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Entries for December 2010

December 31, 2010

Casino Jack

A scene from the new film Casino Jack about lobbyist Jack Abramov, in which the filmmakers cleverly use a moment's fantasizing by the title character to reveal the real corruption in government. Too bad it doesn't happen in real life.

Kevin Spacey is a wonderful actor and although I haven't seen the film, I hope that after a long time he has a role worthy of him. Here's the trailer.

Color changing card trick

(via Machine Like Us.)

What we have learned, and may yet learn, from WikiLeaks

In all the fuss over WikiLeaks, what people seem to be ignoring (and this distortion has to be deliberate on the part of the mainstream media and the governments who must know better) is that (1) only a tiny fraction (about 1%) of the 251,287 cables have been released so far (the WikiLeaks website keeps a running total); (2) rather than being 'indiscriminately dumped' by WikiLeaks (as its critics are fond of saying), the cables are being vetted by mainstream media outlets in England (The Guardian), Germany (Der Spiegel), France (Le Monde), Spain (El Pais), and the US (The New York Times), though that last paper was not given access directly and instead had to beg The Guardian for them. As far as I can tell, the cables available on the WikiLeaks site are the ones that these publications have revealed.

So the charges that WikiLeaks is some kind of rogue organization that does things that no 'responsible' media (whatever that means) would do, that Assange is not a 'real' journalist, and that WikiLeaks is not a 'real media organization' are simply false. There is no reason why any charge brought against WikiLeaks should not apply equally to all these media.

The reaction of the US government and the mainstream media to the release has been incoherent, a sure sign that at least some of the speakers are lying. Some have argued that such leaks have damaged US foreign policy and put the lives of many people in danger, even though no evidence has been produced to that effect and even the Pentagon says that there is not a single documented case of a person being harmed by earlier WikiLeaks revelations, even though the same kinds of alarms were raised then. Even the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says that alarmist rhetoric over the current leaks are 'significantly overwrought'.

Other people have taken the opposite tack and tried to minimize the importance of the latest WikiLeaks release of documents, saying that they contain nothing new, even though only a tiny fraction of the cables have so far been published. Others have claimed that the leaks actually show US diplomacy in a flattering light, despite obvious facts to the contrary.

In reality, we have already learned a lot, not just about the US government's lying but also that so many countries in the world are colluding with it in deceiving their own people, either voluntarily or under pressure. Here are some more examples, in addition to the ones I posted yesterday.

  • Barack Obama, despite his fine words, continues the torture practices of his predecessor at the Bagram base in Afghanistan under conditions so brutal that, according to one military prosecutor, it makes Guantanamo look like a 'nice hotel' in comparison.

  • Also, the cables reveal that US Special Forces are conducting operations within Pakistan even though both governments deny it. In other words, the US is currently engaged in yet another war, a 'secret' one in Pakistan, in addition to the other 'secret' war in Yemen, and the open ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • Scott Horton reports on the WikiLeaks revelations about how the US exerted pressure on Spain's justice system in order to obstruct torture investigations.

  • The US also interefered in the legal system in Germany, exerting pressure to not enforce arrest warrants against CIA operatives who kidnapped a German citizen Khaled el-Masri who was mistakenly identified as a terrorist and then brutally tortured.

  • The WikiLeaks cables show that there is no problem at all in getting that much ballyhooed bipartisanship when it comes to stopping any investigation of torture by US officials.

What you can be sure of is that as more of the cables get published, there will be more revelations, a lot more.

In fact, I am beginning to suspect that the reason for the hysterical response to the WikiLeaks revelations is the dread that the US government has of what might yet be revealed in the remaining 99% of cables and of any future revelations of other material. I also wonder if the hostility of the US mainstream media to WikiLeaks, when they should be defending its right to publish, is due to their suspicions that the cables might reveal their own collusion with the US government to suppress this and other information that the American people have a right to know about the secret and open wars and torture conducted by their government.

