Let’s Get Political


Information Security practitioners aren’t used to getting political; so there was apparently a small but vocal stream of nationalists complaining to the conference organizers by the time I was done.

One reason is because there is a fairly substantial ex-military contingent in the security work-force. I tried to get them on my side, but I don’t think calling out “brainwashed nationalists” was the right strategy, so I made my call by pointing out that information security practitioners are part of the machine that has built the surveillance state, and we all bear some responsibility for that mistake. I could tell that was not a popular view.

Nobody noticed my “Team Banzai” pin.

Back in 2017, a senior Microsoft Executive (that’s corporate for: a big shot but not big enough to affect policy) published a position paper asking “Is it time for a Geneva Convention for Cyberspace?”[msft] My answer was (on the slide above):

“no.”

Here’s the problem – most Americans don’t realize that international humanitarian law is not written in the nation-state favoring language of warfare. Wars are something governments sometimes declare on each other. The IHL is written in terms of “conflict”; there are “combatants” who are participating in “conflict” and everyone else is a “noncombatant.” See, the IHL was written by lawyers not Washington spin-doctors. By the way, IHL has no definitions for “illegal combatant” or “collateral damage” – none of that; those words were created by various US administrations to down-play their own war-crimes. In IHL, attacking non-combatants or engaging in wars of aggression are crimes against humanity.

So, my answer was that we don’t need a Geneva Convention for cyberspace, we need governments that follow the Geneva Conventions. The internet is civilian infrastructure; the military – when they depend on civilian infrastructure – are placing it at risk of attack (basically, using it as human shields); that’s also a war crime. If the military wants to have cyberwars, they should have them on their own networks, not civilian networks.

It’s interesting to speak, and to watch the reaction of the audience; there were people in the room who looked like I had just punched them. American nationalism has heavily over-sold the idea that we are the good guys and therefore above reproach. So I laid it on hard: I pointed out that the 1977 Geneva Conventions enjoin combatants from interfering with dams, power plants, nuclear power plants, and dangerous forces. When the US/Israeli-released Stuxnet virus interfered with the centrifuge cascade at Natanz, it also interfered with the cooling pump systems of the Iranian reactor at Bushehr – a reactor 2 miles outside of a city of 180,000. That was an incredibly irresponsible act, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that would cause “epic freakout” if the Chinese did anything to an American nuclear reactor.

I’m not a big fan of moral equivalencies, because I think it ought to be possible to simply argue what is wrong and what’s not, but the audience was rather shocked to contemplate the possibility that, by doing what they did, the NSA not only invited, they justified a comparable retaliation against US power-grid systems. Why not?

Anyhow, I shan’t review my entire talk here, but: it’s disappointing to me how little most Americans think about this stuff. They accept what they are told is reasonable, whether they are told on MSNBC or FOX – either one is acceptable. To me, both are wrong.

Computer security practitioners are used to worrying about the details like “are my firewall rules right?” and I asked them to think, instead, whether they should work at all for the government, and – if they do – to backdoor systems with an eye toward preventing governments from acting in secret.

I finished by pointing out that there are simple techniques for dealing with this stuff: diplomacy, state-craft, leadership, willingness to understand and balance other nations’ needs against our agenda. In fact, the Stuxnet attack against Natanz didn’t slow down the Iranian enrichment program because negotiation did. None of it was necessary.

Perhaps all this means I won’t be doing so many keynote talks, anymore. Which is fine, it’s just as amusing to be in my shop hammering steel.

------ divider ------

I’ve been quiet lately because Tuesday I was driving, Wednesday I was in meetings all day and then had a big dinner and too much wine, Thursday I was up at 5 to get to the airport and was on a plane all day (writing slides for my talk in powerpoint) and this morning I was up at 6 to get to the conference. I haven’t been doing anywhere near as much speaking as I used to, and now I wonder how I managed it, or why I bothered. Tomorrow I’ll be hanging out in LA with what is possibly the cutest kid on earth and his wonderful parents, then heading home Sunday.

I have soap drying in the oven and some metal experiments to do; next week is going to be a lot of busy digging out, and fun.

Comments

  1. says

    I tried to get them on my side, but I don’t think calling out “brainwashed nationalists” was the right strategy

    Yes, that’s certainly not the right strategy if you want to reach somebody.

    so I made my call by pointing out that information security practitioners are part of the machine that has built the surveillance state, and we all bear some responsibility for that mistake.

