The vanishing of privacy

While I tend to be scathing about the general vacuity of the mainstream media in the US, there are a few reporters whose investigative work is excellent. One of them is Dana Priest of the Washington Post. I had been meaning to draw attention to her excellent series on the way that the government monitors people.

One key point that emerges from her story is that all you have to do is just one thing, however innocent and innocuous, that is deemed to be suspicious by any authority for you to be placed on a watch list that results in all your personal data and all your actions accumulated in the data banks for investigators to peruse.

Glenn Greenwald points out the dangers of this and the way that it contrasts with the government insisting that everything it does is secret.

That’s the mindset of the U.S. Government: everything it does of any significance can and should be shielded from public view; anyone who shines light on what it does is an Enemy who must be destroyed; but nothing you do should be beyond its monitoring and storing eyes. And what’s most remarkable about this — though, given the full-scale bipartisan consensus over it, not surprising — is how eagerly submissive much of the citizenry is to this imbalance. Many Americans plead with their Government in unison: we demand that you know everything about us but that you keep us ignorant about what you do and punish those who reveal it to us. Often, this kind of oppressive Surveillance State has to be forcibly imposed on a resistant citizenry, but much of the frightened American citizenry — led by most transparency-hating media figures — has been trained with an endless stream of fear-mongering to demand that they be subjected to more and more of it.

Of all the surveillance state abuses, one of the most egregious has to be the Government’s warrantless, oversight-less seizure of the laptops and other electronic equipment of American citizens at the border, whereby they not only store the contents of those devices but sometimes keep the seized items indefinitely. That practice is becoming increasingly common, aimed at people who have done nothing more than dissent from government policy; I intend to have more on that soon. If American citizens don’t object to the permanent seizure and copying of their laptops and cellphones without any warrants or judicial oversight, what would they ever object to?

Recent news reports reveal that Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android phones track and record your every move even when the location detection option is turned off and to serve marketers.

All these developments have caused some alarm amongst privacy advocates but I suspect that most people will not care. After all, people now voluntarily give out their private information on social network sites, information that those sites can harvest and sell to marketers and pass on to governments. People seem to either take the attitude that if you are doing nothing wrong then you should have nothing to worry about or have resigned themselves to the idea that the government and private companies can gain access to information about our private lives to a degree that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.

Are we past the point of no return when it comes to personal privacy? I suspect so. We have to live with the fact that anything we do is in principle knowable by others.

Is there a real danger to this loss of privacy? Yes. In addition to enabling companies to try and manipulate us, there is an special danger from governments. What governments fear most is when people start sharing dangerous ideas about democracy and freedom and human rights and start organizing around those subversive concepts. Getting wind of those things early and neutralizing key people enables government to control its populations which is why historically governments have depended on informants and spies and detection devices to monitor their own people. What the new technology has done is enable this to be done more easily.

On the other hand, human ingenuity should not be underestimated. People will find ways to use the same technology to get around the snooping. WikiLeaks, for example, has pioneered ways of getting information out that was not possible before. Also the sheer volume of information that is transmitted suggests that it can drown the signals in massive noise, even with sophisticated packet sniffing software that can look for keywords. The catch with all those devices is that if you narrow the search fields you might miss things while if you broaden it you get swamped.

And finally, technology and force can only take you so far. When enough people are united around a common ideal and rise up in unison, even the most repressive and technologically advanced governments will fall.

Silly superstitions

Jonathan Turley writes about legislators in Kyrgyzstan who sacrificed seven sheep in order to get rid of evil spirits in the parliamentary chamber and about chickens that are sacrificed as part of the Jewish Kapparot ritual.

He ends his post by saying “What is astonishing is that some nations remain in the control of such superstitious throwbacks.” I couldn’t tell if he had his tongue in cheek because, apart from details like animal sacrifice, how is this more of a superstitious throwback than Congress starting its day with a prayer or priests blessing houses and the like?

Participants needed for brain study on morality

A reader of this blog told me that he had participated in a study on morality and that they are looking for more people.

