to mail accounts from which to send their advertisements, while blog comment spammers are seeking to place links to businesses and hence drive up their search engine rankings. As a result, businesses have a financial motivation for creating spam and have generated software for doing so. The more popular your website is, the more you get targeted since the payoff is greater.

I get hit with quite a lot of spam that seems to come in waves. So a couple of times a day, I go into the comments file and clean house. I do this because it would be irritating for readers to encounter spam there or to have their genuine comments rejected. This housekeeping is quite tedious because I have to read all the suspect spam. Often it is easy to spot them because they contain gibberish. On other occasions they are generic comments or comments that are repeated over and over with slight variations and signatures. If it seems clear to me that a comment has no relevance to the post, I delete it.

But I have noticed recently that detecting spam is getting harder. Some spam comments try to deceive by using a sentence from the actual post as the comment. This makes the comment seem relevant though lacking a point. I can usually detect this dodge, even if my post in question is several years old, because I have a good sense of my own writing style. More difficult is when the spam consists of a sentence taken from the posting of a genuine commenter. If the comment does not quite fit, I look at all the comments to that post to see if this is the case.

Even more hard to judge are those short comments that are not copies of other people’s words but seem vaguely relevant to the topic. They often use some of the key words in the post, but are not really adding any value to the discussion and are written ungrammatically. These do not look like machine generated spam and are also not the mistakes of a careless or poorly educated native English speaker but more characteristic of someone for whom English is a second language.

Up until quite recently, my only criterion for accepting and rejecting comments was whether the comment was being generated a human or a machine. In making these judgments I am, in effect, running my own personal Turing test. To help me, I suggested to our webmaster that perhaps we should install one of those little tests that some sites have to detect whether a human or machine is trying to access it. These screening devices have to be simple enough that any human can easily solve them but difficult enough to fool a machine. The most familiar are the so-called CAPTCHAs, those curved letters and numerals on a cluttered background that you have to identify and type in before you are allowed in. Some sites like Machine Like Us require you to do a simple arithmetic sum.

I had thought I was fighting only machines because it would not be worthwhile to have real humans wandering the web and inserting spam. But it turns out that I was wrong. My increasing difficulty in telling whether some comments were being created by humans or machines was because, as a recent study of spam by a team of researchers at the University of San Diego showed, a lot of spam nowadays is being generated by actual humans and not machines, which would make adoption of a CAPTCHA system not as useful as I had thought. (Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.)

The article discusses the economic basis for this development. The authors argue that in the arms race between software that generates spam and software designed to defend against these spam attacks, the defenders have pretty much won because the attackers are always playing catch up and really sophisticated automated CAPTCHA solvers are quite expensive and have to be updated so often that it discourages most spam operators from using them as not being economically viable. So CAPTCHA solving software is only used for sites that have low-level and static defenses, which are also usually not desired high-value sites.

But one consequence of this defeat is that the spam operators have turned to actual human beings to overcome the defenses. The study finds that businesses now hire people to prowl the web and insert spam. Like many things on the internet, while the market for CAPTCHA solving services has expanded, the wages of workers solving CAPTCHAs have been declining. The paper’s authors report that companies now commonly charge their customers as low as $2, or even $1, to have 1,000 successful hits. As a result, those companies now pay their workers even lower amounts, $0.75 or even $0.50 per 1,000, down from highs of $10 in 2007 As you can imagine, these jobs are being outsourced to those countries that have cheap labor (such as in Eastern Europe, Bangladesh, China, India and Vietnam) which probably explains the unusual grammatical errors of the spam I now detect. I am guessing that these workers are told to take some words from the blog post and insert into a generic comment to make it seem relevant.

All this leaves me with a minor moral dilemma. My obligation to the blog’s readers to maintain a clutter-free comment section means that I should ruthlessly weed out every comment that looks like it could be spam (human or otherwise) even if some genuine comments get thrown out in the process. On the other hand, I feel sorry for those poor bastards who are so desperate for work that they have to take dead-end jobs like this and spend their days posting pointless comments on site after site.

I decided to give my bleeding heart a vacation on this one issue and be ruthless. I figure that there are enough websites that do not care so much about preventing spam so as to provide income for these workers. Also, once the spammers get a ‘hit’ by successfully posting a bogus comment, they presumably get paid even if I come along a few hours later and delete them.