    That’s also not the right strategy. Firstly, the whole concept of “collective guilt” is squishy. Personally, I generally tend to dislike the whole idea (it depends on the circumstances, which is why I’m using the word “generally” here). Secondly, people hate being accused of doing bad things. Especially when they believe that the bad outcome is not their fault. If some programmer has never personally written any code for software that enables the surveillance state, they won’t like getting accused of building the surveillance state.

    Perhaps all this means I won’t be doing so many keynote talks, anymore. Which is fine, it’s just as amusing to be in my shop hammering steel.

    On a personal level, what you said is a reasonable attitude. Not every person has an argumentative personality, not everybody enjoys arguing against people who disagree with them. Not everybody enjoys giving talks where instead of preaching to the choir they get booed and criticized. If, in order to stay happy, you prefer to make knives, that’s fine. (By the way, personally I’m pretty argumentative; I actually perceive arguing against homophobes/nationalists/racists as fun. But I know that most people aren’t like me in this regard.)

    But, in general, I strongly disagree with this attitude. Just think about what would have happened if all the people who have been fighting for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, or against racism had concluded, “I made this speech and got booed afterwards, therefore I should just go home and stop this and never again confront people who disagree with me.” The very fact that there are plenty of nationalists in the computer security industry means that somebody should tell them that this attitude is wrong and harmful. The more nationalists there are out there in the world, the more the world needs people who decide to publicly disagree with the prevailing majority opinion a.k.a. nationalism.

    By the way, how I feel about arguing against people who hold bad opinions depends on who they are. I have participated in countless public debates against nationalists, misogynists, homophobes, etc. Demolishing their arguments and verbally humiliating them was sort of fun. In these debates, I perceived my opponents as brainwashed churchgoers who just don’t know any better. And then one day I was chatting with another guy from my first debate club. I no longer remember what we were discussing, but then at one point he said that “all women want children.” Of course, I objected (I have no intentions of ever having babies). His answer: “I’m just delusional about what I truly want in life. If I’m still childless by the time I reach 30, my life will be extremely unhappy.” Before this conversation, I had perceived that guy as educated and reasonable. Of course, what he said was nowhere near the most misogynistic thing I have ever heard. I have heard worse insults than that, I also have grown a very thick skin, so I don’t care much about what other people tell me. But hearing misogynistic crap from a person who previously seemed normal and reasonable was really unpleasant. That actually stings.

  2. voyager says

    In Canada many people consider the U.S. to be a very dangerous country. More dangerous than Russia, more dangerous than Iran and equally as crazy dangerous as North Korea. So much of your population seems blind to what goes on in the rest of the world and to the things done in your name. Where are the protests against your never-ending war in Afghanistan? Do people realize what is really happening in Syria? Can anybody see the danger in trying to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal or in pulling out of the Paris accord. And since Trump it’s worse. We can only see gullible hypocrites who don’t care about their own citizenry, never mind the rest of the world. As long as abortion is banned and policy flows through an imaginary, misogynistic god nothing else matters. Not even the poor and disenfranchised American people matter, so what hope for the rest of us. Even an atheist like me can see that the American brand of Christianity is toxic and not at all what Jesus preached.

  3. says

    So, did anyone come up afterwards and whine “But, Marcus, it’s not the CIA’s fault them dumb Eye-ranians built a nuclear plant near one of their cities! If something bad happened it was their fault.” I would imagine if they did they’d be surprised how close some Western nuclear power reactors are to major population centres. Like Ontario’s Pickering and Darlington nuclear plants, which are both within 50 kilometers or less of 4.5 million people, including the entire city of Toronto.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus, was there a Q&A/discussion after the talk?

    I think that saying unpopular stuff can have a positive effect, in the longer run. Some of your audience might actually think about what you said. I know that my worldview has been powerfully affected by coming to grips with things I read/heard which I initially found outrageous. Of course, saying unpopular stuff can also be stressful. Kudos for the effort.

  5. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#1:
    It wasn’t like I was booed – there was some head shaking, a few people complained to the program committee, and that was mostly that. Then, when I was done, there was a podcast interview (where the guy asked pretty reasonable questions) and a few people wanted to argue with me, and we did that. I don’t feel that the reaction was inappropriate – I went fairly hard off the rails for an information security conference – I’m just bummed at how establishment-supporting the infosec community tends to be.

    I suppose, I probably shocked them more than I disappointed myself.

    But, in general, I strongly disagree with this attitude. Just think about what would have happened if all the people who have been fighting for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, or against racism had concluded, “I made this speech and got booed afterwards, therefore I should just go home and stop this and never again confront people who disagree with me.”

    Yes, that’s true.

