Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Noted in passing

I gave up following AmericaBlog a while back. It started two years ago when chief wanker John Aravosis slashed John Kerry for saying he would filibuster the nomination of Sam Alito to the Supreme Court. JohnA, as I commented at the time,
says [he] wants Alito to "go down in flames" but refuses to use the one tool now available to try to light the fire, instead melting into a fetid puddle of trembling goo at the first breath of the word "obstructionist."
In his post, he demanded to know how the attempt to filibuster Alito would benefit the Democrats. Besides regarding that consideration as "amoral," I said it would do so
[b]y showing they stand for something, dammit! By showing some backbone. By showing there are some things they will go to the mat for instead of walking away from the fight, muttering yet again "wait until next time."
Despite initial appearances, this excursion into what might seem ancient history actually is relevant. Y'see, I do still check out AmericaBlog from time to time and in doing so today, I discovered that this very model of an inside-the-Beltway blogger had just had a serious Aha! moment. Responding to Bush's assertion that he was going to ignore the Congressional prohibition against establishing permanent bases in Iraq, JohnA said:
Why don't we all just go home now. ... So seriously, why are we here? If you guys aren't going to defend yourselves, how can we count on you to defend the country? ...

And they wonder why they keep getting screwed. Oh yeah, it's because we don't have 60 votes in the Senate. Uh huh. Does anyone really believe that once we get 60 Democratic Senators in the Senate suddenly the Dems will grow a spine? Please. Come back next year when the Republicans still filibuster, still offer horrendous legislation taking away our most basic and most sacred rights, and the Dems still join them. Then they'll tell us if we just had 70 Democratic Senators...
Well, welcome to the real world, JohnA, the one where some of us have been complaining about spinelessness for some time. I don't expect you to stay long since it's a place where $75,000 a year ain't chump change, but you're welcome back any time.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Failure 101

Oops! I sign on tonight and discover that I completely forgot to post yesterday's piece! Speaking of failures.... Oh my, I need to keep writing myself notes or something. Since I had the chance, I slightly rewrote this; the Footnote is an addition.

We have failed. And we have been failed.

I mean we, us, the broad we, the peace (or, if you prefer, antiwar) movement we, the social justice movement we. I don’t necessarily mean on any particular issue or any particular bill, but overall. We have failed through lack of courage and love of comfort, by preferring accommodation to action and concession to contention. Even in “victory,” the underlying failure is visible.

As you may realize, I’m referring in that last sentence to the debate, if you can call it that, over the Protect America Act, or PAA (an appropriate acronym, one pronounced "pah", defined as an interjection “used to express disgust or irritation”). That’s the debate that saw the Really Big Victory of Senate Democrats shooting down a GOPper cloture motion designed to block any discussion of any amendments. Yes, Victory! Hooray! Cake and ice cream all around!

Except -

Except that as Glenn Greenwald rather forcibly pointed out,
[t]he only reason Democrats were able to hold their caucus together today to filibuster is because The Senators were offended that their inalienable Senatorial Right to vote on amendments was deprived by the GOP's premature Cloture Motion.
That is, this had nothing to do with concern over telcom immunity or spying on citizens or justifying criminality after the fact or any reluctance to put more and more power in BushCo.’s hands or any other reasonable or worthy cause. It was a fit of pique. If cloture had not been filed “prematurely,” Harry “I really am opposed to immunity, I swear” Reid likely would have had a quick series of up-or-down votes on various amendments which in each case majorities of Senators would happily vote down in an attempt to push through a Bush-pleasing bill as quickly as possible.

To be clear: A majority of the Senate is prepared to give the WHS* everything they want and the Democratic “leadership” is prepared to let it happen, indeed to enable it (by having made the Intelligence Committee bill instead of the Judiciary Committee bill the primary one), all so long as their egos get stroked the right way and their procedural prerogatives are not disturbed.

This is not a victory except insofar as a short stay of execution is a victory.

So, as has been asked before and I’m sure will be asked again, where is the outrage? Where is the indignation over what the Senate appears entirely prepared to do? Where is the furor over untrammeled authority to intrude, invade, and impact without oversight of any meaningful sort, over the casual intention to shield corporate criminality?

I don’t mean to denigrate the work that various people have put in on this and I don’t in any way intend to dismiss the outpouring of support for Senator Dodd’s declared intention to filibuster final passage if the bill contains telcom immunity, even less to dismiss his own efforts. (I noted here some of the contacts I made on just that point, so I would be trivializing my own efforts if I was dismissive now.) But the fact remains that in the face of the hard reality that the Senate appears entirely willing to fold yet again, there is almost no reaction, no outrage - and more importantly, no serious attempt to generate any among the “leaders” in our not-worth-the-name “movement.” And no, pushing for phone calls and email petitions is not “generating outrage.” Organizing sit-ins in the offices of Harry Reid and John Rockefeller would come a lot closer, but bluntly there is no chance the “leading” organizations - and here I specifically include those who agreed to back off on efforts to end funding for the Iraq war - would push for any such thing. Rather, they would oppose them. And in that refusal, in that opposition, is the meaning and the measure of our failure.

I see one of the purposes, one of the basic reasons for the existence, of any peace or justice movement as trying to push beyond, whether in the issues we address, the tactics we employ, or even the analysis we present, where society is already willing to go and that where government has agreements with us, our position shouldn’t be “yes,” it should be “yes, but....” We have an obligation to say the things that otherwise wouldn’t be said, to raise the issues that otherwise wouldn’t be raised, to agitate and educate in ways that otherwise wouldn’t be used for agitation and education. We have an obligation to be what others aren’t yet willing to be, to perpetually say “We can do better.” That's what we exist for. The result of that obligation, I believe, is that to the extent a peace or justice movement settles comfortably into its political surroundings, to the extent it ceases to be a creative irritant, a moral and logical gadfly, to those in power, no matter who that might be, to that extent it fails its responsibilities. And by that standard, this movement is clearly failing.

In a real sense, the essence of any peace or justice movement is to lose - not to fail, but to lose. Because once any victory is won, it’s time to move on. I recall that it was supposedly e. e. cummings who wrote something to the effect that “the wise man always fights for the lost cause, knowing that all else is merely effect.” (Completely irrelevant but interesting sidebar: There are those who argue that it should be written E. E. Cummings unless used as the signature on a poem. The folks at the E. E. Cummings Society have expended considerable effort on this point. Personally, I can't see where it's that damned important.)

I guess I imagine a movement, ideally, as cycling through four stages: In Stage One, we press our view with the public and those in power, arguing, informing, educating, gesticulating. In Stage Two, we’ve won public support and instead of pressing our case to those in power and the public, we can legitimately claim to be pressing it to those in power on behalf of the public. Stage Three, when the public has raised its own voice and those in power are responding, either willingly or, more likely, as the result of political force, should generate Stage Four - which is when the movement cycles back to Stage One either on a new issue or a more radical perspective on the same issue. But what we see now is a movement that went off the rails somewhere between Stages One and Two and instead of pressing the case to those in power, it pressed a case on behalf of those who wanted power and with whose interests it had come to identify itself - the "those" here being, as I know you realize, the Democrats.

So instead of the activist, energetic, aggressive peace and justice movement for which I feel there is a great need (both locally and nationally), we have the increasingly-jacketed-and-tied mien of movement “leaders” who think that the cause is best advanced by prowling the halls of power and seem to regard their new-found (and marginal) access there as proof of their importance and now find boisterous, blustering, disheveled, and (“Still Crazy After All These Years”) sometimes hairy demonstrations - that is, the very kinds of actions that pried open the gates of power through which they’ve passed - vaguely distasteful.

More than distasteful, in fact, just plain bad. Demonstrations have been labeled "chaotic," inefficient, pointless wastes of time, just a means of "self-expression" unrelated to effective political action. Before the 2004 Democratic convention, one top blogger wondered in all seriousness why there were going to be protests there and suggested only "the usual loonies" and "the crazies" would protest the Democrats. Demonstrations during the GOPper convention that same year were discouraged on the grounds that they would be seen as "disrespectful" of Bush. These same leading lights also discouraged the counter-inaugurals in January 2005 because "they will make us look like sore losers," thereby openly acknowledging their identification of "advancing justice" with "electing Democrats." And the September 2005 rally was denounced before the fact on the grounds that the involvement of groups like ANSWER would be "divisive" and the action would damage all efforts to do many many good things - and, bizarrely, denounced (albeit at a lower volume) after the fact on much the same grounds even though it had come off without a hitch.

All this was done in the interest of being seen as "serious," as players, as involved, as insiders. That, we've been told, is the goal, the grail, what it's all about. Let me disillusion you bozos: You are not players, you are not insiders, and contrary to your burnished self-interested image in your fund appeals, you have no power. You have been co-opted, exploited, used, turned into party hacks and shills good for another round of fundraisers and little else. You think you have power because they return your calls, but here's some news: Power is not when you call them and they call back, power is when they call you.