So if you find that I have deleted your genuine comment, please let me know and accept my apologies for thinking you were a spammer. And if you are puzzled by why some comments appear and then later disappear, you now know the reason.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on objectionable words

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'The Hurt Talker
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The controversy over the Islamic center in New York

I don’t usually write much about many of the political events that dominate the news. Most of the time, our national discourse is dominated by the trivial and to even comment on it is to give undue importance to it and feed the flames. But another reason I don’t comment is because there is usually enough commentary and analysis elsewhere and by the time I think that I have a perspective on it that may add something new to the discussion, the issue has usually faded away because it was never one of major significance to begin with.

So I had not planned to write anything about the controversy over the proposed building of an Islamic center a couple of blocks away from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York City. To me it seemed a non-issue or at most a zoning issue that would fade away as quickly as it came into prominence. I really do not care where religious people build structures in which they can waste time praying to their non-existent gods. What really bothers me is that they get tax benefits for this nonsense, but that is a topic for another day.

But the opposition to this center has been lasting longer than it deserves, fanned by ugly xenophobic elements who seem determined to create a climate hostile to Islam in the US. Gary Leupp, a professor of history at Tufts University, has produced a useful timeline of how this thing got blown up out of all proportion. One distortion used to fuel anger is for opponents to refer to it as the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and the site as ‘hallowed ground’ when in fact it is more like a YMCA equivalent for Muslims and is at least two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. New York City blocks are huge so that proximity is not an issue, even if it was a valid argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is laughable to talk of that area as ‘hallowed ground’ when it seems like a typical busy New York area with its usual assortment of street vendors, eateries, stores, adult entertainment businesses, tourists, and the like. As I have written before, all this talk of venerating the World Trade Center site strikes me as phony grandstanding, a symptom of the epidemic of overdoing public grief.

But the event that triggered this post was the recent protest demonstration in which a black man named Kenny, who is said to be a carpenter working on the site, wandered past the crowd on his way to work. Because the crowd thought he was a Muslim (he was wearing a skull cap), they started hurling abuse at him.

Watching this ugly scene reminded me of something and after a while it clicked: it was the hateful abuse by white people directed at Elizabeth Eckford, the 15-year old black girl who attempted to integrate a Little Rock, Arkansas high school in 1957. She was captured in this memorable photograph, trying to maintain her dignity while enduring the abuse.

elizabetheckford.jpg

My recollection of the Eckford story also brought to mind John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, his 1960 account of his travels across America in the company of his dog. There is one chapter late in the book where he describes what he saw in New Orleans during the effort to integrate schools there. He describes the actions of a group of middle-aged women who dutifully turned up every day and took their stations directly across the street from an elementary school to jeer and hurl abuse, to the roars of approval of the crowds behind them, at the little black girl who arrived under the protection of US marshalls.

No one captures the moment like Steinbeck and what he wrote on that occasion made such an impression on me decades ago that I’ll give an extended quote:

While I was still in Texas, late in 1960, the incident most reported and pictured in the newspapers was the matriculation of a couple of tiny Negro children in a New Orleans school. Behind these small dark mites were the law’s majesty and the law’s power to enforce-both the scales and the sword were allied with the infants-while against them were three hundred years of fear and anger and terror of change in a changing world. I had seen photographs in the papers every day and motion pictures on the television screen. What made the newsmen love the story was a group of stout middle-aged women who, by some curious definition of the word “mother,” gathered every day to scream invectives at children. Further, a small group of them had become so expert that they were known as the Cheerleaders, and a crowd gathered every day to enjoy and to applaud their performance.

As I walked toward the school I was in a stream of people all white and all going in my direction. They walked intently like people going to a fire after it has been burning for some time. They beat their hands against their hips or hugged them under coats, and many men had scarves under their hats and covering their ears.

Across the street from the school the police had set up wooden barriers to keep the crowd back, and they paraded back and forth, ignoring the jokes called to them. The front of the school was deserted but along the curb United States marshals were spaced, not in uniform but wearing armbands to identify them. Their guns bulged decently under their coats but their eyes darted about nervously, inspecting faces. It seemed to me that they inspected me to see if I was a regular, and then abandoned me as unimportant.