    Right now I have a profound sense that we are the mice, voting to bell the cat. The system is out of control and has established its own control structures to prevent it ever coming back under control. I am worried and angry.

  6. says

    voyager@#2:
    In Canada many people consider the U.S. to be a very dangerous country. More dangerous than Russia, more dangerous than Iran and equally as crazy dangerous as North Korea. So much of your population seems blind to what goes on in the rest of the world and to the things done in your name. Where are the protests against your never-ending war in Afghanistan? Do people realize what is really happening in Syria? Can anybody see the danger in trying to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal or in pulling out of the Paris accord. And since Trump it’s worse.

    I agree completely with that. The US is a scary, ugly, political system and it’s getting less concerned about concealing its ugliness.

  7. says

    timgueguen@#3:
    So, did anyone come up afterwards and whine “But, Marcus, it’s not the CIA’s fault them dumb Eye-ranians built a nuclear plant near one of their cities! If something bad happened it was their fault.”

    No, but I got a few people voicing one of the two “standard axis of response” in the information security community. One is to take you aside and say, sotto voce, “you know, if you knew what I know, you wouldn’t say that…” the other is to simply insist that the US is special and needs more time and space for all the specialness and therefore shut up.

    There’s another fellow I’ve bumped into a number of times who is a strong supporter of anything Israel does and he immediately ran up on me and said it was entirely appropriate to launch the Stuxnet attacks against Natanz in Iran. I replied, “yes, but I was talking about Bushehr, not Natanz. Natanz was refinement, Bushehr is a reactor 2 miles outside of a city.” At which point he made the usual riposte, which is that it’s the only way to get the Iranians to stop their program. I heaved a big sigh and said “I don’t think that Israel, which never even signed the non-proliferation treaty, would have been very happy if the US had used cyberweapons to interfere with Dimona.” At which point, our conversation ended.

    One thing that I observe again and again is that ideologically fixed people can’t do the mental trick of flipping the situation around and looking at it from the opposite view. I believe that being able to flip situations around is a fundamental cognitive tool, and that generally authoritarian followers (I consider nationalists to be a form of authoritarian follower) don’t do that exercise. It’s odd, in fact, since I have met many authoritarians who are quite smart but simply refuse to reason as if they were in the other party’s position. I believe that’s the foundation upon which exceptionalism is built, as it’s necessary for making the “us-versus-them, it’s always us” divide.

    (I do feel it was intellectual dishonesty to talk about Natanz, when I had specifically said in my talk “Natanz would be a more complicated question so let’s just consider the reactor 2 miles outside of a city of 180,000 people.” If you ask an honest American “how would the US react if the Chinese used cyberweapons to mess up Oak Ridge, TN?” they will usually admit that the US would Flip The Fuck Out.)

  8. says

    I know that my worldview has been powerfully affected by coming to grips with things I read/heard which I initially found outrageous.

    Yeah, same goes for me. I assume that this could be the case for many people. My problem was mostly that at school I was indoctrinated to believe nationalist crap and in my family I was taught to be homophobic. It took me a while to figure out that some of the things adults taught me were wrong.

  9. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#4:
    Marcus, was there a Q&A/discussion after the talk?

    I wish there had been time. The conference got started late, so I had to jam a bunch of stuff out pretty fast. I had the choice of doing a Q&A, or running through a couple slides I had prepared to explain why the US’ strategy in cyberspace, which is based primarily on offense, is problematic. That is a point I have been hammering on for 15 years, now, and I think it’s important so I tend to always hammer on it a bit when I get the chance.

    A Q&A session would have gone a ways toward making people less unhappy, because someone could have stood up and said “I think this whole keynote was in off-limits territory” and then it would have been said. As it was, it looked kind of like I yelled at everyone and then ran for the door.

    I think that saying unpopular stuff can have a positive effect, in the longer run. Some of your audience might actually think about what you said. I know that my worldview has been powerfully affected by coming to grips with things I read/heard which I initially found outrageous. Of course, saying unpopular stuff can also be stressful. Kudos for the effort.

    Thank you. I agree, but it sure is wearing to feel like the guy who is deliberately farting in a crowded elevator. I think we all want to be considered as part of the cool kids and it’s definitely stressful to step outside of that. Well, as long as I’m not going “Full Kanye” I guess it’s alright. There were several people who came up to me later and had very thoughtful conversations with me about, “well, what do we do about this?” That is the other part that makes this topic so stressful: I really feel like I am the Cassandra mouse running around proposing we establish a cat-belling operation.

  10. says

    the other is to simply insist that the US is special and needs more time and space for all the specialness

    Aww, the biggest bully insists that they are so special that they are justified to bully everybody else. How cute! Reminds me of things kids say in kindergarten.