For example, you may recall that in 2004 after the scandal of Abu Ghraib prison, there were allegations of the existence of far more damaging photos and videos that showed horrific acts of rape and torture and murder of women and even children in US custody. Even Donald Rumsfeld and Lindsay Graham acknowledged that this evidence was out there and warned of the consequences if it were released.

But that story quietly disappeared. I used to wonder what happened. Maybe the cables will reveal the truth.

December 30, 2010

The letter i

As someone who grew up with English English and then came to the US, I have got used to the different spellings, especially the missing u in words like color and favor and honor. In general, American spellings make more sense, so switching to it was easy.

When it comes to the letter i, Americans also sometimes drop it, to say (for example) 'aluminum' instead of the English 'aluminium'. But recently I have heard people drop the i in the word 'verbiage' to coin a new word 'verbage' which does not currently exist even in America, at least according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Also, unlike the u, which seems to be always dropped, the policy on i is not so consistent. I have heard people add i to the word mischievous to say 'mischievious', a word which also does not currently exist.

I am not one of those people who think that language should be unchanging. English is a rich language precisely because it grows by adding new words. But these are not new words but spelling variations on old ones and I was curious as to whether what I have heard is merely a regional idiosyncrasy or whether others have heard similar usages.

"But the Bible says…"

Jesus and Mo pick up on a peculiar way of arguing by Christians who will quote the Bible to argue why the Bible is true.

It is not only Christians who do this, though. I have heard Jews argue that their religion must be true because it is the only one in which god spoke to a huge number of people at the same time and thus they could not all be lying or deluded. Their source for this claim? The Old Testament.

I also had a discussion with two Mormon evangelists who came to my door. They claimed that the Book of Mormon must be true because it correctly predicted things. When I pointed out that the book was written after the events that it allegedly 'predicted', they disagreed saying that the book was written before the events but was discovered by Joseph Smith after. Their evidence? The Book of Mormon itself.

It is kind of amusing demonstration of how the desperate desire to believe can result in people abandoning their reasoning skills.

Bobby Farrell

Bobby Farrell has died at the age of 61. He was the sole male in the group of flamboyant West Indian singers called Boney M that was not well known in the US but had a string of disco hits in Europe in the 70s and 80s and were hugely popular in Sri Lanka.

Here they sing one of their biggest hits By the Rivers of Babylon.

Here is another of their big hits Brown Girl in the Ring

The double standard on WikiLeaks

Here's a question. Suppose that a reporter for (say) the New York Times obtained top-secret documents from within North Korean government revealing its inner workings and secret deals and strategies. And let us assume (because I don't know) that, unlike the US, that country has no equivalent of the First Amendment but does have something like the Official Secrets Act that exists in England and some other countries that makes it a crime for anyone to disclose secret government information.

Would we condemn the reporter and the newspaper for publishing the secret documents and let the reporter be extradited to North Korea to be tried by them for violating their laws?

That's an easy one. The answer is no, and someone who merely gave such an option serious consideration would be treated with derision. Not only that, the reporter and the paper would be lauded for landing such a scoop and given all manner of awards, including the Pulitzer.

Here's another hypothetical. Suppose there were secret documents possessed by the Chinese government that showed that Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton were taking US policy actions in close consultation with the Chinese government that were advantageous to Chinese strategic goals but were telling the American people something else, and pretending to be following the will of the American people.

Wouldn't any American want to know that? Wouldn't Americans feel that they have a right to know if their political leaders are acting in the interests of foreign governments? That's another easy one. Of course they would.

The reason that I pose these two hypothetical questions is to show the double standard that is operating in the US government and media in their condemnations of WikiLeaks. The reason that WikiLeaks is being treated this way in the US is because people here feel that the US and its government have privileges that no other country or people have.

If we take off our blinkers and see the WikiLeaks revelations through the eyes of people in other countries, we see what a valuable purpose they serve. The cables revealed so far show that foreign governments have been lying to their own people in order to advance American interests. The cables reveal that the leaders of a lot of these countries are acting in the interests of the US rather than of their own people.