It was apparent where the Cheerleaders were, because people shoved forward to try to get near them. They had a favored place at the barricade directly across from the school entrance, and in that area a concentration of police stamped their feet and slapped their hands together in unaccustomed gloves.

Suddenly I was pushed violently and a cry went up: “Here she comes. Let her through… Come on, move back. Let her through. Where you been? You’re late for school. Where you been, Nellie?”

Nellie was received with shouts of greeting. I don’t know how many Cheerleaders there were. There was no fixed line between the Cheerleaders and the crowd behind them. What I could see was that a group was passing newspaper clippings back and forth and reading them aloud with little squeals of delight.

Now the crowd grew restless, as an audience does when the clock goes past curtain time. Men all around me looked at their watches. I looked at mine. It was three minutes to nine.

The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.

The papers had printed that the jibes and jeers were cruel and sometimes obscene, and so they were, but this was not the big show. The crowd was waiting for the white man who dared to bring his white child to school. And here he came along the guarded walk, a tall man dressed in light gray, leading his frightened child by the hand. His body was tensed as a strong leaf spring drawn to the breaking strain; his face was grave and gray, and his eyes were on the ground immediately ahead of him. The muscles of his cheeks stood out from clenched jaws, a man afraid who by his will held his fears in check as a great rider directs a panicked horse.

A shrill, grating voice rang out. The yelling was not in chorus. Each took a turn and at the end of each the crowd broke into howls and roars and whistles of applause. This is what they had come to see and hear.

No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?

The words written down are dirty, carefully and selectedly filthy. But there was something far worse here than dirt, a kind of frightening witches’ Sabbath. Here was no spontaneous cry of anger, of insane rage.

Perhaps that is what made me sick with weary nausea. Here was no principle good or bad, no direction. These blowzy women with their little hats and their clippings hungered for attention. They wanted to be admired. They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Their was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.

Steinbeck could well have been writing about the New York City mob. Of course Kenny the carpenter was not a small schoolchild. He was a big, tough looking guy who looked quite capable of taking care of himself. But the comparison I want to make is not about the victims of the abuse but of the nature of a mob.

What makes people get into such a rage that they can take part in acts of senseless and petty cruelty based on the most base of tribal instincts? Did the people at the anti-Muslim rally have even the vaguest inclination that one day people will look on them with the same contempt with which we now view those who spewed hate at those black schoolchildren? Will they regret their actions later and wonder what got into them and wish they could make amends? Or have they permanently lost all sense of decency?

These questions occurred to me long ago when I read Steinbeck’s words and again when I saw the New York protesters. I have no answers.

POST SCRIPT: Satirizing the mob behavior

The Daily Show on the Islamic center controversy and points out the shameful and hypocritical behavior of Fox news in fanning the xenophobia.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'The Parent Company Trap
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Stephen Colbert also weighs in on this issue and the equally absurd one of whether Obama is a Muslim.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'The Word – Losing His Religion
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The shrinking credibility of the US government: The case of Shahram Amiri

As a result of all the shameful things the US government is doing in the name of fighting terrorism, it now has little credibility when it comes to claiming any moral superiority over other nations. It can no longer credibly condemn arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus, torture, and summary executions by the governments of other countries. Of course, the government still does so within the US, knowing that the compliant US media will never point out the hypocrisy. This self-delusion is so complete that Americans are often shocked, just shocked, when people in other countries point out well-established facts that show the US in a bad light.

The recent bizarre case of the Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri shows this lack of credibility. Amiri claimed that the US kidnapped him and brought him to the US and tortured him, hoping to get him to implicate the Iranian government in a nuclear weapons program. He sought refuge in the Pakistani embassy before returning to Iran. The US government denied Amiri’s charges of kidnapping, saying that he had come to the US voluntarily and then changed his mind: “Last month, the U.S. State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley denied that Amiri had been abducted, saying that “we are not in the habit if (sic) going round the world kidnapping people.””