    One thing that I observe again and again is that ideologically fixed people can’t do the mental trick of flipping the situation around and looking at it from the opposite view.

    Yes, I have observed this so many times. I’m not sure whether that’s a good debating strategy or not (I’m not sure, because it doesn’t seem to work), but on many occasions in debates I have attempted to provide examples that force my opponents to flip the situation around. Whenever I try this, people respond by giving silly excuses why the example I provided is different from the example we were talking about before.

    I agree, but it sure is wearing to feel like the guy who is deliberately farting in a crowded elevator. I think we all want to be considered as part of the cool kids and it’s definitely stressful to step outside of that.

    Somehow I just got used to this to the point that it no longer bothers me. By now, I have gotten perfectly happy to tell people things they don’t want to hear.

  11. jrkrideau says

    the audience was rather shocked to contemplate the possibility that, by doing what they did, the NSA not only invited, they justified a comparable retaliation against US power-grid systems.

    I find this type of thing incredible. It is similar to US indignation when some US-born jihadi gets taken out by a drone attack and people are indignant that he did not get a fair trial first but they ignore the 10 or 20 dead (non-US) bystanders.

    My view is that if the US wants to kill its own citizens then it is an internal matter (heck the US police do it all the time and few people object) but killing non-US citizens in their own country is an crime under international law.

  12. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 voyager
    I have come to the conclusion that North Korea was/is not particularly “crazy dangerous”. More that the Kims and the rest of the N. Korean Gov’t exaggerated things to keep the USA at bay. Blood dangerous yes, but not “crazy” in their circumstances.

    Oh, some of the things they have done in the international arena over the last 50 years were nutty, vicious, and illegal but in the last 15–25 years, much of the behaviour was self-defence. Afganistan, Iraq, Lybia did not encourage trusting foreign policy.

    If nothing else, American rhetoric threatening North Korea would have reinforced the N. Korean stance.

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ieva Skrebele @8:

    at school I was indoctrinated to believe nationalist crap and in my family I was taught to be homophobic.

    Both my parents grew up in WWII Latvia (they met, as teenagers, in a DP camp in Germany), but somehow they didn’t absorb that crap. My paternal grandfather was a nationalist, but not what I would consider the toxic type. He wanted Latvian independence, but he was what might be called a multiculturalist today. Didn’t matter to him where you originated, where you worshipped, or what language you spoke at home. If you live in Latvia, you should be able to speak Latvian. That was it. My Dad picked that up.

    In hindsight, it’s kind of weird. Most Latvians I’ve known of my parents’ generation (most a bit older) were, let’s say, more ardent. That’s being polite, in some cases.

    When my sister came out, years ago, my parents’ reaction was basically “Are you happy? Yes? Pass the salt.”. It took me a while to realize how lucky I was to have been born to them.

  14. says

    jrkrideau@#11:
    My view is that if the US wants to kill its own citizens then it is an internal matter (heck the US police do it all the time and few people object) but killing non-US citizens in their own country is an crime under international law.

    I wish there was some international forum where people could apply for “regime change.”

  15. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#10:
    on many occasions in debates I have attempted to provide examples that force my opponents to flip the situation around

    I usually provide a very quick explanation of motivated reasoning, first. The framing being something like: “One of the ways you can tell that your reasoning is based on favoring your established beliefs is by imagining the situation was reversed, and exploring your reaction for bias. So, let’s try that…”

  16. kestrel says

    Well, the purpose of the conference was to make people think… wasn’t it? Or did everyone come believing they would simply hear the voices in their head speak out loud and agree with everything they already think? It sounds like some attendees had a growth experience in being pushed out of their comfort zone and provided with some real food for thought, and that is not a bad thing. The organizers should be happy about that.

    One would hope.

  17. says

    jrkrideau@#12:
    If nothing else, American rhetoric threatening North Korea would have reinforced the N. Korean stance.

    It convinced me that the North Koreans were not only highly rational, but played their hand brilliantly. The US’ reaction: backing down hard as soon as the North Koreans demonstrated a credible deterrent, is a pretty conclusive demonstration that nuclear weapons are the best way to deter a super-power. The US’ reaction to North Korean nuclear ambition has seriously altered my (already dark) view of US nuclear policy – I no longer see it as “stupid and unfair” I recognize it as “nuclear blackmail.”

    I haven’t posted anything about it, but I’ve been meaning to – it also made me read and re-assess the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. You know, that treaty the US talks about, so much? It’s a bit hard to make out, really, but it appears to say “if you sign this treaty which says you will not attempt to develop nuclear weapons, we promise we will not use nuclear weapons on you.” And that’s it. It’s nuclear blackmail, formalized.