Here are some examples:

  • Although Britain publicly said that it would no longer keep US cluster bombs, and smugly signed an international treaty to that effect, they continued to do so, a further demonstration of that country's subservience to US.

  • The president of Yemen lied to his own people, telling them that it was his nation's armed forces that bombed them and not the US, in order to prevent people in his country being outraged at the violation of their sovereignty.

  • We learn how the Pakistan leadership secretly assured the US that they would pardon their murderous dictator Pervez Musharraf, a staunch US ally, although they were publicly talking of bringing him to justice.

  • The cables show that the British government is training a Bangladeshi 'police' force that is believed to be a death squad

  • As for the Middle East, Middle, Juan Cole lists the top ten revelations from the WIkiLeaks release.

In an op-ed in The Australian, Julian Assange writes about what he have already learned from the small sample of the latest releases about what governments around the world are doing in secret:

The US diplomatic cables reveal some startling facts:

  • The US asked its diplomats to steal personal human material and information from UN officials and human rights groups, including DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, credit card numbers, internet passwords and ID photos, in violation of international treaties. Presumably Australian UN diplomats may be targeted, too.
  • King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia asked the US to attack Iran.
  • Officials in Jordan and Bahrain want Iran's nuclear program stopped by any means available.
  • Britain's Iraq inquiry was fixed to protect "US interests".
  • Sweden is a covert member of NATO and US intelligence sharing is kept from parliament.
  • The US is playing hardball to get other countries to take freed detainees from Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama agreed to meet the Slovenian President only if Slovenia took a prisoner. Our Pacific neighbour Kiribati was offered millions of dollars to accept detainees.

For this reason, I suspect that WikiLeaks has far greater support among the general public in other countries than in the US. The reaction of the people in the US would be quite different if the cables revealed that Obama or Clinton were more interested in pleasing China than in advancing US goals.

In the British newspaper The Independent, Johann Hari informs us of what the leaks reveal about the conduct of the US wars and how WikiLeaks is performing an important public duty.

Every one of us owes a debt to Julian Assange. Thanks to him, we now know that our governments are pursuing policies that place you and your family in considerably greater danger. Wikileaks has informed us they have secretly launched war on yet another Muslim country, sanctioned torture, kidnapped innocent people from the streets of free countries and intimidated the police into hushing it up, and covered up the killing of 15,000 civilians – five times the number killed on 9/11. Each one of these acts has increased the number of jihadis. We can only change these policies if we know about them – and Assange has given us the black-and-white proof.

As I. F. Stone said, "Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed." The WikiLeaks revelations expose the lies of these governments. The transparency that WikiLeaks provides is essential if we are to keep governments accountable.

December 29, 2010

Why the other line moves faster

(Via Progressive Review.)

Film review: Clockwise (1986)

I just saw the comedy Clockwise starring John Cleese. Here's the trailer:

Cleese is one of my favorite actors and here he is playing a role that is perfectly suited for him, that of an authority figure frustrated when things don't go the way he wants them to, as in this scene from Life of Brian

His character Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers is another example of his manic comedic touch.

In the film Clockwise he plays a punctuality-obsessed, super-organized principal of a school invited to give the most important speech of his career to an elite organization of school principals. He starts out in the morning to take a three-hour train ride to give the speech but due to a misunderstanding he misses his train. The entire film is about his efforts to find alternative ways to get to his destination on time, with every plan ending in disaster.

This is a role that is tailor-made for Cleese and so you would think I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I found the film to be only mildly amusing. I think the problem may lie with me and not the film itself. I don't enjoy comedies in which the premise is someone trying desperately to achieve some important goal and being thwarted every step of the way. This is why, for example, I did not like Ben Stiller's Meet the Parents, because you knew from the beginning that the film would be about how he would fail in every effort to please his future in-laws.