I have written about this before, about how too much of our "movement"
is too god damned concerned with its own image. Too god damned concerned with being "respectable," with being seen as "serious," as truly "pro-American." Too god damned concerned with politics over praxis, with positioning over protest. As a result, it has surrendered tactical decisions to the leadership of the Democratic Party and moral leadership to a crew of inside-the-Beltway wannabes both on- and offline who have mocked demonstrations and made Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi the arbiters of the acceptable limits of debate. ...

[Well,] screw "respectability." Screw "seriousness." Screw "a seat at the table." And screw right down through the floor the fear that drives us to attack and isolate our own real and potential comrades because some right wing flakes and their media hack ass-lickers call them names.
Screw, that is, the self-deluding cowardice that has throttled our voices and hamstrung our efforts. I have said this omigosh I don't know how many times but I will keep on saying it: The movement for peace and social justice in this country has been at its strongest and most influential when it has spoken the truth without giving a flying damn if anyone was “offended” or not. We didn’t build a movement against the Indochina War by harping on the “shortcomings of both sides” but by blasting it for what it was, a monstrously immoral and evil enterprise which should be stopped immediately. We didn’t build movements for civil rights, women’s equality, or a cleaner environment by worrying about how we’d be received by bigots, sexists, or greedy corporate bosses - or how we’d “look” or who we’d “turn off” if we labeled the discriminators and despoilers for what they were. And we didn't do it by worrying about how we were going to impact the electoral chances of the Democrats!

But oh, these folks did worry. They worried, they worked, and they got their Democratic Congress in on pledges to end the war and stop the undermining of our civil liberties. And now, a year-plus later, there are more US troops in Iraq, hundreds of billions of dollars more have been approved, the big claimed achievement is that the rate of death and destruction is down to the peace-filled days of 2005 (a reduction due in significant part to a cease-fire by the Sadrists and the large-scale "success" of various drives for ethnic cleansing), GOPper candidates talk openly of a decades-long occupation and Dem candidates dither and dodge over whether troops would be out by the end of their first term, four or five years down the road - all happening while we have become less secure in our freedoms as our civil liberties come under increased pressure.

Our, and I do use the term advisedly, movement is afflicted with "leaders" so eager to be part of the “mainstream” (which we’ve let the right wing define - a right wing which in turn includes much of what passes for "liberal Democrats" these days), so eager to avoid “isolation,” so eager to be seen as “serious,” so tremblingly terrified of not being seen as 110% American, of being accused of being "soft on terrorism" or "risking national security," that we’ve been ready to trade real truth for rudimentary tolerance - and in so doing have become profound failures. Jim Hightower is fond of saying that “the only things found in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.” The "leaders" of the present US peace and justice movement, again both on- and offline, appear to bear the characteristics of both.

Do I overstate? Do I ignore the energetic activism that can been seen on any number of issues in any number of local communities? Am I overlooking the individual commitment shown by folks like Ashley Casale and Michael Israel, folks like John Nirenberg, omitting the dynamism of such as Code Pink and the organizing efforts of such as United for Peace and Justice? Am I unfair? In order: Probably. Yes and yes. But no, not to those I am describing, because none of that activism, that commitment, that dynamism, that organizing, is coming as a result of those "leaders." It is coming in spite of them.

So what should you be doing? For the immediate moment on the FISA bill, probably not much beyond what you're already doing because time is so short that organizing more is at best problematical. But you could tell your reps in Congress that, as I said a few days ago, their stand on the FISA deform bill (that's spelled right) can be a deal-breaker: "Fall short on this and I will not work for you, I will not contribute to you, and I will not vote for you." You could even tell them - and mean it - that this applies if after all is said and done there are either fewer restrictions on wiretapping or less oversight than existed last summer. "Our loss of civil liberties, the attack on the Fourth Amendment in particular, has gone far enough," you could say. "Not one step further."

More to the point, for one simple thing for starters, you could join Code Pink's pledge to refuse to pay that portion of your federal income taxes going to the Iraq War (about 7% by common estimate) if by April 5, 100,000 others pledge to do the same. Since they've gotten 710 names in six weeks, that goal seems out of reach to me so if you're ready to take that step or an even bigger one, you might check out the website of the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee (NWTRCC).

And you can damn well be ready to take to the streets on March 19.

By the way, have any of the Big Blogs mentioned either of these, the tax resistance or the demonstrations? Perhaps they have, but I haven't seen it. Have any of you? And what, if I'm right about their silence, does that say?

Footnote: Just to be complete, the situation about the FISA deform bill is more complex than what happens in the Senate over the next few days. The House has passed a two-week extension of the current PAA and Senate GOPpers, again with studied disingenuousness, have agreed to the same - provided that the Senate pass a White House-approved version of the bill this week. The intention, apparently, is to push the burden on the House, which has already passed a version containing more oversight than the Bushites want (ignoring for the moment that any oversight is more than they want) and no telcom immunity. It appears to me that the calculation of the troglodytes now is that if they can stampede the Senate into a quick surrender, they can use that as leverage against the House.

You might check here to see the sort of fear-mongering the conservative creeps and cretins are peddling.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The mouse bares its teeth to the cat

The Huffington Post reported yesterday that in a speech to the National Press Club,
Majority Leader Harry Reid issued a dramatic ultimatum to President Bush: either sign an extension of the Protect America Act (which sets conditions for the administration's warrantless surveillance) or "there will be no wiretapping."
He said if Bush charged the Senate was refusing to move the bill, "it's disingenuous, and it's not true." He also blamed Senate GOPpers for blocking majority-supported amendments to the FISA "reform" bill, amendments which would improve it or more exactly make it less bad. (I said that last part, not Reid.)

So even though the bill should be killed, not amended, I'd still say good for him for showing some backbone and it's about time and hooray and all that except for one thing: We've been down this road more than once and we've always crashed into the same wall. The Dems talk tough, they say "accept this or else," they bluster and fume, but when King George says "forget it," they get red in the face, shuffle their feet, and mumble "okay."

So pardon me for being skeptical, but if once burned is twice shy, then repeatedly burned is I'm not enough of an idiot to touch that again until after its been thoroughly doused with water.

Friday, January 25, 2008

On our own? You betcha!

Something that too easily slips away in the discussion about the FISA debate is a simple but vital point: First, consider that the House bill is, overall, better than the Senate bill. But don't stop there. Assume we could take the best parts of the House bill, the best parts of the Senate Judiciary Committee bill, and the best parts (if there are any) of the Senate Intelligence Committee bill and combine them into the best bill that could possibly come out of this. That bill would still provide more power for, and less oversight of, electronic surveillance by the White House than existed last August when this whole mess started with the "temporary" FISA "reform."

Keep that in mind in whatever follows with this debate: Add a Democratic majority in the House lead by the "liberal" Nancy Pelosi to a Democratic majority in the Senate lead by the "moderate" Harry Reid and the best we can do is be somewhat worse off than we were before. The only question is how much worse.

That seems to be the pattern, at least on matters of privacy, Constitutional rights, and foreign policy, as the Dimcrats go limp like a cheap candle under a sunlamp the instant anyone in the White House mutters the words "national security" or "terrorism." what's even more frustrating, better yet infuriating, is that the Dums barely even pretend to be doing anything about it, satisfying themselves with trying to boast of toughness by refusing to give Bush every little detail he wants - that is, before they do it anyway.

Which means that when in the previous post I mentioned failures of organization, power, leadership, and nerve, I left out the most important failure, left it out because it's one that need not be demonstrated by the debate over the current FISA bill because it already has been: a failure - or rather an utter lack - of principle. Note that I said the White House so desperately wants telcom immunity in order to hide its own criminality and that the lawsuits the provision would block are "now the only practical means available" to prevent that. They are that because the real means to bring out that criminality, the real means of holding the thugs responsible for their actions, the real means of restoring Constitutional limits on the Executive Branch, that is, the I-word, has been ruled out of bounds, beyond consideration, "off the table," as recently as a few days ago:
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she’s drawing heat from fellow Democratic lawmakers as well as people across the nation for refusing to move to impeach President George W. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney. ...

But the California Democrat said she is sticking to her position that trying to remove Bush or Cheney would be divisive, and she added, most likely unsuccessful. ...

“It was my belief that an impeachment of the Vice President or the President … would be very divisive in our country, and that is what I believed then,” Pelosi said. “It should have come to no surprise when I became Speaker I said it again, and I continue to hold that view.”
Well, guess what, Nance, I don't think anyone was surprised. They just think you're driving the getaway car for the Bushites' theft of the Constitution. Or, less flippantly, by refusing to even try to hold the Shrub gang accountable for their lies, their crimes (including obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence), their declaration of virtually unlimited power to spy, to imprison, to torture, their insistence that they can (through "signing statements") exempt themselves from any law at will, their dismissal of the rightful powers of Congress (via refused testimony, ignored subpoenas, etc.), indeed their utter contempt for anything other than their own sense of entitlement to power and domination, by not even trying to hold them accountable, you are setting not just a bad but a thoroughly dangerous precedent for all future presidents who can and assuredly will justify their own power-grabs in much the same way the GOPpers initially did (until you proved by your inaction that even this excuse was unnecessary): They will take "Clinton did it" and simply substitute, with considerably greater accuracy, "Bush."