    Also, nations can withdraw from it, by giving notice (as North Korea did) and – in theory they then have national sovereignty to go ahead and try to build them if they want, like Israel did. And, in theory a sovereign nation out to remain un-threatened under international law. Like North Korea was. Nobody has threatened North Korea because everyone really really respects their sovereignty; sovereignty is very important and respectable.

    Iran has been accused of attempting to violate the NPT and Iran has made moves to acquire nuclear technology. The US has blatantly violated the NPT as well as withdrawing from the anti-ballistic missile treaty, and violating the START treaty with Russia. Needless to say, there was no international outcry. The US also violated the NPT thoroughly by declaring that – by some dubious reasoning – it was not “giving” nuclear weapons to other NATO members when it cooked up its process of staging H-bombs in Turkey and Germany and elsewhere. The whole NPT looks to me like a really crappy fig-leaf for the US doing whatever the fuck it wants, and browbeating the rest of the world. Literally, it’s all the members of the nuclear club saying “you do not get to join the nuclear club” to everyone else in the world.

  18. says

    kestrel@#16:
    The organizers should be happy about that.

    They were very supportive. So, there’s that.

    I did the closing keynote at the same organization’s annual conference back in (? 2014) and the topic I was asked to discuss was the surveillance state. “Accidentally” the event before the closing keynote was a panel that featured Mike McConnell (former director of the NSA) a former DHS executive, and a former assistant director of the FBI. So I started my keynote off by saying, “It’s a bit unusual to start a talk by saying ‘the panel in the talk before this was lying through their teeth a lot.'” but that’s what I did. I’m really amazed that they had me back; I think they have some subversives on their program committee.

  19. jrkrideau says

    @ 17 Marcus Ranum
    Literally, it’s all the members of the nuclear club saying “you do not get to join the nuclear club” to everyone else in the world.

    I have never even glanced at the Treaty but that is my understanding of it from the behaviour of the nuclear powers. There even seems to be an assumption of moral superiority among some of them (USA anyone?) that says “We can be trusted with these things but you cannot”.

  20. says

    jrkrideau@#19:
    There even seems to be an assumption of moral superiority among some of them (USA anyone?) that says “We can be trusted with these things but you cannot”.

    “We know how horrible they are, having watched what they did to the Japanese.”

    There is one other point about the NPT: it states that signatories which have nuclear weapons commit to reduce their stockpiles and eventually disarm. Uh, “how’s that going, USA?”

  21. says

    Marcus @#15

    I usually provide a very quick explanation of motivated reasoning, first. The framing being something like: “One of the ways you can tell that your reasoning is based on favoring your established beliefs is by imagining the situation was reversed, and exploring your reaction for bias. So, let’s try that…”

    Yes, that seems reasonable. Unfortunately, I doubt that it could work. Trying to convince nationalists that their country is committing war crimes is like trying to convince Christians that their God committed murder and genocide in biblical tales—people just don’t want to listen to you no matter what words you choose.

    Rob Grigjanis @#13

    Sounds like you were lucky.

    I was born in 1992, so my knowledge about earlier times comes from history books.

    I was lucky to be born in an atheist family, so at least I didn’t get any religious indoctrination. Unfortunately, my mother was (and still is) pretty homophobic. She is pretty much the only person who still doesn’t know that I belong to the LGBTQ group (the Q letter). I’m afraid to tell her, because I predict some repercussions. Online and with my friends I’m completely out of the closet. My mother doesn’t speak English and I never introduced her with any of my friends, so I’m safe.

    Patriotic education is pretty prevalent in the current education system. It is pretty subtle. I didn’t experience any outright attempts to make us hate or dislike people of other nationalities. Instead it was more about making kids love their country and cherish Latvian culture.

    I mostly experienced patriotic indoctrination coming from my literature teacher. Now that I look back at the obligatory literature list we had, a huge part of it was patriotic crap. Stuff like “Nameja gredzens” and “Dvēseļu putenis” by A. Grīns. “Cilvēki laivās” by A. Bels. “Latvieši” by G. Merķelis. We also had to read a hell lot of patriotic poetry. “Lācplēsis” by A. Pumpurs, “Gaismas pils” by Auseklis, “Indriķa Latvieša piezīmes uz Livonijas hronikas malām” by V. Belševica. My literature teacher even forced us to learn “Tālavas taurētājs” by heart. Even among the works of a single author there was a preference for patriotic crap instead of some better texts. Consider Edvarts Virza for example. His first poetry book “Biķeris” was cool. It was all about sex and eroticism. Hell, yeah, I dig it. But, no, instead of Virza’s cool poems our literature teacher made us read his nationalistic stuff.