Really, P. J. Crowley? We are not in the habit of going round the world kidnapping people? Where have you been the last decade? There was once a time when the official statement of a high US government official would be believed over that of an unknown foreigner. But there is only one location where that is true anymore and that is in the presence of the establishment media. It says a lot about the complicity of the US press corps that it did not immediately get convulsed with derisive laughter when Crwoley said this. Justin Raimondo over at the libertarian Antiwar.com provides the proper response:

Given the numerous instances of “extraordinary rendition” in which our government has been engaged, and no doubt continues to be engaged, one wonders how Senor Crowley can say that with a straight face. But then again, being an official spokesman for the US Department of State no doubt requires some sort of facial surgery – or, perhaps, an industrial-strength shot of Botox – to achieve the desired results.

Let no one berate us libertarians for describing the US government as a criminal enterprise: it isn’t disloyalty to the country, or even a penchant for overstatement, that drives us to such rhetorical excesses. It’s the story of what happened to Shahram Amiri: it’s the lies, the thuggery and hubris of a ruling elite that believes it can get away with anything. Such is their contempt for the American people – and the peoples of the world – that they think we’ll swallow any tall tale, no matter how crudely fabricated, because we’re just not as smart as their cunning selves.

However, it looks like they’re not cunning enough by half, having blown the Shahram operation and exposed their embarrassingly inept tradecraft.

For further evidence of how low the government has sunk from the noble ideals expressed in the constitution and declaration of independence, read this email from an FBI agent (released by the ACLU) that details what he saw on a visit to Guantanamo.

day11.jpg

(For more torture documents, see here.)

I came across these torture memos (thanks to the Progressive Review) just after reading The Translator, a memoir by Daoud Hari who lived through the horrible carnage in Darfur and then worked as an interpreter for western media, in the process getting captured and tortured by the various rebel groups and the government of Sudan. The similarities of what he experienced with the torture practices of the US government were chilling. When are Americans going to realize that they have allowed their government to adopt the practices of some of the worst dictatorships in the world?

Those who voted for Obama thought that he would undo the excesses of Bush-Cheney and restore some moral backbone. The fact that he has expanded and extended those abuses shows clearly that when it comes to civil liberties, Obama and his Democratic Party supporters are hypocrites.

Recent newspaper reports have said that Obama is worried about losing liberal support. Really? What a surprise! But he needn’t worry. As long as people are locked into the mindset that they must support their party at all costs, he is somewhat safe. As David Sirota documents, there are many who call themselves “the left” but really are just Democratic Party apparatchiks, willing to overlook and even support actions by Obama and the Democrats that they would have vociferously condemned if done by a Republican. The ACLU says that Obama has made Bush/Cheney the ‘new normal’. This website accurately sums up the situation:

Considered historically, it will become clear that the job of Republican governments is to invent novel, ad hoc expansions of state power, while the job of Democratic governments is to consolidate and systematize them. Far from repudiating supposed Bush-era “excesses,” the Obama regime has sought–usually successfully–to entrench and to codify them.

These appalling practices are justified on the basis that they are necessary to protect us from terrorism. But there is a great danger in sacrificing the law and principles in pursuit of evil. This scene from the play A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt (which was made into a great film in 1966) nicely captures what is at stake:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of the law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake!

As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

POST SCRIPT: al Jazeera on the Sharam Amiri story

From consumer to citizen

(Text of a talk given at Case Western Reserve University’s Share the Vision program in Severance Hall on Friday, August 20, 2010 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Bottlemania by Elizabeth Royte.)

As those of you near the front rows can see from my grey hair, I am roughly the same age as your parents, which means that I am a member of the infamous group that, like locusts, exploded upon the world and consumed everything in sight. I am speaking of course of the baby boomer generation.

As you would thus know and are probably sick of already, baby boomers love to talk about themselves and the wonderful things that their generation achieved. And a lot of good things really did happen during the time that we grew up and started running things. We had great advances in science and medicine, sent people to the moon, advanced civil rights, obtained greater equality for women, and fought for equal rights for gays and lesbians. We also invented the personal computer, the internet, and the ubiquitous cell phone, things we cannot imagine being without today.

But while we did many good things, we also are responsible for one major bad thing and that is that we well and truly trashed the planet. We baby boomers have been like children who have inherited a fortune in the Earth’s resources and have busted it on one long big party. And that is something so bad that not even our greatest contribution to humanity (the invention of rock and roll) will excuse.