Study Name: Moral Boundaries
Location: CCIR at University Hospital (in Cleveland)
Researcher: Megan Norr

Detailed Description:

This study consists of a 2.5 hour research appointment which takes place at the Case Center for Imaging Research at University Hospital. This study seeks to define which brain areas are responsible for moral judgment processing and to determine how they are working with other parts of the brain when we make moral judgments. By using behavioral questionnaires to gather information about individual attitudes on morality and fMRI to examine brain activation in response to a variety of stimuli, we hope to shed some light on the neural representation of human morality. During the appointment, participants will complete a computer-based questionnaire which takes roughly 1 hour and participate in an MRI scan which will take 1 hour and 10 minutes. The MRI session consists of a variety of unique tasks, including viewing of photos and video, listening to stories, reading text, and responding to opinion questions. Some stimuli in this study may be morally challenging or alarming. All participants will have the opportunity to view sample stimuli prior to beginning the study. Participation is voluntary. Participants will be compensated a flat rate of $50. If you are a medical doctor, medical student, or professional in the fields of biology or medicine, you are ineligible for this study.

I believe they are looking for people in the 30-40 year old range but they may not be too rigid about the boundaries.

The blog reader who participated said this about his experience:

In short, It’s a morality study that uses MRI and behavioral measures to examine human morality. They investigate brain areas responsible for moral judgment and moral attitudes. It was a fun experience, asked many thought-provoking questions that revealed many subtleties about myself after some self-reflection and makes for interesting conversation amongst friends over drinks. Would love to give examples, but I don’t want to influence the test in any way if you participate. So neat!.. O and the frosting and cherry on top: they give you a 3D movie of your brain on CD when you are done!

If you are interested you can register and schedule an appointment online or contact Megan Norr at

The case for pacifism

Pacifism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “Belief in or advocacy of peaceful methods as feasible and desirable alternatives to war; (espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs. Also: advocacy of a peaceful policy or rejection of war in a particular instance.”

We see that there are three meanings of the word in common usage. Most peaceful people would have no trouble agreeing with the first and third meanings. It is the middle one that requires the “espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs” that causes problems, since it seems to reject the war option under all circumstances and it is not hard to conjure up a scenario in which war seems the least worst option.

While I hate war, I have never considered myself a pacifist. But Nicholas Baker in his article WHY I’M A PACIFIST in the May 2011 issue Harper’s Magazine makes a compelling case for pacifism. In doing so, he tackles head-on the seemingly unanswerable argument that all pacifists are immediately confronted with: What would you have done about Hitler? He calls this assumption that going to war against Hitler was the correct thing to do a ‘dangerous myth of the Good War’, and that accepting this myth unquestioningly has enabled future wars.

Baker says that the objective fact that six million Jews were killed suggests that the war policies that were advocated failed in their mission of saving lives and should cause us to seriously reconsider whether other policies might not have saved them.

In fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They weren’t naïve, they weren’t unrealistic—they were psychologically acute realists.

Who was in trouble in Europe? Jews were, of course. Hitler had, from the very beginning of his political career, fantasized publicly about killing Jews. They must go, he said, they must be wiped out—he said so in the 1920s, he said so in the 1930s, he said so throughout the war (when they were in fact being wiped out), and in his bunker in 1945, with a cyanide pill and a pistol in front of him, his hands shaking from Parkinson’s, he closed his last will and testament with a final paranoid expostulation, condemning “the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.”

The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were.

Baker’s article looks at what pacifists were saying and doing in the run up to that war and describes the heroic efforts of a group of US and British pacifists who sought to save the Jews and avoid World War II.

Kaufman was one of a surprisingly vocal group of World War II pacifists—absolute pacifists, who were opposed to any war service. They weren’t, all of them, against personal or familial self-defense, or against law enforcement. But they did hold that war was, in the words of the British pacifist and parliamentarian Arthur Ponsonby, “a monster born of hypocrisy, fed on falsehood, fattened on humbug, kept alive by superstition, directed to the death and torture of millions, succeeding in no high purpose, degrading to humanity, endangering civilization and bringing forth in its travail a hideous brood of strife, conflict and war, more war.”