I admit I have not been terribly vocal about impeachment; it's not a subject I have returned to on a lot of occasions. Moreoever, early on I was not particularly interested in it. I saw it as a diversion, something that would soak up a lot of energy without advancing our real causes. That is, not wrong but a tactical mistake. At the same time, I was glad that there were others pushing for it because, as I said somewhere or another, I wanted the idea to be constantly bubbling in the background in case something provoked an outcry that would bring it to the fore, already primed, in the way the "Saturday night massacre" did. What changed it for me was the Downing Street memos, which were publicly-available, documented evidence of Bush, et. al., having lied in the runup to the Iraq invasion, indeed well before it in planning to make it happen. In which case, I said in May of '05,
why in the flaming hell is there no resolution of impeachment? I don't give two shits - or even one, for that matter - about "it wouldn't do any good." I don't give a damn if it has no chance! Some things you just do because they are right. Because the point is not even "can we win" but "how can we not try?" Any member of Congress - and I mean any member of Congress - who at this point is not willing to stand up and be counted is a disgrace to their office, a disgrace to their Constitutional duties, and a disgrace to this country.
But no, it was not to be, not even the attempt. It was "off the table" because, no matter the merits, no matter the facts, Bush had to be given a free pass because not being (or, more honestly, not being seen as) "divisive" was more important than maintaining the rule of law and the Constitution and because, oh the piteous whine that has become the hallmark, the interval signal, of the democrats, "we don't have the votes."

"We don't have the votes." How many times have we heard that same sad song, that same lame excuse not only for failure but for the failure to even make an attempt? We can't impeach, we don't have the votes. We can't overcome filibusters, we don't have the votes. We can't get legislation passed, we don't have the votes. And most frequently and most piteous-whiningly, we can't stop the war because we don't have the votes.

Over and over again we've heard it. Constituents of Ron Wyden (D-OR) heard it just this month. Hillary Clinton said it to the Guardian in October. That same month, Arianna Huffington quoted Henry Waxman as having shrugged it to Politico. In fact, we've heard it from almost the very start: Way back in March, less than two months after the sparkling-new Democratic Congress has opened on a pledge to end the war,
House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) berated a woman who approached him in a Congressional corridor, claiming that “idiot liberals” don’t understand the war supplemental spending bill process. ...

Asked about passing a resolution to end the war, Obey screamed that they did not have the votes.

“We don’t have the votes to pass [a resolution],” he yelled. “We couldn’t even get the votes to pass a non-binding resolution one week ago. How the hell do you think we’re going to get the votes to cut off the war?”
(Brackets in original.)

It's been the excuse for failure all along. At the first sign of resistance, the slogan changed from "holding the president to account" to "don't have the votes," the attitude went from "look out, here we come" to "pity poor us," the cheer shifted from "rah, rah" to "wah, wah." "We don't have the votes" was and remains an excuse for timidity, for cowardly refusal on the part of the misleadership to, you'll pardon the expression, bite the bullet and flatly cut off funding for the war by refusing to bring to the floor bills containing funds for it. In fact, they didn't even have to be that brave: As several people, including me, argued, Congress could pass a funding bill with enforceable restrictions and in the wake of a veto, pass the same bill again: "Hey, Mr. Prez, if you want the money, you agree to these terms. No agreement, no moolah." But even that was beyond them.

(Sidebar: The supplemental bill Obey said the "idiot liberals" didn't understand provided $100 billion for the war and set a deadline of August 31, 2008 for having most troops out. It didn't survive what I call a "gentlemen's filibuster" in the Senate, one of those Harry Reid/Mitch McConnell deals where the GOPpers declare an intent to filibuster but never actually have to do it because a cloture vote is scheduled immediately and upon first failure the measure is withdrawn. Showing its iron will in seeking an end to the carnage, the House responded by passing the cash minus the restrictions, leaving floating the question of just who really are the "idiots.")

Oh, they still like to talk tough, they still like to proclaim how much they hate the war, how much they want to end it, but the truth is they have given up even the pretense of doing anything about it. Because they "don't have the votes."

Bullshit. Of course they have the votes. If Nancy Pelosi was as stubborn about ending the war as she is about quashing impeachment, if she showed as much willingness to use muscle against the Blue Dog Democrats as she was last spring in pressuring supporters of the Lee Amendment to drop the idea, I have no doubt - zero - that she could engineer a majority to stiffly oppose funding the war. In the Senate, filibusters work both ways and it would take only 41 Senators to block any funding bill. So yes, they have the votes.

But they keep puling, keep hiding behind what Huffington quotes David Sirota as aptly calling the "Innocent Bystander Fable." Still, even fables can have their believers, and the Democratic Party caucus of the antiwar movement has bought into this one. Politico reported last week that
[a]fter a series of legislative defeats in 2007 that saw the year end with more U.S. troops in Iraq than when it began, a coalition of anti-war groups is backing away from its multimillion-dollar drive to cut funding for the war and force Congress to pass timelines for bringing U.S. troops home.

In recognition of hard political reality, the groups instead will lower their sights and push for legislation to prevent President Bush from entering into a long-term agreement with the Iraqi government that could keep significant numbers of troops in Iraq for years to come.

[John] Isaacs[, executive director of Council for a Livable World,] said he thought the meeting would be a difficult one, with an adamant faction pressing for continued focus on timelines and funding. It wasn’t to be.

“We got our heads together and decided to go a different way,” Isaacs said. “The consensus was not to keep beating our heads against the wall trying to block every funding bill - not because we don’t agree with it, but because we don’t have the votes.” [emphasis added]
(Thanks to James at The Mahatma X Files for the link.)

Among other groups present were, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, and Win Without War, and yes, this is the Democratic Party caucus of the antiwar movement: It was openly asserted by people at the meeting that the shift in focus will serve to "draw clear distinctions between anti-war Democrats and pro-war Republicans" and will help Democrats in the upcoming elections.

Which brings me to the end by bringing me back to the beginning: What has been revealed over these last months is a lack of principle. Or, I guess to be completely accurate, I should say there is a principle, but it is not a moral one or an ethical one and it does not focus on ending the war or undoing the assaults on the Constitution, on the rule of law, and on human decency. It is, rather, a political one and the principle is elect Democrats. That's what all the posturing is about. That's why the Dimcrats were willing to pass "antiwar" legislation they knew would be vetoed only to refuse to stand by it when it was: They wanted to look like they were trying to end the war without having to take any political risk to do it.

I said it in March (more than once), I said it in August, I said it in October, I will say it again now: The Democrats are not serious about ending the war, they are not serious about opposing Bush. What they are serious about is positioning for the 2008 elections and who gives a damn about the lives, American (and allied) and even more Iraqi, ruined in the meantime.

It goes beyond the war. Surely, a big reason for the failures, backtracking, and wimping out by the Dumcrats on wiretapping and similar issues is a crawling fear that ooh, some GOPper might call them bad names in the fall, so better to let Shrub run riot than risk being labeled "soft on national security." And David Swanson of (and several other outfits), writing in the November/December issue of The Humanist, after noting that polls show clear majorities of Americans favor impeachment of both Bush and Cheney (and this is, of course, before hearings that would focus attention on their offenses), writes
the Democratic leadership in Congress believes it to be of the utmost importance to keep Bush and Cheney around, the theory being that this will help Democrats in the November 2008 elections.
I'm not so sure about that, since I can't imagine that having the GOPpers being viewed as a party of crooked, reactionary, lying, slimebuckets (in short, fairly) would not be helpful to Pelosi-Reid, Inc. On the other hand, I would not be the first to have a suspicion that among the reasons that the Dummycrats have not challenged Bush with true rigor is that they actually would not mind having those same powers in the hands of one of their own and would willingly embrace the precedent when the opportunity arises - and therefore want to be very cautious about impugning it. Certainly the lack of both moral principles and ethical backbone they have shown thus far on some of the central issues of our time generates no degree of doubt on that score. And if you would still deny even the possibility, remember that this is the party that has declared impeachment is "off the table" but additional power for the Executive and additional blood money for occupation and death is very much on it and ask yourself again.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Didn't I tell you?