The people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful that we risk leaving future generations resource poor. And we are leaving it to you, the next generation, to clean up our mess. If you are not angry about that, you should be. But at the same time I am hopeful that you will channel that anger into finding real solutions to the major problems of energy use, water, and food sufficiency for everyone, and to the careful use of resources in the future.

How did the present state of self-absorption come about? I think the crucial change occurred when at some point along the way, we were persuaded to think of ourselves not as citizens but as consumers. Everywhere in the media today people are referred to as consumers. The word citizen is now used only in a narrow sense, when people are talking about immigration and the like. But the word citizen is much more meaningful than that. When we think of ourselves as citizens, it carries with it a sense of community, a sense of social responsibility, a concern for people other than ourselves.

Consumers, on the other hand, are people who merely consume, who think only of themselves. As a result of this change in self-perception, we started to think that we were entitled to have all our wants gratified, and we started consuming the Earth’s riches at a rapid pace, at the same time creating enormous amounts of waste products. It bred what the book calls ‘hyperindividualism’, that “lets those can afford to opt out – whether from public schools, mass transit, or tap water – to further isolate themselves, in style.” (p. 45)

While this perception of ourselves as consumers has resulted in high standards of living for the elites in the world, it has also resulted in wasteful excess. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that drives people to buy things that are not based on any actual need but instead from the impulse to flaunt wealth and consumption, to let others know how ‘successful’ we are. We have a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where people feel the need to buy new stuff they don’t need even before the old stuff they also didn’t need is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts not only the affluent. Since the media celebrates those living lavish lifestyles, the middle classes also seek to emulate the very rich by living like them. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on. The resulting mindless consumption is like a virus that has spread all over the world. The bottled water craze is a symptom of this collective madness, giving everyone the chance to emulate the wastefulness of the rich. Bottled water first became a status symbol and now is seen as a necessity, when it should be neither.

The absolute low point in this consumer mentality occurred right after 9/11 when the president said that the best thing that people could do was to go out and shop. Imagine that. Nearly three thousand people killed in an act of mass murder, and the president’s concern was that it might deter us from shopping and consumption.

Right now, as a result of the recession that has thrown many people out of work or fearful of becoming unemployed, people are being more frugal, living simpler, less consuming lives out of necessity. Amazingly, I hear commentators in the media actually worrying about this, fearing that during this period, people might discover that a simple life is actually enjoyable and that they might not start consuming wildly again when things get better. Oh, the horror!

How did it happen that being an addicted consumer, wasting money and resources on things we don’t need, is the new standard of good behavior? How have we let ourselves be duped into thinking that being a consumer is better than being a citizen?

Not all consumption is bad, of course. Some increase in global consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the benefits of increased availability of drinking water and food, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, and the construction of homes that are better able to withstand the elements. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But we have to come to terms with the consequences of the fact that the Earth’s resources are finite. Once we use them, they are degraded and we have no means of getting them back to the original state however conscientiously we recycle. Hence higher levels of basic consumption by the poor of the world have to be balanced by less wasteful and unnecessary consumption by the affluent. But that kind of thinking will occur only to people who think of themselves as citizens, not as consumers, who see themselves as responsible for others, not just for themselves.

The one hopeful sign that I see is that the next generation, people like you, is far more conscious of the need to conserve resources than ours was, and more likely to be good stewards of the planet. But to be really effective at changing course, you will need the most sophisticated tools at your disposal and that is where your next four years are crucial. During this period of your education you will have access to the finest teachers and scholars, incredible knowledge resources in the library, and most importantly, like-minded, smart, and concerned fellow students. You should take maximum advantage of this opportunity to equip yourself to overcome the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your lifetime.

Whatever subjects you choose to study, remember that your ultimate goal is to learn how to be a good citizen and not a mere consumer. In fact, the future of the planet depends upon it.

POST SCRIPT: The Hollies

Talking about rock and roll, I love this song Stop, Stop, Stop, especially the banjo playing.

And one great Hollies song deserves another, this time it’s Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.

Testing the commitment to fundamental rights

The real test of your commitment to fundamental rights comes when the exercise of those rights arouses strong antagonistic feelings in you. Are you willing to defend the free speech rights of people who say things you find hateful? Are you willing to defend due process rights for those whom you despise? Why I support organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is precisely because of their commitment to defend those rights for all people without exception.