    I also experienced plenty of nationalistic crap in music lessons and during the yearly celebrations of 11th and 18th November. Especially ten years ago when it was the country’s 90th birthday.

    I perceive modern Latvian society as pretty nationalistic. For example, I really dislike the Latvian anthem. A secular country shouldn’t have an anthem that starts with the word “God.” Besides, the author of the anthem, Baumaņu Kārlis, couldn’t even compose a melody of his own, he just stole the music from a German folksong. A few years ago I wrote an article suggesting to replace this anthem with something better. The reactions I got were pretty amusing—people hated my proposal and I even got some hate mail. It’s a good thing I think that poking nationalists and making them angry is a fun pastime.

  22. Owlmirror says

    @Ieva Skrebele:

    so I made my call by pointing out that information security practitioners are part of the machine that has built the surveillance state, and we all bear some responsibility for that mistake.

    That’s also not the right strategy. Firstly, the whole concept of “collective guilt” is squishy. Personally, I generally tend to dislike the whole idea (it depends on the circumstances, which is why I’m using the word “generally” here). Secondly, people hate being accused of doing bad things.

    I sort-of agree with this. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how the bible propagates the concept of collective guilt, which is one of the worst things it does (I don’t think the bible is the source of the concept, but it builds on a common cognitive mistake).
     
    However, I note that Marcus used the term “responsibility” rather than “guilt”, and completely rejecting responsibility for something one’s government (or society in general) does or is doing — this feels wrong too, and can lead to “I was just following orders” defensiveness.
     
    I need to think about this a bit more — it’s a complex problem, and may need more careful wording to get to the right balance.

    And then one day I was chatting with another guy from my first debate club. I no longer remember what we were discussing, but then at one point he said that “all women want children.” Of course, I objected (I have no intentions of ever having babies). His answer: “I’m just delusional about what I truly want in life. If I’m still childless by the time I reach 30, my life will be extremely unhappy.”

    The last line is confusing — the fact that it’s in quotes makes it look like he was talking about himself, but from the context, it looks he was talking about you (making claims about your mind).

  23. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#23

    Did/do they teach any of the nastier parts of Latvian history in school? For example, the Arajs Kommando?

    Yep, they did. Although my history teacher tried to soften the whole Arajs story by mentioning that it was just a few people who did these atrocities, and we shouldn’t forget that majority of Latvians weren’t murderous anti-Semites.

    Owlmirror @#22

    I sort-of agree with this. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how the bible propagates the concept of collective guilt, which is one of the worst things it does (I don’t think the bible is the source of the concept, but it builds on a common cognitive mistake).

    However, I note that Marcus used the term “responsibility” rather than “guilt”, and completely rejecting responsibility for something one’s government (or society in general) does or is doing — this feels wrong too, and can lead to “I was just following orders” defensiveness.

    I don’t see much difference between the words “responsibility” and “guilt.” Personally, I believe that the crap your country does is neither your responsibility nor you can be seen as guilty for it. In most cases.

    OK, let’s assume that you have the citizenship of a country that has politicians doing something bad (drone strikes on civilians, building a surveillance state, torturing “terrorists,” etc.). When the country starts doing something bad, you have three options:

    #1 Participate in it. For example, politicians decide to torture “terrorists,” and you work as the torture technician. Or the government decides to create a surveillance state, and you work as the programmer who writes the code. Then you are directly responsible and guilty for your actions, and I won’t buy “I was just following orders” as a valid excuse. But this isn’t collective guilt/responsibility. The problem is your own individual actions that help to further the bad thing that the country is doing.

    #2 Fight against it. For example, you work as a journalist or an activist attempting to stop the country from continuing the bad thing. Your efforts end up being futile, and you fail to influence the political decisions, thus the country keeps on doing the bad thing. You definitely aren’t guilty for whatever the country is doing—after all, you tried your best to stop it.

    #3 Not do anything. Personally, I believe that there is neither collective guilt nor collective responsibility for people who choose this option. Firstly, probably you couldn’t have made a difference anyway. There are two warmongering politicians participating in the election and both of them support torture. And somehow you end up responsible for electing the wrong politician (when both of them were the same)? I don’t think so. The system is made in such a way that the average citizen has no say about what the country does. Maybe, you could have tried to do something, for example, by becoming an activist? Sure, but you probably already have a 40+ hour job and a family to feed—the poor don’t have the luxury of free time.