Didn't I? Haven't I been saying all along that we are on our own? Today's Washington Post says that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-WobblyKnees)
said he is personally opposed to granting legal protections to the communications companies, but he has designated the intelligence committee's bill as the starting point for Senate debate[, which beings today]. Given the Senate's composition, that decision means that opponents would effectively need 60 votes to strip immunity from the bill; Democratic aides concede they do not appear to have the votes to meet that threshold.
The Intelligence Committes's version of the bill includes telcom immunity; the competing Judiciary Committee version does not. Yet Reid chose to present the Intelligence Committee version, the one with the provision he "personally opposes" and which those involved expect will not be removed, with Intelligence Committee Chair John Rockefeller (D-MyBallsAreAsBigAsYourBallsReallyIMeanIt) saying his committee's version "will prevail."

The reason for the 60-vote requirement, as I expect you know but is worth mentioning if only to point out that these articles never seem to explain it, is that the GOPpers will simply threaten to filibuster any amendment to strip immunity from the bill and the Dums will immediately fold. What Reid could do in response would be to say "Fine, filibuster," schedule a cloture vote for every single day it continued and every time one failed go out (and I mean go out in front of the cameras, no "issued a statement") and say "Republicans are blocking consideration of this bill in order to protect corporate criminals."

But he won't. He won't because he and the rest of the Dimcratic "leadership" are a bunch of gutless wimps who run screaming from the mere possibility of being called "soft on terrorism" by people like "The Big" Dick Cheney, who
said in a speech yesterday that Congress "must act now" to renew the expiring surveillance law....

"Those who assist the government in tracking terrorists should not be punished with lawsuits," Cheney said at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Of course, the Dims could respond by saying "We're aware that Mr. Cheney believes that his friends in government (:cough: Scooter Libby) and among corporations (:cough: Halliburton) and most of all the White House - at least when Republicans are occupying it - should be free to ignore the law at their pleasure, but that's not the way our system of government works." The chances of that are rather less than zero - especially considering that the conscious intent of the entire bill itself is to legalize the illegal White House domestic spying program that began in 2001.

Even given all that, there is yet another way Reid could act.
Once the Senate acts, the bill would go to a conference committee that includes members of the House, which has approved a bill that lacks immunity provisions and would increase oversight of the government's spying activities. In the end, a final Senate bill is unlikely to be approved until next week, leaving little time for negotiations with House lawmakers, legislative aides said.
Reid chooses the Senate conferees. He could just pick people who oppose immunity and will agree to adopt the House language on it (and on oversight); he could even insist (with a straight face) to all and sundry that it's the White House that insists that passage of a final bill is urgently needed to "protect the nation" and he's actively cooperating with that demand by avoiding having the bill bogged down in last-minute negotiations.

Of course, the idea of Reid doing any such thing is laughable. Equally if not more laughable is the idea of his having pursued the actual best course, which would have been to not bring up the bill at all, letting it die and reverting to the old FISA law, which had its drawbacks but was clearly superior to what's being pushed now. Just how laughable that is can be seen from the fact that the Washington Post article describes Reid as
pleading with the White House for more time to consider the issue,
that is, more or less begging the Shrub gang for permission to do his damn job.

There is still Chris Dodd's threat to filibuster any version of a FISA bill which includes immunity and that effort deserves clear support. For my part, I've called both my Senators as well as Clinton's and Obama's offices and campaign HQs and told them that as far as I'm concerned, this is a deal-breaker. Fail on this and I will not work for you, I will not contribute to you, and I will not vote for you. Period. (Not that I necessarily would have anyway, but they don't know that.) There is, however, a real question of whether or not Dodd's effort can succeed: First is the fact that when Dodd did this the last time, Harry "I'm personally opposed to immunity" Reid was clearly not happy about it and I wouldn't be the least surprised if this time Dodd was told by the "leadership" (which has shown so little of it, it probably should be called the "followership") that "You've made your point, now shut up."

Indeed, last week Crooks and Liars cited Roll Call in suggesting that Dodd had become "very isolated" within the Democratic caucus, noting the magazine had quoted an unnamed "senior Democratic aide" as saying there may be "hard feelings" in the wake of Dodd's presidential campaign and these could be "a key few months for him" for reingratiating - excuse me, "reintegrating" - himself with the caucus.
For those not fluent in DC passive-aggressive speak[, Crooks and Liars said], allow me to translate the “anonymous Democratic aide” for you: “okay, we know you needed to do something to stand out from the pack during your campaign, but now you need to get in line, or you’ll find yourself at odds with your caucus.”
Or, more directly, "You've made your point, now shut up."

Second is the fact that the same Harry "I'm personally opposed, I really am!" Reid said yesterday that any filibusters would have to be the old-fashioned stand-up-and-talk kind, not the wink-and-a-nudge kind the GOPpers have been allowed to engage in. Now, in fairness, I have to note that today, Reid indicated that this applied to all such attempts - which means that a move to filibuster the Dodd-Feingold amendment, which would strip the immunity provision, would also have to be a stand-and-talk kind. That increases the chance that the amendment would pass - but it also means that should it fail, blocking the final bill is made much harder.

Again, this is, or at least should be, a deal-breaker. Failure on this, on something so basic as insisting that corporations obey the law, would be a failure not of Harry Reid or John Rockefeller or any of the rest of them as individuals, but of the Democratic Party as an institution. A failure at organizing, a failure at the use of power, a failure of leadership, a failure, ultimately, of nerve. The former pair being especially true and the latter pair especially important because the lawsuits that the telcoms face are now the only practical means available for forcing into the public sphere any details of the White House's criminality in its illegal spying operations. Which, of course, is why, beyond its natural affection for its corporate cronies, the Shrub gang is so eager for immunity: They're protecting themselves as well as the telcoms.

If Dodd does succeed, if there is some improvement, it will have happened only because one person, to the astonishment of his own party and contrary to the cynical contentions of pundits who said it was just a campaign stunt, actually decided to stand on a principle and, much more importantly, it generated a chorus of public support in the form not only of blog posts but letters, emails, petitions, and phone calls (leading to, I can say of today, some jammed phone lines and at least one staffer clearly irritated with having to field yet another call on the same topic).

Put another way, we are indeed on our own. That, however, does not mean we are powerless. Not completely, anyway.

Monday, January 21, 2008

I believe

So it seems that for the second time in a row, I have at the last minute dropped what I was intending to write about for my twice-a-week effort and started on something else. No matter; my original topic, which had to do with the uselessness of looking to the Dummycrats for salvation and my frustration with those who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, continue to do so, will keep for another time.

What prompted the change is that today, Monday, is of course Martin Luther King day. So instead of another session of grousing and griping, denouncing and decrying, I thought I would try to be positive for once, even if it required raiding some of my old writings. In my very first post here, a bit over four years ago, I referred to a conversation I'd just had with a friend in which I said
"The truth is, my hope is nearly gone. My anger is the only thing that keeps me going."

So now I have an outlet to express that anger, to discuss what I'm angry about, why I'm angry, and, in my calmer moments, to try to rediscover that hope and offer a different vision of what we as a people, a nation, a culture, might do, might be, might become.
I haven't done as much of that rediscovering as I should, at least not overtly. Still, as I said a long time ago,
[e]ven many professional grouches (like me) are actually unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the inexplicable, indefensible, yet utterly unshakable conviction that things not only can be but must be better than they are.
What's more, quoting yet another thing I wrote a long time ago and quoting as accurately as I can from memory, "our strongest, surest beliefs are those we don't even know we have until we find them within us." That is, our deepest, most abiding beliefs and commitments are not born consciously of careful philosophical argumentation and reasoned analysis but grow naturally from our root moral and ethical convictions. That argumentation, those analyses, can give form to those convictions, they can provide them with substance and weight, but they do not drive them - rather, they are driven by them.

So despite my tendency to intellectualization, to try to argue my points rationally with facts and figures and references, still it's important - for me if not for my listeners - to drop away on occasion from "here's the data, here's the logic, here's the conclusion" to the fundamental, baseline, radical place where I can say, simply, I believe.

I believe that life is our highest good and advancing life is our highest ideal. I believe whatever advances life, improves life, is an expression of that special crystal-glitter quality “human,” that self-awareness, that capacity for love, that reach for hope that separates us from other animals. I believe that which opposes life, which advances hunger, oppression, and violence, are a rejection of that quality, a rejection of our humanity. I believe that to be human is to reach for life, for our potential, to reject death and all that advances death.

I believe in family, a broad, deep sense of family, of family as based on commitment, not on ceremonies, based on ties the heart, not on ties of the blood. I believe we must reach beyond the personal to the public; beyond self to others; beyond us and them to we; beyond the individual to the community. I believe we have social obligations, moral commitments to a type of extended family that includes strangers, people who we'll never see, never meet, never have any contact with, but with who we share a mutual obligation, a mutual moral duty, a community extending even to the community of humanity.

I believe we must ultimately reject the right of so few to have so much when so many have so little, the power of so few to control so much when so many control so little. I believe in the right of every human being to a decent life free of hunger, fear, and oppression and in the duty of society to strive to guarantee that right. I believe that while we should have no desire to place a ceiling over anyone’s aspirations, we should desire to put a floor under everyone’s needs.