Take the case of the US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now supposedly hiding in Yemen. He has been accused of inciting violence against US targets and recruiting people to carry out those actions, such as Major Nidal Hassan and the Christmas Day bomber. Obama has, without any formal charges or trial but simply by unilaterally asserting the existence of extraordinary powers, passed a death sentence on him. In other words, any agency of the US government can kill Awlaki anywhere at any time using any means, no questions asked. His family in the US is naturally alarmed at this development. Glenn Greenwald describes what happened when they sought legal help.

Early last month, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights were retained by Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Obama assassination target (and U.S. citizen) Anwar al-Awlaki, to seek a federal court order restraining the Obama administration from killing his son without due process of law. But then, a significant and extraordinary problem arose: regulations promulgated several years ago by the Treasury Department prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in any transactions with individuals labeled by the Government as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” and those regulations specifically bar lawyers from providing legal services to such individuals without a special “license” from the Treasury Department specifically allowing such representation.

On July 16 — roughly two weeks after Awlaki’s father retained the ACLU and CCR to file suit — the Treasury Department slapped that label on Awlaki. That action would have made it a criminal offense for those organizations to file suit on behalf of Awlaki or otherwise provide legal representation to him without express permission from the U.S. Government.

It’s rather amazing that the Federal Government asserts the right to require U.S. citizens and American lawyers to obtain government permission before entering into an attorney-client relationship — all because these officials decided on their own, with no process, to call the citizen a “Global Terrorist.” It’s difficult to imagine a more blatantly unconstitutional power than that. What kind of an American would think the Government has the power to decide whether citizens may or may not be represented by lawyers?

Given the lack of outrage, apparently most Americans think that the right to a lawyer is a negotiable one. The ACLU and CCR filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of requiring a license from the Treasury department to represent a client and, perhaps fearing a defeat, the government issued a license making that lawsuit concerning licensing moot. So the case against the right of Obama to claim for himself the right to pass death sentences can proceed. But the bizarre nature of this case does not end there.

The Awlaki lawsuit… will likely face serious obstacles, beginning with the same warped tactic which both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly invoked to shield illegal surveillance and torture from judicial scrutiny: first, refuse to confirm whether such a program exists (notwithstanding public admissions that it does) on the ground such matters are “state secrets,” and then, with Kafkaesque perfection, insist that the lawsuit must be dismissed because (thanks to the Government’s refusal to acknowledge it) there is no evidence that Awlaki is subject to such an assassination program and thus lacks “standing” to sue.

Shades of Catch-22!

Bill Quigley, a professor of law at Loyola University and legal director of CCR explains why they sued to represent Awlaki.

What this case is really about is not Aulaqi but about our government disregarding the rule of law.

There are many reasons we can argue that premeditated killing by the government off the battlefield is illegal. The rule of law guaranteed by the US constitution binds even the President of the US and the military. Our constitutional system of checks and balances does not allow the executive branch of government to just decide in secret that they are going to kill people. The government certainly could not just execute him if he was in the US. The US would not allow other governments to come here and assassinate someone they opposed. And the US would never just fire drone strikes into the UK, China, Russia or Australia to kill someone. Yemen is over a thousand miles away from the battlefield of Afghanistan or Iraq. So why would anyone think it is legal to assassinate a US citizen in Yemen?

Despite these questions, Aulaqi has been the target of several unsuccessful drone strikes as the US military and CIA are actively trying to kill him.

These are all issues that should be decided in a court of law. That is why we are filing this suit.

His father, Nasser, said it best. If the government has proof his son violated the law, then they should charge him in public and let the law take its course.

If the government can find him to assassinate him, they can find him to bring him to justice.

The right to go to court to challenge the government is a core US value. It is important that we win the right to represent him no matter how controversial he is. Otherwise the government can deprive citizens of their right to a lawyer at the exact same time as they are trying to kill them. The courts should make these decisions and people deserve the right to have lawyers try to challenge the government. (my emphasis)

This case and the one concerning Yahya Wehelie reveal an emerging pattern. The government first claims for itself extraordinary powers. When those at the receiving end of its abusive treatment are able to muster the resources and expertise to strongly mount a legal challenge to the constitutionality of those claims and it looks like the government will lose in the courts, it quietly drops its opposition in that particular case without abandoning the policy itself. This makes the legal case moot and not subject to judicial review, thus avoiding the risk of a judge ruling that the action is unconstitutional.