    The thing is, I think that people should be free to choose to disengage themselves from their country. That’s pretty much what I have been doing about the country whose citizenship I have. I don’t even like calling it “my country.” I don’t have a country. I perceive this country as disgusting, and I don’t want anything to do with it. I try to detach myself from it as much as possible. I never chose to be born there. Why the hell do I still have its citizenship? Because of those pesky practicalities that we have to deal with in real life—it’s not that simple to get another country’s citizenship. Besides, I feel like majority of countries we have on this planet are just as disgusting as the one where I happened to be born. Most of them are engaging in the same ugly policies. Thus I don’t even have that much choice.

    By the way, so far I have been talking only about countries, which are relatively free—the ones that don’t imprison their citizens for criticizing the ruling political regime. In some places simply opening your mouth can result in imprisonment, torture or even death. It wouldn’t be reasonable to say that citizens of such countries have a duty or responsibility to sacrifice their own lives and endure years of political imprisonment for the sake of trying to make a difference in their country’s policies (which, let’s be realistic, isn’t even possible).

    Of course, I can think of some exceptions. If you are in a unique position where you could have easily made a difference (for example, you are wealthy, famous, related to some warmongering politician, etc.), but you didn’t bother to use that opportunity, then we can talk about guilt. But you are guilty or responsible only for your own actions (or, in this case, inaction).

    The last line is confusing — the fact that it’s in quotes makes it look like he was talking about himself, but from the context, it looks he was talking about you (making claims about your mind).

    Whoops! You are right. Bad wording.

  24. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#24:
    I don’t see much difference between the words “responsibility” and “guilt.”

    Perhaps it is my own inner-language but “responsibility is accepted” and “guilt is assigned.” In other words, someone else says you’re guilty, but you accept responsibility for your actions. The terms are vague, however, so I assume that my usage is only my own.

  25. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#25:
    OK, let’s assume that you have the citizenship of a country that has politicians doing something bad (drone strikes on civilians, building a surveillance state, torturing “terrorists,” etc.). When the country starts doing something bad, you have three options:

    Someone once asked Noam Chomsky why it is that he complains so much about the US, when there are many other countries that are worse. And Chomsky replied, “I pay taxes to the US government.” I felt that was a rather profound statement. Those of us who pay US taxes are supporting the war machine, and we are actually in possession of a powerful lever to control government which we are not using.

    Of course, the government has the ability to make life extremely unpleasant for us, should we stop supporting it. That’s part of the balance of this fairly shitty situation, though I would say that, in order of usefulness and effectiveness, the citizens of a country that has become unresponsive and is violating the social contract, have a right to:
    – General strikes and work stoppages. A government that compels me to work through force is an autocracy and I have a right to resist it violently, because its compulsion to work is also violence.
    – Tax stoppage. A government that is not responsive to the social contract is not one that I owe fealty or taxes to and I have a right to refuse to pay for my own subjection. If it tries to sieze my assets I have a right to resist it however I please because it is stealing from me.
    – Sabotage. A government that violently appropriates my property is completely voiding the social contract and I have the right to disable, damage, or destroy items of equal value to those that the government has taken from me; the government is an occupying power, I no longer owe it loyalty until it returns to treating with me fairly and resumes the social contract.
    – Direct resistance. A government that offers me violence is an occupying power and I have a moral right to treat it as such, including to violently resist police or military forces placed to control me. Furthermore, as participants in the occupying power, police or military are combatants and it is not a war crime to use whatever form of force against them (subject to IHL) to attack them. Note that “attack them” is a different relationship from “defend myself.”

    It is my opinion that those responses are graduated and must be calibrated to the government’s actions. It is important for the people to explain the progression to the government, in fact, “I choose to withhold my taxes; if you attempt to compel them from me you are in effect beginning conflict with me and I have the option of remaining a non-combatant or becoming a combatant.”

    The problem with these increasingly autocratic governments is that they are experimenting with exactly how far they can abnegate the social contract. Basically, they are pushing to seek the limits. It’s unfortunate because it forces otherwise decent people to have to contemplate resistance – that is something government should never do; at the point where the citizens feel they are under occupation, it is too late and it’s unlikely that the government will pull back from its position because (obviously) it has been comfortable going there.

    #3 Not do anything. Personally, I believe that there is neither collective guilt nor collective responsibility for people who choose this option.