There are two reasons for my lukewarm response to such comedies. One is that if the main character is sympathetic, I want the person to achieve his or her goal and be successful and having their hopes repeatedly dashed makes me feel sorry for them rather than want to laugh at their plight. The second is that I tend to plan things somewhat carefully and usually have a backup plan in case things go wrong. When things fall apart, I tend to stay calm, analyze the situation, examine the alternatives, and select the best rather than panic and grab wildly at the first option that presents itself, the way that the characters in these kinds of films do. So while I can enjoy this set up in a short sketch comedy, in full-length features I tend to get annoyed with people for repeatedly acting so stupid and that spoils the fun for me.

In an interview in the extras section of the DVD, Cleese makes an interesting observation about a difference between British and American humor audiences that may explain why Clockwise was not a success in its American release. He says that he thinks that the British find absurd situations funny in themselves (which is why farces are so popular over there) while Americans seem to require actual jokes and wisecracks to make them laugh. He may have a point.

December 28, 2010

Jeffrey Toobin tries to defend the indefensible

One of the amusing things about the WikiLeaks saga is to watch people try to wriggle around the fact that what WikiLeaks did is what journalists for the 'respectable' media do every day, which is get top secret leaks from their sources and publish them. In fact, this is the entirety of Bob Woodward's career.

In this episode of CNN's Parker/Spitzer, watch Jeffrey Toobin squirm while he tries to find the difference between WikiLeaks' actions and Woodwards.

Glenn Greenwald on CNN

Greenwald is doing heroic work defending WikiLeaks all over the place. In this segment, he demolishes alleged CNN journalist Jessica Yellin and former Homeland Security advisor to George W. Bush (and now CNN employee) Fran Townsend. The authoritarian mindset of these people and their willingness to ignore the facts is astonishing (via Balloon Juice)

Greenwald provides some background to the program.

It's snow story

Here are some simple facts.

Weather is unpredictable. In the northeast we get snow during the winter months. Most of the time the falling snow is spread out over time. But as with any stochastic process, on occasion a lot of snow will fall in a short time, more than one can be reasonably prepared for. During such times, there will be disruptions, such as flights being cancelled, roads being treacherous, and delays. This will happen a couple of times each winter and is completely normal and to be expected.

So why is it that when it inevitably happens, the news media get so worked up over it? Why is it treated as being of major national and even international significance instead of just a local story? Why are cities berated for not being prepared to deal with it? A snowstorm is not like a flood or an earthquake that can cause widespread and lasting damage. It makes no sense for cities to spend a lot of money to be ready for a problem that will disappear by itself in a day or two.

It's just snow, people. It's just pure, clean water and it will go away.

The secrets of an academic ghostwriter

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article by someone who has made a good living (about $66,000 this year) by writing custom research papers on almost any topic for undergraduate and graduate students who hire him to do their assignments.

I've written toward a master's degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I've worked on bachelor's degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I've written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I've attended three dozen online universities. I've completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

His strategy was to collect the minimal information necessary from Wikipedia and other online sources and simply write everything down, cutting and pasting quotes, and using filler language to get to the necessary word count, without rewriting or editing or polishing.

After I've gathered my sources, I pull out usable quotes, cite them, and distribute them among the sections of the assignment. Over the years, I've refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I'll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph.

I've also got a mental library of stock academic phrases: "A close consideration of the events which occurred in ____ during the ____ demonstrate that ____ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define ____ for decades to come." Fill in the blanks using words provided by the professor in the assignment's instructions.

The reason he gets away with this is because this is what some students do on their own. For them too, their first version is the one they hand in as their 'finished' work, so the roughness of the submitted manuscript must seem familiar to the teacher. As the author says:

I don't ever edit my assignments. That way I get fewer customer requests to "dumb it down." So some of my work is great. Some of it is not so great. Most of my clients do not have the wherewithal to tell the difference, which probably means that in most cases the work is better than what the student would have produced on his or her own. I've actually had customers thank me for being clever enough to insert typos. "Nice touch," they'll say.