The problem is that there are many people who are suffering at the hands of the government who do not have the means to mount this kind of challenge and so they languish. This is why although legal challenges are a partial solution, the only effective counterweight to government abuse is widespread public anger. As Judge Learned Hand once said, “I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.”

POST SCRIPT: Those awful activist judges

More on Obama’s disdain for due process and civil liberties

As an example of the disdain that the Obama administration has for the rights of even US citizens, take the case of Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year old US-born citizen. His case, though not involving torture, illustrates how government power can be abused when we allow it to operate in secrecy. While Wehelie was traveling abroad, he was placed on a no-fly list for no stated reason (though it may be because he went to Yemen to study) and as a result he was now stuck in Cairo for months and unable to return to the US, even though he offered to travel handcuffed and accompanied by US marshals. The ban was lifted without any reason given after the ACLU filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the no-fly list, and he is now home in Virginia.

But there are worse cases. Obama is also breaking new ground such as trying child soldiers for war crimes. This is the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian national captured outside Kabul in 2002 when he was just 15. As Chase Madar writes, “no nation has tried a child soldier for war crimes since World War II, and the decision to prosecute Khadr has drawn protests from UNICEF, headed by a former U.S. national security adviser, as well as every major human-rights group.” And yet, the government is prosecuting him in a military tribunal, a system that has few of the legal protections of a normal court of law. The judge has already ruled that Khadr’s confessions can be used against him although they may have been obtained under duress and torture.

As Glenn Greenwald says in discussing this case, the abuses by the government in this case involve far more than torturing a child into confessing and then using those confessions.

As I’ve written before about the Khadr case (as well as the very similar case of child soldier Mohamed Jawad), what is most striking to me about this case is this: how can it possibly be that the U.S. invades a foreign country, and then when people in that country — such as Khadr — fight back against the invading army, by attacking purely military targets via a purely military act (throwing a grenade at a solider (sic), who was part of a unit ironically using an abandoned Soviet runway as its outpost), they become “war criminals,” or even Terrorists, who must be shipped halfway around the world, systematically abused, repeatedly declared to be one of “the worst of the worst,” and then held in a cage for almost a full decade (one third of his life and counting)? It’s hard to imagine anything which more compellingly underscores the completely elastic and manipulated “meaning” of “Terrorist” than this case: in essence, the U.S. is free to do whatever it wants, and anyone who fights back, even against our invading armies and soldiers (rather than civilians), is a war criminal and a Terrorist.

Once again, role-reversal reveals that hypocrisy. If a foreign army were to occupy the US, would we view a 15-year old boy who takes up arms to attack those troops as a terrorist or a hero?

In fact, the Obama regime seems to take a positive delight in demanding for the right to indefinitely incarcerate people even if they know they are innocent. This is consistent with Obama pretending to want to close down Guantanamo while backing off from doing anything about it.

Tomorrow: Yet more violations of due process

POST SCRIPT: Our corrupt government

Readers will recall my many posts about how the fix was in from the start so that the health care ‘reform’ bill would serve the interests of the very organizations that make health care in this country so bad, primarily the health insurance companies. Glenn Greenwald has a must-read item about the revolving door between government and the health insurance companies that guaranteed this outcome. In fact, Obama has put a person from one of the worst of these companies (WellPoint) in charge of running the new program.

This five-minute clip of Bill Moyers, made just before the health care ‘reform’ bill passed, shows how the public option was sabotaged despite wide support for it, how Congress bought off, and highlights the ever-revolving door that guarantees that the companies win and the people’s voice will never be heard.

Obama’s disdain for civil liberties

As readers of this blog know, after supporting Barack Obama against John McCain in the presidential election, I have been a harsh critic of his actions once in power. This should not come as a surprise as I said before the election that I would hold him to the same standards I applied to Bush-Cheney and that given the nature of US politics that he would be a loyal servant of the oligarchy that rules the US. But I have (I hope) been careful to distinguish between criticizing him for policies I disagree with and being much harsher with him for lying to us about his intentions.