    Yes, but. I would say that the citizens are released of any obligation they have to such a government because it has broken its agreement with them. They can then choose (morally) to remain non-combatants, or to resist with whatever level of activity they feel is justified as against an occupying power, so long as they do so within the constraints of humanitarian law. I.e.: if you blow up a busload of cops on their way to suppress a riot, too bad for them, they should have stayed home. But you’re not allowed to blow up an entire police building if there are noncombatants in it.

  26. says

    I see the situation this way:
    There is a large number of mice, and there is a cat.
    The cat becomes unusually oppressive.
    The mice vote to bell the cat.
    The cat becomes more aggressive and begins repressing the mice harder.
    At this point, the mice are entirely justified to poison the cat; they have no moral duty to continue throwing their lives away confronting the cat fairly, and, if the cat is utterly unwilling to enage in diplomacy, eventually, the cat needs to understand that the mice have other options.

  27. says

    Perhaps it is my own inner-language but “responsibility is accepted” and “guilt is assigned.” In other words, someone else says you’re guilty, but you accept responsibility for your actions. The terms are vague, however, so I assume that my usage is only my own.

    I’m not sure whether that’s how people use these words. Responsibility can be forced upon somebody:
    Parent: From now on, washing the dishes after every meal is your responsibility.
    Child: What!? I don’t want to.
    Parent: You either wash the dishes or I’m kicking you out of the house.

    So much for voluntarily accepting responsibility. Even the very statement “your country’s actions are your responsibility” assigns unwanted responsibility upon you. What if I don’t want to accept it and don’t feel responsible for any of the crap my country is doing?

    And then, I can also think of cases where people voluntary accept guilt and feel guilty about something.

    the citizens of a country that has become unresponsive and is violating the social contract, have a right to

    Yeah, they might have “a right” to take various actions, but it’s not going to achieve anything. When you have a philosophical discussion, you can talk about rights. Unfortunately, when it comes to what actually happens in real life, it’s a matter of who has power.

    General strikes and work stoppages.

    Those only work when everybody participates. If you attempt to go on a strike singlehandedly, you will only lose your job and your source of income, and they will hire somebody else. So far, I’m getting the impression that many Americans are happy with what their government is doing, and this means that there will be no large groups of people going on a strike.

    Tax stoppage.

    Then the state will simply seize your home, your car, your driver’s license. The state will arrange with your bank that your salary gets automatically sent to the state’s bank account. In some countries, they will even lock you up in the debtors’ prison. Only the rich can choose to withhold their tax payments by exploiting loopholes that just don’t work for the average person.

    If it tries to sieze my assets I have a right to resist it however I please because it is stealing from me.

    Yeah, I agree that you have this right, but you are powerless to resist against the state.

    I have the right to disable, damage, or destroy items of equal value to those that the government has taken from me

    Do you enjoy spending some time in a jail cell?

    Direct resistance.

    Try this, and you’ll just get a bullet located somewhere inside your dead body.

    Personally, I have never lived in a totalitarian state. However my parents and many of my friends have experienced the misfortune of living in one of those. When dealing with bad states, the first thing everybody learns is “don’t even think about trying to resist.” Resisting is pointless—the state will just throw you in the local equivalent of the Gulag camp. You won’t achieve any political change; you will only end up killing yourself. That’s just a pointless sacrifice.

    The problem with these increasingly autocratic governments is that they are experimenting with exactly how far they can abnegate the social contract. Basically, they are pushing to seek the limits.

    Yes, they are smart. Try completely changing the system overnight, and people will protest. Instead they are doing it slowly and gradually, step by step. That makes it a lot harder for people to coordinate and organize wide protests. It also ensures that citizens get used to the new modifications in how the state operates.

    At this point, the mice are entirely justified to poison the cat; they have no moral duty to continue throwing their lives away confronting the cat fairly, and, if the cat is utterly unwilling to enage in diplomacy, eventually, the cat needs to understand that the mice have other options.

    I can accept the idea. Openly confronting the state means jail time or a bullet in your head. Subtly and secretly sabotaging the state’s efforts (for example, by draining their resources) might work better. You probably should also play dumb so that they don’t realize that you did this intentionally.

  28. dano45 says

    Perhaps I am a day late in coming by the site, but wanted to thank and congratulate you for the outstanding keynote address at ISSA LA. As it was happening it was obvious you were going to take some flak for it, but ‘Bravo!’ for saying anyway some things that need to be said, and said much more widely. I pushed a little bravo out to the twitterverse.

    I wish I had the notes or, even better, the transcript. You said a lot of things that I have been thinking but you are further along in a coherent idea or essay process and I’d like to build on those. (Though I can’t say them in public.) (Even this forum may be too public.)

Leave a Reply