As a writing generalist myself, I was vaguely curious about whether I could be as successful a ghostwriter, assuming that I could overcome any scruples. I don't think I could simply because over the years I have developed habits that would give me away immediately. I would not be able to avoid being opinionated and this would undoubtedly set off suspicions. I am also somewhat obsessive about avoiding typos and grammatical errors, repeatedly rewriting and editing even for my blog posts. My books may not be great works of literature but they are 'clean' in the sense that they have very few or no basic errors of this sort. All this attention to detail would slow me down too much, while also likely to set off alarm bells for the reader. As an academic hired gun, I would be a bust.

I was of course bothered by students passing off other people's work as their own and wondered how widespread it was. But I was also impressed with the writer's ability to churn out papers on topics for which he had no training and yet be able to fool the student's teachers and even their graduate thesis advisors into thinking their students had written them.

This article makes for fascinating but disturbing reading and is as much an indictment of the way our educational system is structured, that enables such practices to pass undetected, as it is of the students who use ghostwriters.

December 27, 2010

Julian Assange on interviewed on TED

The video highlights two things: (1) that WikiLeaks is not only about the US but exposes secrets of governments the world over; and (2) that I suspect that most ordinary people (like those in the audience) have an instinctive sympathy for WikiLeaks as fighting for what is right. (via Norm)

The strange behavior of Wired magazine

Glenn Greenwald highlights [link fixed] an under-reported but strange and important aspect of the Bradley Manning case.

Hillary Clinton's merciless assault on irony

Our Secretary of State is concerned and saddened by a Russian court's guilty verdict on a tycoon on embezzlement charges.

"This and similar cases have a negative impact on Russia's reputation for fulfilling its international human rights obligations and improving its investment climate," Mrs Clinton said.

She said the verdict "raised serious questions about selective prosecution - and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations".

It never ceases to amaze me that she can say these things about other countries with a straight face. Selective prosecution? Violations of human rights obligations? The law subverted for political reasons? These things never happen in the US. We are so, so scrupulous about the rule of law and due process, aren't we, that we can sanctimoniously lecture other countries on these virtues.

Julian Assange's philosophy

There has been much discussion lately of what makes Julian Assange tick, what drives him and WikiLeaks to do what they do.

Thanks to commenter Jared A, here is a link to a thoughtful analysis of Julian Assange's philosophy, based on things he has actually written.

Fear and irrationality

When people are fearful, they do irrational things. Tom Englehardt looks at who benefits from all these allegedly terrorist plots that have been uncovered with great fanfare and which seem to be aimed purely and simply at keeping people scared.

We now live not just with all the usual fears that life has to offer, but in something like a United States of Fear.

Here's a singular fact to absorb: we now know that a bunch of Yemeni al-Qaeda adherents have a far better hit on just who we are, psychologically speaking, and what makes us tick than we do. Imagine that. They have a more accurate profile of us than our leading intelligence profilers undoubtedly do of them.

This is a new definition of asymmetrical warfare. The terrorists never have to strike an actual target. It's not even incumbent upon them to build a bomb that works. Just about anything will do. To be successful, they just have to repeatedly send things in our direction, inciting the expectable Pavlovian reaction from the U.S. national security state, causing it to further tighten its grip (grope?) at yet greater taxpayer expense.
In a sense, both the American national security state and al-Qaeda are building their strength and prestige as our lives grow more constrained and our treasure vanishes.

Bruce Fein lists all the encroachments on our freedoms that we have allowed to creep stealthily into our lives ever since the 'war on terror' began.

  • The president is empowered to target American citizens off the battlefield for assassination abroad who have not engaged in hostilities against the United States on his say-so alone.

  • Citizens and non-citizens may be detained indefinitely without accusation or trial at Bagram prison in Afghanistan or in undisclosed locations abroad on the president's say-so alone.