I believe, ultimately, in justice: not in perfection or idealized utopias, but in simple human justice, a justice that rejects the ascendancy of bombs over bread, of private greed over public good, of profits over people. A justice that centers on the preciousness of life and will fight to maintain and even expand that preciousness. A justice that embraces the economic, the social, and the political. And finally, I believe in the indivisibility of that justice: It must be justice for “them” as well as for “us,” for enemy the same as for friend, or it’s not justice at all but mere favoritism.

As for the application of all that, I'll quote a speech I gave when I ran for Congress - again, it was some years back.
Now I may sound like a philosopher, but the fact is that what I’m interested in is change: not slogans, not philosophies, but getting-the-job-done type change. That means being hard-nosed, practical, and factual in our programs. It was the Italian pacifist Danilo Dolci who said “Faith does not move mountains. Work, exacting work, moves mountains.”

But when I say “practical,” I don’t mean practical in the sense of the neoliberals, those people who lower their sights, harden their hearts, darken their vision, and then congratulate themselves on their “realism.” No, I mean something different. You know the saying “I dream dreams of things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’” What we have to do is dream dreams of things that never were and ask “How?” How? What are the practical steps we can take right now, today? We have to approach the world with steel in our eyes.

But at the same time we can’t let the steel in our eyes cloud the dream in our hearts. We have to hold to the vision of what we as a people, what we as a nation, can do, what we can be, and not settle, as so many do, for the mere hope that it will get no worse. So that’s what I call on you to be: steely-eyed dreamers, people who know the hard, factual work to be done but never forget just where that work is supposed to take them.
In that same speech I said that achieving wide-ranging justice "will not be easy, cheap, or convenient - but it is possible" and pledged I would never give up on that dream.

In the years since I've tried to be a steely-eyed dreamer with varying degrees of success; as I said in a different way at the top, usually it was if anything a little long on the steel and a little short on the dream, a position that makes unnecessary compromise a little too easy and risk a little too - well, risky.

I've come to a point in my life when I've begun to slow down; I know it, I can feel it. I haven't spent as much time on the streets as I did in earlier years (nor as much as I'd like to) and my energy level simply isn't what it was. I find it harder to keep my spirits up and many discouraged days I don't regret that I won't live to experience the world I see coming at such times.

But goddam it, despite it all, despite all logic, despite a mountain of evidence, and without any good damn reason, I still believe that things can be, must be, better than they are, that it is possible. I just do. And will.

And the beat goes on

The US is certainly not the only nation that has databases of citizens and others. In fact, the UK is worse in that regard and several European countries gather a lot of data. At the same time, though, those countries tend to have much better privacy protection, so it's a mixed bag. But like all such databases, the bigger they are, the more information they sweep up, the bigger a threat to privacy they become. And we're about to create a doozy. The Guardian (UK) had the word last week:
Senior British police officials are talking to the FBI about an international database to hunt for major criminals and terrorists.

The US-initiated programme, "Server in the Sky", would take cooperation between the police forces way beyond the current faxing of fingerprints across the Atlantic. Allies in the "war against terror" - the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - have formed a working group, the International Information Consortium, to plan their strategy.

Biometric measurements, irises or palm prints as well as fingerprints, and other personal information are likely to be exchanged across the network. ... The database could hold details of millions of criminals and suspects. ...

The FBI told the Guardian: "Server in the Sky is an FBI initiative designed to foster the advanced search and exchange of biometric information on a global scale. While it is currently in the concept and design stages, once complete it will provide a technical forum for member nations to submit biometric search requests to other nations. It will maintain a core holding of the world's 'worst of the worst' individuals. Any identifications of these people will be sent as a priority message to the requesting nation."
"Worst of the worst?" Wasn't that what the prisoners at Guantanamo were, according to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumplestiltskin? Yeah, that was them, the prisoners at Guantanamo - half of who have been released and 90% of who ultimately will be, say US officials. That hardly inspires confidence in this latest list, particularly when the current database used by Customs and Border Protection to screen passangers has generated a 95% false hit rate and no terrorism-related arrests. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic,
the UK database [holds] 7m sets of fingerprints and other biometric details used by police forces to search for matches from scenes of crimes. Many of the prints are either from a person with no criminal record, or have yet to be matched to a named individual.
Yes, I feel much safer now.

By the way, the other day I said that
[c]ertainly its easy to understand how, say, something done openly on the street would not be considered "private" in a legal sense.
I want to emphasize that that was, again, in a legal sense. While it may be legal to observe and record whatever you do in public, the increasing use of spy cameras are a threat to our cultural sense of privacy, the sense that even in public there is a certain field of privacy, of anonymity, around you unless you actively draw attention to yourself. Losing that sense of anonymity, creating a sense that you are being watched all the time, can be very intimidating and inhibiting to free expression and even, through that, to expressing freedom.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Oh, and another thing

Just a few quick reminders pulled from my files that invasions of personal privacy come in a variety of forms and the perpetrators are not always agents of the federal government.

- From the LA Times for last July 29:
Looking for new ways to trim the fat and boost workers' health, some employers are starting to make overweight employees pay if they don't slim down. ...

Starting in 2009, Clarian Health Partners[, an Indiana-based hospital chain,] will charge employees as much as $30 every two weeks unless they meet weight, cholesterol and blood-pressure guidelines that the company deems healthy. ...

Critics of the lose-it-or-pay trend say that companies that charge overweight employees more for their medical coverage are turning the healthcare system into a police state and, just as worrisome, are working off of a false assumption that it's easy for people who are obese and have other health issues to change their situations.

According to a 2005 Stanford University study, obese people with health coverage may already be punished on the job. Those surveyed were paid an average of $1.20 less per hour than non-obese workers, perhaps because employers intentionally adjust their wages to account for healthcare costs.
Oh, please. The existence of
[c]lear and consistent stigmatization, and in some cases discrimination, [against obese people] can be documented in three important areas of living: employment, education, and health care....
In fact, it's reasonably safe to say that
[o]besity is one of the last forms of "acceptable discrimination." We have all probably been witness to people who find themselves the target of jokes or discrimination in a variety of settings,
including on supposedly "progressive" blogs: Just consider, for example, the frequency of fat jokes about Rush Limbaugh and Jonah Goldberg, as if it was their appearance that undermined their ideas, rather than the inherent inanity of them. So I do not imagine for a single moment that the pay differential is the result of some kind of conscious decision to adjust for health insurance costs rather than simple bias.

But getting back to the main point, this business of penalizing people based on health care statistics is a clear affront to personal privacy and to worker dignity. It treats employees like serfs on a feudal estate, whose entire lives, not just their worktime, are subject to the demands and requirements of the lord of the manor.

- From for January 3:
If you've signed up to receive e-mails from Sears, and then clicked on to join the retailer's "My SHC Community," it's likely you've been providing more information to more people than you thought. Even more troubling, it turns out that you're not just sharing information with Sears, but also with a company called comScore, which tracks and aggregates Internet browsing habits.
Installing the software also installs spyware called VoiceFive, which provides data to Comscore, which tracks the web activity of potentially millions of users, few of who know it's even happening. What's more, notes, in order to sign up for the Sears program, you must agree to a privacy statement which has this buried in the middle:
Once you install our application, it monitors all of the Internet behavior that occurs on the computer on which you install the application, including both your normal web browsing and the activity that you undertake during secure sessions, such as filling a shopping basket, completing an application form or checking your online accounts, which may include personal financial or health information. calls that statement "scary," which seems if anything an understatement since it essentially empowers Sears to gather and record everything you do online, including any information you provide to or access from any site anywhere on the Web. No wonder the provision is well-hidden. Maybe a little too well-hidden, in fact: says that according to BetaNews, it may run afoul of
FTC regulations that require companies to make such spyware inclusion very clearly apparent. Many would agree that burying it in the middle of a multi-page privacy statement doesn't do much for clarity.
I can certainly go with that. One of my major sources of frustration is reading so-called "privacy notices" only to discover they are chock full of loopholes and exceptions that render them for all practical purposes meaningless. Three of my favorites are:

- pledging to share "your important personal data" only with other companies that "pledge" to keep it as confidential as the original company but giving no hint that there could or would be any sanctions against those other companies if they broke that pledge nor how the original company would know if they did;

- stating information would be released upon "lawful request" - not, please note, subpoena, but request - of any law enforcement agency; and, my real favorite,

- assuring you that your information will not be released except under such-and-such circumstances "or as otherwise permitted by law," thereby authorizing the company to use your personal information in any way in any way it wants, for any reason it wants, and release it to anyone it wants, unless that particular use is specifically illegal - that is, the "guarantee" comes down to "we won't break the law, we promise."

- From AFP for January 8:
Four Texas teens were suspended from school Tuesday for refusing to get their hair cut over the Christmas break, school officials said.