Pacifism at its best, said Arthur Ponsonby, is “intensely practical.” Its primary object is the saving of life. To that overriding end, pacifists opposed the counterproductive barbarity of the Allied bombing campaign, and they offered positive proposals to save the Jews: create safe havens, call an armistice, negotiate a peace that would guarantee the passage of refugees. We should have tried. If the armistice plan failed, then it failed. We could always have resumed the battle. Not trying leaves us culpable.

Baker says that Hitler was basically using Jews as hostages to discourage US entry into the war. In any hostage situation, the prime objective must be to save the lives of the hostages and just as attacking a hostage taker usually results in the deaths of the hostages, the US entering World War II and the military options that were pursued sealed the fate of the Jews and effectively signed their death warrants.

The shift, Friedlander writes, came in late 1941, occasioned by the event that transformed a pan-European war into a world war: “the entry of the United States into the conflict.” As Stackelberg puts it: “Although the ‘Final Solution,’ the decision to kill all the Jews under German control, was planned well in advance, its full implementation may have been delayed until the U.S. entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages.”

In any case, on December 12, 1941, Hitler confirmed his intentions in a talk before Goebbels and other party leaders. In his diary, Goebbels later summarized the Führer’s re- marks: “The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence.”

Baker says it is easy to be seduced by the logic if war.

“We’ve got to fight Hitlerism” sounds good, because Hitler was so self-evidently horrible. But what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was, largely, the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German “morale” by dropping magnesium fire- bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn’t.

What instead happened was that the massive bombing of Germany was blamed on the Jews who bore the brunt of the retaliation. In June of 1942 in the Warsaw ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote of the Germans “They are being defeated, their cities are being destroyed, so they take their revenge on the Jews” and added “Only a miracle can save us: a sudden end to the war, otherwise we are lost.”

I was struck by how that failed policy of using bombing to undermine morale and create opposition to the government is still being pursued in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. What aerial bombing seems to do is either make the victimized population shell-shocked and dispirited or arouse anger against those doing the bombing and strengthen people’s allegiance to their governments, rather than undermine it.

So the Holocaust continued, and the firebombing continued: two parallel, incommensurable, war-born leviathans of pointless malice that fed each other and could each have been stopped long before they were. The mills of God ground the cities of Europe to powder—very slowly—and then the top Nazis chewed their cyanide pills or were executed at Nuremberg. Sixty million people died all over the world so that Hitler, Himmler, and Goering could commit suicide? How utterly ridiculous and tragic.

When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, “as an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just.” That, I would suggest, is the lesson that the pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.

It is not easy being a pacifist when warmongering and bellicosity seem to rule the day. Baker’s article is bound to result in hostile letters to the editor appearing in subsequent issues. The article is not available online (I believe) without a subscription. It is very tightly argued and the few short excerpts I gave here do not do it justice so I recommend that readers check it out for themselves.

Syrian crisis escalates

The situation in Syria seems to be getting seriously worse, with the government security forces killing large numbers of people attending demonstrations and even funerals.

This violence has led the US and UK governments to express ‘concern’ and when the US expresses concern about the actions of the government of an Arab country, one has to fear, given recent history, that bombing will soon follow. The warmongering editorial board of the Washington Post is already demanding that Obama take action in Syria, though not specifying its precise nature.

There is a considerable lobby in the US that seeks the overthrow all the governments in the region that are perceived as unfriendly to the US and Israel and make them into client states. Syria is not too friendly to the US but not too hostile either (it has been of use to the US in torturing people on its behalf) and it has no oil, making it not that desirable a target for attack. The Bahraini and Yemeni governments are also launching brutal attacks against their own people but they are seen as allies and that should forestall any attacks, or even harsh criticisms, against those countries.

Creating a client state in Iran is the prize that the warmongers really seek which is why the slightest indication of Iranian involvement in another country is trumpeted as a sign of its malign intentions. Saudi Arabia has actually sent troops to Bahrain to lethally quell the protests there without any remonstration from the US. But if Iran were to send in troops to aid (say) the Libyan government, all hell would break loose.

Another WikiLeaks scoop

Glenn Greenwald provides details on the latest revelations about Guantanamo and how the American press downplays the information that is unflattering to the US while the foreign media zeroes in on the truly awful things, such as “how oppressive is this American detention system, how unreliable the evidence is on which the accusations are based, and how so many people were put in cages for years without any justification.”