  • Predator drones kill civilians off the battlefield in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The protocols for targeting decisions are secret.

  • Military commissions are established for the trial of alleged war crimes that may be equally prosecuted in civilian courts, for example, material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization. Military commissions combine judge, jury, and prosecutor in a single branch -- the very definition of tyranny according to the Founding Fathers.

  • State secrets are invoked by the president to prevent victims of constitutional wrongdoing, including torture or kidnapping, from judicial redress for their injuries.

  • Telephone calls and emails are intercepted by the government without probable cause to believe the target is connected to international terrorism.

  • Lawyers who defend alleged international terrorist organizations are vulnerable to prosecution under the material assistance law.

  • The Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to obtain business, bank, or other records by unilateral issuance of national security letters alleging a relationship to a terrorist investigation.

  • Extraordinary rendition is employed to dispatch detainees to countries notorious for torture.

  • Individuals or organizations are designated as "terrorists" and quarantined from human intercourse based on secret evidence.

  • Government crimes -- including torture, illegal surveillance, obstruction of justice, and war crimes -- go unprosecuted despite the President's constitutional obligation to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.

People who try to justify these things as necessary because of the danger of terrorism, and look back with nostalgia to the days before the 'war on terror' began as carefree days, forget that during the Cold War they lived with the threat of total nuclear annihilation at a moment's notice, a far more deadly threat than what can be mounted by the current threat which consists of a rag-tag group of terrorists operating out of remote areas in distant countries with primitive technology. The reason that people back then were able to go about their normal lives was, I suspect, because the initial fear wore off when they realized that there was nothing that they or their government could do to protect them if a nuclear war should break out.

The bad news is that there is little that the government or we can do now to protect us from a random terrorist attack either. The good news is that our chances of being harmed by such an attack are minuscule, that even if such attacks occur they will be highly localized pin-pricks. It is unfortunate if you happen to be the victim of such an attack but the government can no more protect you from it than it can protect you from a drunk driver who careens onto the sidewalk while you are walking there.

If we could learn to live normal lives in the face of total nuclear annihilation, surely we can do so in the face of the occasional random bombing?

December 26, 2010

News without mercy

I enjoy the Onion News Network and was pleased to see that it is coming to TV at 10 p.m. Fridays, starting on January 21 on the IFC channel.

Then perhaps we will hear the news that the rest of the media is afraid to tell us, like how Obama is going to replace his high-speed rail plans with a high-speed bus plan.


Obama Replaces Costly High-Speed Rail Plan With High-Speed Bus Plan

Since I do not have cable I will not be able to watch though I hope I can see it online.

December 25, 2010

David Frost interviews Julian Assange

Santa Claus and god

What Christmas is all about

Reason's Greetings to all this blog's readers.

spiritofchristmas.jpg

December 24, 2010

Jury nullification over pot possession?

I have written before about 'jury nullification', the right of juries to decide that a law is wrong and refuse to convict someone of a crime even if the facts are clear that that person is guilty. (See here and here.)

I said last year (see the post script to this) that drug laws against minor offenses such as possession of marijuana in small amounts are the most likely to be nullified and recently there was another example of this.

Ted Rall's best cartoons for 2010

One thing I hate about this time of year are the best/worst lists and highlights. But I will make an exception for Ted Rall's choice of what of his own work he liked the best, because I missed some of them the first time around. (Click on each to enlarge.)

Rall is one of the best political cartoonists around but he is not picked up by the major outlets probably because the things he says are outside the mainstream consensus and will make people uncomfortable by challenging them.

The Inebriati

From That Mitchell and Webb Look.


A day in the life of Bradley Manning

Manning's lawyer David Coombs (a former Army major who has served in Iraq) describes Manning's conditions of solitary confinement that have lasted over seven months. Among other things:

His cell is approximately six feet wide and twelve feet in length.

The cell has a bed, a drinking fountain, and a toilet.