The students had been warned that the district was cracking down on dress code violators after they repeatedly let their locks loose on school grounds.

"Our policy states that the hair (on male students) cannot extend beyond the collar in the back," said Kevin Stanford, superintendent of the Kerens Independent School District. ...

Students at Kerens high school are also prohibited from wearing sleeveless shirts, excessively tight or baggy pants, mismatched socks, "disruptive hair styles" and "unnatural" hair colors, according to an 86-page student handbook.

"The Kerens ISD dress code promotes the effective personal presentation skills which contribute significantly to successful living in adult society," the handbook explained. "The district's dress code is established to teach hygiene, instill discipline, prevent disruption, avoid safety hazards, and teach respect for authority."
In short, beyond the assertion that having long hair or baggy pants is inherently dirtier than other fashions, the purpose of the dress code is to teach kids how to just shut up, do what they're told, and be just like everyone else - this being the secret to "successful living in adult society." I had thought this kind of crap had been dealt with decades ago. Apparently, Texas is thirty years behind the rest of the country in a lot more ways that one.

Footnote to the preceding

Updated Something I wanted to include but which didn't comfortably fit. RFID (Radio Frequency ID) chips, known as "tags," are tiny computer chips containing information about whatever it is they're attached to. There are two sorts: One is a passive kind that reacts to a scanner by emitting its information, using power provided by the scanning beam. The active, or "always-on," type has its own power source and broadcasts the information, enabling the scanner to be further away.

All US passports issued after January 1, 2008 contain always-on RFID chips. These chips contain information about you and what's on your passport. A few years ago, when this was first being pushed, I quoted security expert Bruce Schneier, who wrote:
Think about what that means for a minute. It means that passport holders are continuously broadcasting their name, nationality, age, address and whatever else is on the RFID chip. It means that anyone with a reader can learn that information, without the passport holder's knowledge or consent. It means that pickpockets, kidnappers and terrorists can easily--and surreptitiously--pick Americans or nationals of other participating countries out of a crowd.

In tests, RFID chips have been read by receivers 20 meters away.
What's more, as the folks at Ars Technica noted back in March 2006, contrary to the prevailing assumption, the chips are potentially vulnerable to viruses. A research team had developed a method which used a maliciously-designed tag, which infected a scanner that read it. The scanner then infects other tags.

So whether the use of such chips in passports is an outgrowth of a sinister Big Brother plan or simple incompetence intended to make it easier for a customs agent to read a passport's RFID without having to bother making sure it's close to the scanner, this still seems like a really, really bad idea.

Fortunately, the tags being used in passports are an improvement over those originally proposed: The info on the tag is encrypted and because of shielding, the tag can't be read if the passport is closed. While that reduces the risk of your information being stolen, it does not eliminate it and in fact undermines the very basis for the tags as opposed to a smart-card system, where there is direct contact between the tag and the reader (as, for example, when you swipe a credit card): The tags were supposed to speed processing by allowing passports to just be waved at a scanner, but if each passport now must be individually opened and the data decrypted, it's hard to see the gain.

If broadcasting your personal info disturbs you, there is something you can do about it, says Wired from a year ago:
1) RFID-tagged passports have a distinctive logo on the front cover; the chip is embedded in the back.

2) Sorry, “accidentally” leaving your passport in the jeans you just put in the washer won’t work. You’re more likely to ruin the passport itself than the chip.

3) Forget about nuking it in the microwave – the chip could burst into flames, leaving telltale scorch marks. Besides, have you ever smelled burnt passport?

4) The best approach? Hammer time. Hitting the chip with a blunt, hard object should disable it. A nonworking RFID doesn’t invalidate the passport, so you can still use it.
On the other hand, messing with a passport carries a penalty of up to 25 years in prison. If you find that a deterrent, a better choice might be to investigate the RFID Guardian Project, which is working on a system where the tags wouldn't work unless turned on by the passport holder. You might also want to check out the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and its page on RFID to keep up with news about the wider privacy implications of RFIDs as used by the government and, much more widely, by private corporations.

Updated to correct numerous typos, grammatical errors, and unclear passages. It seems I was a lot more tired than I realized when I wrote this.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Updated Some years ago, the job that I had involved doing historical research. As part of that, I came across a description of a court case which took place in colonial times in which a woman was accused of being a prostitute. The main witness against her was a neighbor who claimed to have seen on various occasions men entering the woman's house in the evening. So one time, observing an unaccompanied man enter the house, the neighbor went to the woman's window, opened her shutters, and looked in - where, she testified, she saw the two of them getting it on.

What struck me at the time was how no one involved in the case, including the person doing the contemporary description, saw anything odd, questionable, or even unusual about one neighbor just going to another neighbor's house and opening their shutters to look inside to see what they were doing. The concept of privacy just didn't seem to enter the discussion.

Our concepts of privacy and its proper reach have shifted and bubbled dramatically over the years, not always moving in the same direction but overall, for a long time, the slow, grudging trend was to greater privacy, to more respect for personal space not subject to intrusion of uninvited outsiders, including the government. However, the modern, legal concept of privacy is in historical terms quite recent. An essay written in 1997 by a consulting attorney says that
the right of privacy has only recently received legal recognition and is still an evolving area of law. It is generally agreed that the first publication advocating privacy was the article by Warren and Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harvard L.R. 193 (1890). However, the codification of principles of privacy law waited until Prosser, Privacy, 48 Cal.L.Rev. 383 (1960), which Prosser subsequently entered into the Second Restatement of Torts at §§ 652A-652I (1977).
Still, recent though it may have been, a point had been reached when the idea of "the right to be left alone" was common currency in our legal system. As former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas pointedly noted, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedoms."

However, the reason I emphasized the "legal concept of privacy" is that the legal understanding differs, in some ways dramatically, from our social or cultural understanding. Most people are astonished to realize just how little legal privacy they actually have and how thin are the protections against its invasion by government agents or corporate entities.

For example, while the idea of "the right to be left alone" was gaining ground, the concept of areas with "no expectation of privacy" was also becoming common currency. Certainly its easy to understand how, say, something done openly on the street would not be considered "private" in a legal sense. But the legal meaning of the term actually is far wider: As long ago as 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in any information disclosed to a third party, i.e., anyone beyond you and the government agency that wants the info. That is, the Court has said that in the absence of a specific law declaring otherwise, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in your bank records: Because the bank knows how much you deposited when and what checks you wrote, the government can, too. No privacy in your phone records: If the phone company knows who you called and who called you, so can the government. In your driving records. Potentially, even your health records, although the government's record of getting access to those is mixed because of the strong tradition of doctor-patient confidentiality even in the absence of a specific law. Theoretically, even a sealed private letter is unsafe: As soon as the recipient reads it, the information in it has been "disclosed" and is therefore subject to government examination.

Related to this is how the Fourth Amendment has been subjected to a death by a thousand cuts in the federal courts over the past couple of decades, usually, where not done by simply declaring there was no privacy to protect, by labeling the intrusion, as they did in the case of Larry Hiibel, "insignificant" and therefore not worthy of concern. The problem is, each "insignificant" intrusion became the new base, inviting another "insignificant" intrusion reaching beyond that one, and so on.

As for the former, that is, cases of "no privacy," two recent examples show just how far down the slippery slope we have gone. One is a Supreme Court decision from 2005. I posted on the case three times; this summary is from one of those posts:
In 1998, Roy Caballes was stopped by Illinois state police for going 71mph in a 65mph zone. After he refused to allow a search of his car, another trooper showed up with a drug-sniffing dog, which indicated contraband was in the trunk. A search revealed a quantity of marijuana, leading Caballes to be sentenced to 12 years in prison and a $256,000 fine.

He claimed the search based on the "sniff" was illegal and in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court rejected the argument but the state Supreme Court reversed on the grounds that the involvement of the dog improperly changed the nature of the situation from a routine traffic stop to a drug investigation.
But the US Supreme Court re-reversed, finding that no, the use of the dog doesn't change anything, it's just fine, there was no privacy violated, nothing unreasonable done.

What was the basis for the conclusion? According to the majority opinion, written by the supposedly liberal John Paul Stevens, Caballes did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy for contraband in the trunk of his car. He said that was different from the expectation that information about perfectly lawful activity will remain private.

In other words, the Court ruled that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment because something was found - it was, essentially, justified after the fact. If so, what is to stop police from just randomly stopping people to search them or their cars? Even from entering their houses to search? If anything illegal is found, its presence stripped away their "expectation of privacy," so the search was not improper. And if nothing is found, what is the recourse? Sue the cops? In what higher dimension? It really needs to be asked if in light of that decision, the Fourth Amendment still exists in any practical sense.

The other example involves a case reported on earlier this month by the International Herald Tribune, in which it appears that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is about to rule that a computer's hard drive is "just a container" and its contents can be examined and inspected at will by customs officers when you are entering the country.
Rummaging through a computer's hard drive, the government says, is no different than looking through a suitcase. ...