As examples of policy differences, it should have been clear to any careful observer long before his election that Obama was very friendly with the big Wall Street financial interests and would eagerly do their bidding. (I wrote about this in February 2008.) If people had any doubts about this, his eagerness to support the bailouts of the big investment banks in the two months prior to his election should have settled them. Similarly, he clearly announced that he was going to expand the war in Afghanistan and he has done so. I think it is a terrible policy but he is simply doing what he said he would do.

Where I think Obama has been terrible is when it comes to civil liberties and the rule of law. After promising to restore the rule of law and due process, Obama has not only embraced the worst aspects of the Bush-Cheney encroachments but has expanded them even more, making the Obama administration one of the most lawless in recent history.

Starting with the government dragging its feet on the closure of Guantanamo and other black prisons and continuing the practices of torture, denial of habeas corpus and the right to lawyers, etc., it has steadily expanded its reach so that Obama now claims that he has the right to order the murder of anyone, anywhere, at any time. And what is incredible is that people are not outraged. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, to his credit, has actually introduced a bill to ban the extrajudicial killing of at least US citizens by the US government, undoubtedly to draw attention to the bizarre world that we now take as normal. Of course his party’s leadership will make sure that his legislation never sees the light of day. Party loyalty always trumps principle.

As one example of Obama’s disgraceful actions take the case of Hassan Odaini, who was picked up in Pakistan when he was 18 and has been detained for eight years even though the government knows he is innocent. As Glenn Greenwald says, “the Obama administration is knowingly imprisoning a completely innocent human being who has been kept in a cage in an island prison, thousands of miles from his home, for the last 8 years, since he’s 18 years old, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong.”

As Andy Worthington writes in Obama’s Moral Bankruptcy Regarding Torture:

As I explained in an article following the judge’s May 26 ruling, it had been publicly known since November 2007 that the government had conceded in June 2005 that Odaini, a student, had been seized by mistake after staying the night with friends in a university guest house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, on the night that the house was raided by Pakistani and U.S. operatives, and that he had been officially approved for release on June 26, 2006 (ironically, on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture).

Nevertheless, the Justice Department refused to abandon the case against him, and took its feeble allegations all the way to the District Court, where they were savagely dismissed by Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. When the judge’s unclassified opinion was subsequently released, an even grimmer truth emerged: that shortly after Odaini’s arrival at Guantánamo in June 2002, an interrogator recommended his repatriation (after he had been exploited for information about his fellow prisoners), and that, in April 2004, “an employee of the Criminal Investigative Task Force (‘CITF’) of the Department of Defense reviewed five interrogations of Odaini and wrote that ‘[t]here is no information that indicates [he] has clear ties to mid or high level Taliban or that he is a member of al-Qaeda.'”

Odaini was not subjected to specific torture techniques, but there are many people — myself included — who are happy to point out to the Obama administration that subjecting an innocent man to eight years of essentially arbitrary detention in an experimental prison camp devoted to the coercive interrogations of prisoners who were deliberately excluded from the protections of the Geneva Conventions is itself a form of torture, especially as, unlike the worst convicted criminals on the U.S. mainland, no Guantánamo prisoner has ever been allowed a family visit, and many have never even spoken to their families by phone.

Moreover, the fact that the administration proceeded with his habeas case, despite knowing that he was innocent, and then refused to release him as soon as the judge delivered his ruling, confirms that, when it comes to lawlessness and cruelty, the Obama administration is closer in spirit to the Bush administration than it cares to admit.

Judge Kennedy has also ordered the release of another Guantanamo prisoner held for nearly nine years because “the administration failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the Yemeni man was part of al-Qaida or an associated force.”

But there are even worse examples of Obama’s post-election disdain for civil liberties, as I will discuss tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Australian elections

A short debate on Australian TV between the Sex Party and the Family First party, two ‘minor’ parties competing in upcoming Australian elections. (Thanks to Pharyngula.) Just from the names I can tell which party I like because you just know that a party that calls itself the Family Party is going to consist of intolerant twits, and the debate reveals it.