At 5:00 a.m. he is woken up (on weekends, he is allowed to sleep until 7:00 a.m.). Under the rules for the confinement facility, he is not allowed to sleep at anytime between 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. If he attempts to sleep during those hours, he will be made to sit up or stand by the guards.

PFC Manning is held in his cell for approximately 23 hours a day.

The guards are required to check on PFC Manning every five minutes by asking him if he is okay. PFC Manning is required to respond in some affirmative manner. At night, if the guards cannot see PFC Manning clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or is curled up towards the wall, they will wake him in order to ensure he is okay.

He is prevented from exercising in his cell. If he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups, or any other form of exercise he will be forced to stop.

He does receive one hour of "exercise" outside of his cell daily. He is taken to an empty room and only allowed to walk. PFC Manning normally just walks figure eights in the room for the entire hour. If he indicates that he no long feels like walking, he is immediately returned to his cell.

When PFC Manning goes to sleep, he is required to strip down to his boxer shorts and surrender his clothing to the guards. His clothing is returned to him the next morning.

Glenn Greenwald recounts the arguments of all the people who argue that what Manning is being subjected to amounts to torture. Why? In order to break him down so that he will incriminate Julian Assange and WIkiLeaks.

Yesterday US sources revealed that prosecutors are awaiting a decision from the American Attorney-General, Eric Holder, on what form of plea bargaining they should offer to Manning in return for him incriminating Mr Assange as a fellow conspirator in disseminating the classified information.

Officials at the US Justice Department, who are under acute pressure to prosecute, privately acknowledge that a conviction against Mr Assange would be extremely difficult if he was simply the passive recipient of the material disseminated by Private Manning. Any evidence that he had actively facilitated the leak, however, would make extradition and a successful case much more feasible.

Friends of Private Manning stress that so far he has refused to co-operate with the prosecutors. However, they also say that after seven months of solitary confinement in at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia he is in an increasingly fragile condition.

David House, a computer programmer who visits Private Manning in prison, said in an interview: "Over the last few weeks I have noticed a steady decline in his mental and physical wellbeing. His prolonged confinement in a solitary holding cell is unquestionably taking its toll on his intellect; his inability to exercise due to regulations has affected his physical appearance in a matter which suggests physical weakness."

The authorities had initially stated that Manning was being kept in solitary confinement for his own safety. Friends like Mr House now believe it is being done for punitive purposes and to exert pressure on his vulnerabilities.

Of course, the people who are authorizing this torture are not interested in the truth. They will continue to treat him in this and even worse ways until he agrees to say what they want him to say. The political leadership and the mainstream media will not raise a fuss about this, because they have all bought into the idea that in the glorious 'war on terror' the government has the right to do anything it wants to whomever it designates as its opponents in order to 'keep us safe'. If they are willing to ignore Obama's claim that he has the right to order the murder of even US citizens anywhere in the world, why would they bother their heads over mere torture? A recently initiated probe by the United Nations office for torture in Geneva might lead to some redress but given the US's ability and willingness to pressure the UN for its own ends, I am not too hopeful.

Applying such cruel methods of psychological pressure on someone to break them down and get them to confess and incriminate others are the hallmarks of a brutal police state, not those of a democracy whose leader is supposed to be a constitutional scholar.

The treatment of Manning, along with the Obama administration's plans to promulgate an executive order that would allow indefinite detention without trial is one more piece of evidence of Obama's reckless disregard for the constitution. He is basically asserting the right to create a new legal system just on his say so that completely bypasses the constitution and centuries of legal practice based on it.

December 23, 2010

Playing the dumb blonde

I have shown this before but this Daily Show take-down of Fox News's Gretchen Carlson never fails to crack me up.

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Must-see interview with Julian Assange

The more I listen to him, the more I am impressed with the sharpness of his intellect. No wonder the authoritarians want him silenced. They cannot answer him on the law or logic.

Incidentally, the leading French newspaper Le Monde has named Assange as its Man of the Year.