The three judges who heard the arguments in October in the appeal of his decision seemed persuaded that a computer ... deserves no special protection from searches at the border. The same information in hard-copy form, their questions suggested, would doubtless be subject to search.
Yeah, and, as the saying goes, if your grandmother had wheels, she's be a wagon. The information on a computer is not in hard copy form and it is a thoroughly bogus argument to say in essence that if it was something other than it is, things would be different than they are so therefore things are different than they are. Consider that hard copy for a moment, copy that required an extra, conscious step to produce: Suppose it was in code. Could the feds demand it be decoded on the grounds that if it wasn't in code, it could easily be read? Why not? What if the information on the computer is encrypted?

What if there's a sealed personal letter in your luggage? Can it be opened and read by one and all at customs because an envelope is "just a container?" Why not?

The IHT article states that
the law requires a little more - a "reasonable suspicion" - when the search is especially invasive, as when the human body is involved.
But, based on the logic employed here, again I have to ask why? Why should there be a distinction? Why can't the body be considered "just a container?" The case arose because a customs agent allegedly found child pornography on the computer of one Michael Arnold when he arrived a LA International a couple of years ago.
Judge Dean Pregerson of U.S. District Court in Los Angeles suppressed the evidence against Arnold.

"Electronic storage devices function as an extension of our own memory," Judge Pregerson wrote, in explaining why the government should not be allowed to inspect them without cause. "They are capable of storing our thoughts, ranging from the most whimsical to the most profound."

Computer hard drives can include, Judge Pregerson continued, diaries, letters, medical information, financial records, trade secrets, attorney-client materials and ... information about reporters' "confidential sources and story leads."
It is Judge Pregerson's decision that the Ninth Circuit seems poised to overturn. Why is it that our memories, our private thoughts, plans, records, all sorts of parts of our lives, are fair game, why is it that the privacy of our minds can be pierced and probed at will for no reason beyond random chance or idle curiosity but suddenly officialdom gets all gooey at the privacy of our bodies? Which, frankly, is another way of asking how much longer do you think this separation will be maintained?

Reactions to the case lead me to another concern:
An interesting supporting brief filed in the Arnold case by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives and the Electronic Frontier Foundation said there have to be some limits on the government's ability to acquire information.

"Under the government's reasoning," the brief said, "border authorities could systematically collect all of the information contained on every laptop computer, BlackBerry and other electronic device carried across our national borders by every traveler, American or foreign." That is, the brief said, "simply electronic surveillance after the fact."
My concern here is not only with the "electronic surveillance after the fact" but the essentially permanent storage of that information in massive databases of personal data being established and pushed outward by government at all levels from local to federal.

This drive is not new: In the fall of 1995 - during the administration of St. Bill - there was a move (which gathered support from some liberals) to create a massive database of all persons eligible for employment in the United States, created by combining records of the Social Security Administration and the INS. Employers would be required to call a number and provide the name and Social Security number of any potential employee to confirm they are “legal” before they could be hired. The excuse at the time was illegal immigration, and in pursuit of an "answer" to that "problem," members of both parties in both houses of Congress were advocating creation of a national identity card based on Social Security number, a number that would be issued at birth and you would have to have in order not only to work, but to get a driver’s license, go to school, take part in any federal program, get married, and perform a host of other normal social actions; a single number, that is, that could trace you through your entire life from birth to death.

After 9/11, the ground shifted and it became all about "terrorism." The attitude didn't change, the Big Brother response didn't change, the smarmy "It's for your own good" reassurances didn't change, only the excuse did. More simply, the claims changed, the drive for power and control did not.

Now, however, what's being pushed is not, if you will, a de jure national ID card but a de facto one. The program is called Real ID and again, it's something I've posted on a few times. Passed in 2005 with no review, no hearings, and no debate, Real ID would require every state to adopt a federally-approved driver's license and link all their databases containing all of their information on drivers in their state with each other and with the feds. Failure to comply would mean that state's driver's licenses could not be used as identification for any federal purpose, including obtaining federal benefits, getting on an airplane, and even entering a federal courthouse.

Fortunately, the proposal aroused opposition across the political spectrum and generated anger in a number of state legislatures. So far, 17 states have passed legislation or resolutions opposing Real ID - often, though not always, because of the high cost involved. So the feds are turning up the heat, suggesting chaos at airports if states don't meet the initial deadline of this coming May. AP reports:
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who was unveiling final details of the REAL ID Act's rules on Friday, said that if states want their licenses to remain valid for air travel after May 2008, those states must seek a waiver indicating they want more time to comply with the legislation.

Chertoff said that for any state which doesn't seek such a waiver by May, residents of that state will have to use a passport or certain types of federal border-crossing cards if they want to avoid a vigorous secondary screening at airport security.
But opponents scoffed at the idea.
"Are they really prepared to shut those airports down? Which is what effectively would happen if the residents of those states are going to have to go through secondary scrutiny," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program. "This is a scare tactic."
In the face of the resistance, the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland has repeatedly pushed back deadlines and stretched out entry requirements, with the deadline for states to be in compliance now in 2011 and full requirements for all Americans not coming into effect until 2017, all in an effort to get the thing moving. Still and happily, opposition seems to be growing, not shrinking.

All of these programs, of course, are being pitched as necessary to "protect" us. But it's easy to wonder just who and what it is that's being protected, since the net effect of the programs, the intrusions, the limitations on privacy, the slices taken out of the Fourth Amendment, is to reduce the populace to a childlike state, passively accepting direction from, and blindly trusting in, daddy and mommy but especially daddy.

That's why the programs are being sold through a combination of fear and "for your own convenience" - because despite any claims, that drive for a native version of a Ministry of Information containing as much information as possible about as many of us as possible can't possibly be based on its efficacy at protection of the public. Its own record condemns it. For example, last August Raw Story cited a story from the Washington Post saying that
[t]he government's terrorist screening database flagged Americans and foreigners as suspected terrorists almost 20,000 times last year. But only a small fraction of those questioned were arrested or denied entry into the United States, raising concerns among critics about privacy and the list's effectiveness. ...

Slightly more than half of the 20,000 encounters last year were logged by Customs and Border Protection officers, who turned back or handed over to authorities 550 people, most of them foreigners, Customs officials said. FBI and other officials said that they could not provide data on the number of people arrested or denied entry for the other half of the database hits. FBI officials indicated that the number of arrests was small.
Ten thousand encounters leading to 550 referrals is a false hit rate of at least 94.5%. And it would even be that good only if every one of those referrals lead to an arrest or a denial of entry, an very unlikely situation in light of the "small" number of arrests and the unwillingness of the FBI to make any grander claims. That is only slightly better than the brandy-newy airline-passenger-screening SPOT program, which by the use of advanced scientific techniques of behavior observation, has managed to chalk up a false hit rate of at least 99% without making a single terrorism-related arrest.

But that doesn't matter, no siree. The databases and such are still "powerful tools for identifying and tracking suspected terrorists," you betcha. The real problem, we're told, is that the ability to spy doesn't yet go far enough. How much further do they want to go? The sky's the limit - or, more appropriately here, the ether.

It seems that spychief Mike McConnell wants to protect us from terrorist threats in and through cyberspace and has proposed a Cyber-Security Policy, one that he expects, in what's sure to be an understatement, to be "unpopular." Paul Kiel at TPMMuckraker quotes an article in the current New Yorker based on interviews with McConnell:
In order for cyberspace to be policed, Internet activity will have to be closely monitored. Ed Giorgio, who is working with McConnell on the plan, said that would mean giving the government the authority to examine the content of any e-mail, file transfer, or Web search. "Google has records that could help in a cyber-investigation," he said. Giorgio warned me, "We have a saying in this business: 'Privacy and security are a zero-sum game.'"
Kiel says when the story first broke, it looked like the plan was almost finished - but then House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) demanded to review it and it apparently has stalled. Wall Street Journal reporter Siobhan Gorman, who broke the story while at the Baltimore Sun, wrote in his WSJ blog that
[p]art of the lawmakers’ ire, [congressional aides] have said, is the paltry information the administration has provided. ... [S]ome congressional aides say that lawmakers have still learned more from the media than they did from the few Top Secret briefings they have received hours before the administration requested money in November to jump start the program.
One time, it seems, when the penchant from secrecy among the WHS* works for the good. But don't expect them to give up on this, as McConnell is still throwing fear-bombs: "My prediction is that we're going to screw around with this until something horrendous happens."

So even though some of the drive for an all-seeing eye has gotten caught in the mire, it is by no means the end. Because as Henry Drummond said, "fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy, and needs feeding."

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Updated to add the links to the Larry Hiibel case and the "all-seeing eye."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Noted in passing

Even though I have not been following the primaries in any detail, I had thought I might watch the Democratic debate tonight, just for the heck of it.

Forget it.

I expect you know the story: MSNBC made a corporate decision to change one of the criteria for inclusion in the debate from being among the top four nationally to being among to top three. The result of what was essentially a last-minute move was to exclude Dennis Kucinich from the debate after having already invited him and receiving his acceptance.

Kucinich sued on grounds of breach of contract and won in lower court. MSNBC, after first appearing to shrug its shoulders, changed its mind (again) and appealed. Just 15 minutes before the debate was to start, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed and Dennis was gone.

Now, as I understand it, the underlying legal issue revolved around what constituted an enforceable contract under Nevada law. So in legal terms, the court's decision may have been entirely correct.

In ethical terms, MSNBC's decision sucked royally.

But the reason for this post is to offer a quick speculation as to why this happened. MSNBC claimed, feebly but unsurprisingly, that it made the change and went to court to enforce it because it would "better serve the public" to focus on the top three candidates. But that situation of there being a Clinton-Obama-Edwards troika and then "some other guys" had existed for months. So why now? What changed now?

My suspicion is that until almost the last minute, MSNBC brass thought the fourth for bridge would be Bill Richardson. Now, while Richardson does hold some reasonably liberal views, particularly on the environment, and was clearly better than the troika on the war, he is still basically an establishment candidate with establishment credentials in a way that Dennis Kucinich clearly is not.

When Richardson dropped out, that made Kucinich the fourth-place candidate by default. Initially, network staff proceeded with the plan as set down and invited him. But after he accepted, the fact registered on network honchos who made the determination that there was no way they were going to let him on that stage.

I'm not suggesting that the network is "terrified" of Kucinich or any such nonsense; I'm suggesting that a corporate decision was made to exclude non-establishment voices. After all, if the original requirement had been to be among the top three, I expect there would have been a lot of grousing but the issue really never would have arisen.

When Kucinich accepted the invitation, corporate brass could have said. "Oops. Oh, well."

When the lower court ruled in Kucinich's favor, corporate brass could have shrugged their shoulders and said "Hey, BFD."

But they didn't. Instead they changed the rules at, again, essentially the last minute and fought in court to keep it that way. It's easy to see why it was so important to Kucinich to get in the debate. It's harder but more important to see why it was so important to MSNBC to keep him out.

Numbers as numbers

This is going to be less analytical than I wanted, in fact it's not even what I had planned to write about, but the truth is I'm still sick and I'm afraid the dark cloud is readying another assault. So much for my good intentions to have a solid piece here to be read on Tuesday. I'm off to a great start.

Still, there is something I want to say.

Last week, the results of the latest household survey of Iraq were released. And, like everything else about our war, it provoked argument.

Performed by the Ministry of Health and the Central Office of Statistics in Iraq with technical assistance provided by the World Health Organization and funding by the UN, the major finding was that 151,000 Iraqis died from violence between the beginning of the invasion and June 2006.
The estimate[, WHO said in a press release,] is based on interviews conducted in 9345 households in nearly 1000 neighbourhoods and villages across Iraq. The researchers emphasize that despite the large size of the study, the uncertainty inherent in calculating such estimates led them to conclude [with 95% confidence] that the number of Iraqis who died from violence during that period lies between 104 000 and 223 000.
Despite the fact that it was the largest, most widespread household survey to date of Iraqi deaths, it was met with considerable skepticism in some quarters of the progressive blogosphere. Some groused about the fact that Iraqi government was involved; that, it was said, automatically made the figures more than suspect. And in fact, as AP noted, the new figure
closely mirrors the tally Iraq's health minister gave in late 2006, based on 100 bodies a day arriving at morgues and hospitals.
Actually, it's about 20% higher than that rate and that figure was considered shocking at the time because it was so much higher than earlier official estimates, but still, not that far off, and that agreement with an earlier claim by a government official raised some eyebrows. Others looked with narrowed eyes at the fact that
[m]ore than 100 neighborhoods, mostly in Baghdad and Anbar, could not be visited for safety reasons. So researchers estimated deaths in those areas by using a formula based on information from another group that tallies fatalities, the British-based Iraq Body Count.
Because IBC uses a very conservative method, counting only non-combatant deaths confirmed by at least two news accounts, various folks on the left dismiss it, some even charging that the group deliberately underplays the numbers in order to make the war seem, in the words of one, "a humane occupation." One blogger rejected the group's numbers as "discredited."

But ultimately, the objections were not about arcane points of methodology or the use of IBC figures. (Sidebar: The criticisms often read as though people thought the Iraqi/WHO survey simply used the IBC numbers for the areas the surveyors didn't dare go. If so, that's incorrect, since the study used "a formula based on" that data, which pretty clearly establishes the totals were extrapolated from IBC, not copied from it.) The objections were about one fact and one fact only:
The number reported by this survey is considerably below the 2006 Johns Hopkins survey which covered much the same period and reported 600,000 deaths by violence.
That's it. That was the actual concern. The new numbers just weren't big enough.

Now, there are reasons to suspect that the new numbers undercount the actual total. For example, NPR quotes study co-author Dr. Ties Boerma, Director of Measurement and Health Information Systems at WHO. The figures
"don't include car accidents and they don't include unintentional injuries," says Boerma. "They just include intentional injuries and armed conflict. In fact, the armed conflict deaths are more than 80 percent of the deaths we got reported."

Researchers left it up to the respondents to define the cause of death,
opening up the possibility of families not reporting some deaths because they thought of them as accidents. But that wasn't the problem.

AP notes that
many deaths go unreported in the chaos that has gripped the country, or the numbers may be tainted by sectarian bias. ... Muslim burial traditions add to difficulties - many families are believed to simply bury loved ones before sundown on the day of death without ever reporting the fatality.
But that wasn't the problem.

There is suspicion of the central government. Les Roberts, co-author of the Johns Hopkins study, suspects that lead families to be reluctant to admit a family member died violently. But that wasn't the problem.

A large number of Iraqis have fled the country and any violent deaths suffered within their families obviously would not be counted here. But that wasn't the problem, either. None of that was the problem, indeed couldn't be, because most of those doubts would have applied to any household survey.

No, the problem, again, the real problem, the core concern driving the doubts among progressive and liberal bloggers, was that the number reported by the Iraqi/WHO survey was considerably smaller than the one the reported by the Johns Hopkins survey.

That was the problem: a smaller and so, I gather, seemingly less politically-useful number.

And oh my word, doesn't it make my soul hurt.

Who the fuck cares? Suppose the death toll is "only" 150,000 instead of 600,000. So what? Is that supposed to matter, to make a difference, to justify any of the madness, mayhem, and murder?

I don't care which estimate is the most accurate. I don't! I don't care if it's 600,000, "only" (only??) 150,00, or even 84,000 (midpoint of the IBC range). I really do not care.

Isn't even that lowest figure horrifying enough? Aren't 84,000 dead humans important enough for our outrage? Do the dead in Iraq, coming so fast that there would seem barely enough time to mourn them, matter to us only as political talking points?

Yes, the IBC number, by definition, is a subset of the whole, yes, clearly the actual death toll is higher, probably considerably so. But even at that and maybe even because of that, isn't it enough? It's 48 non-combatant Iraqis killed a day, every day, since we invaded. It's a 9/11 for innocents every nine weeks for nearly five years.

Why are we even getting into these pissing contests about methodologies and universes and confidence levels? Why do we seem to find it necessary to maximize the devastation? It's said that one death is a tragedy, 50 deaths is a horror, and 5,000 deaths is a statistic. Is that all the Iraqis have become to us? Statistics for scoring political points?

I say, let the statisticians argue it out. Because I don't care. Because the fact is, even the lowest estimates can't wash the rivers of blood from our hands. Because while it'd be good to know the truth of the numbers, whatever they are, the truth of the war does not depend on them.

Meanwhile, as we look to score our political points and pore over our Clinbama polls, that war continues with our passive support.

Yes, our support. After all, we still pay our taxes for the Pentagon.

Candidates who actually would stop the war remain in single digits.

The walls of Congress and the White House still stand in the notable absence of hundreds of thousands, millions, of bodies pressing on them. (I'm reminded of the story that during Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson once rejected a Pentagon request for more troops to escalate the war by asking the brass to calculate how long it would take 100,000 angry Americans to "climb the White House wall and lynch their president.")

The convoys, the deployments and re-deployments and re-re-deployments, continue unhampered and unimpeded by people standing in the roads, sitting on the railways, to block their way.

Business goes on, that is, pretty much as usual here. And death goes on, pretty much as usual, in Iraq.

Few - very few - of us have actually done what we can to stop the war. Not what we comfortably can, not what we conveniently can, what we actually can. Our guilt as war opponents may be less, but we are not guiltless. The blood stains may not be as deep, but they are there.

How many have to die before it engages our moral rather than merely our political outrage?

Footnote: The Iraqi/WHO survey report, in .pdf format, is at this link.
// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');