The self-unawareness of religious people: example MCLXVI

That unctuous Roman Catholic priest Jonathan Morris is so clueless that he does not see the absurdity of claiming that prayer is good but talking to an imaginary person is bad. (via Pharyngula.)

Childish politics

One of the really distressing things about the political discourse in this country is how many political decisions seem to be based on insubstantial things like the vanity and ego and sheer childishness of people who really should know better. The desire to score cheap political points, to not want to give what the other side can claim as a victory even if the measure is a good one has become so obvious, especially in the Republican party, that it should be embarrassing, if as a nation we had not lost our sense of shame.

During the health care debate, for example, it seemed like all it took for the despicable Joe Lieberman to oppose any measure (such as single payer, the public option, extending eligibility for Medicare) was for any progressive group to express support for it. This may also lie behind the fact that the US still has not adopted the metric system or why there is irrational denial to even consider global warming as a potential threat. Opposition in some quarters seems to be at least partly based on the fact that these measures are popular in other countries.

As another example, look at the to-be Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor's statement on a suggestion to balance the budget.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R., Va.), who is likely to become House majority leader in January, said Tuesday that many lawmakers wouldn't support VAT-type tax because its ties to Europe might make it politically poisonous in Washington. [My italics]

"I don't think any of us want us to go the direction of the social welfare states around the world," Mr. Cantor said at the CEO Council.

There are good and bad things about the VAT (Value-Added Tax) but the fact that it is used in some European countries should be totally irrelevant to the discussion except as a source of data on how well it works.

I am not saying that there are no substantive reasons for the opposition but one gets the palpable sense that if Europe does it or if 'the left' supports something, that is enough for Republicans to view it with deep suspicion and seek reasons to oppose it.

Republican party leader Mitch McConnell actually said that one of the reasons he opposed the new START treaty (which was ratified yesterday by the Senate on a 71-26 vote) is because he did not want to give a victory to 'the left'. I do not have an informed opinion on the START treaty since I have only a little idea of what it contains, but the idea that a major political leader would oppose something of international significance because it might provide a boost to his political opponents is highly disturbing.

But this is what passes for political thinking among the leaders of the Republican party. Not the merits of issue itself but where it comes from and who is supporting it.

I suspect that the current Republican opposition to things like high-speed rail is also based on similar feelings. Creating a massive network of high-speed rail lines that span the country would be a tremendous boost to the economy, creating jobs and stimulating industry. But because other countries such as China and in Europe have taken the lead in this area, following in their footsteps would somehow imply that the US is not #1.

This has reached such absurd levels that some are considering repealing Bush-era legislation that will phase out incandescent light bulbs. They presumably think that replacing them with compact fluorescent bulbs is some kind of evil European socialist plot that seeks to deny them their god-given right to have their choice of light bulbs

At least we should be grateful that this kind of childishness on a large scale is a fairly recent phenomenon. If it had happened in the 19th century, we would still be riding in horse-drawn carriages since these same people would have opposed the introduction of the steam engine because it was invented and developed in Europe.

As the country falls further behind in science and technology, as its infrastructure crumbles and its health system falls apart, these people are not going to look for good ideas wherever they originate because they will be too busy chanting "USA! USA! Were #1!"

December 22, 2010

Atheist country music

I am tempted to write some more verses, each ending with "I'm proud to be a Charlie Darwin fan."

Church

Indefinite detention

Our constitutional scholar-president, who promised to shut down Guantanamo within a year of taking office, is about to sign an Executive Order that gives him the right to hold detainees there indefinitely, and that the administration alone will do any reviews of the prisoners' status.

[T]he order establishes indefinite detention as a long-term Obama administration policy and makes clear that the White House alone will manage a review process for those it chooses to hold without charge or trial.

Obama no longer even pretends that he values the law or the constitution and seems to think he has imperial powers.

The dysfunctional Congress-2: Practice

In yesterday's post, I described the way the budget process should run in the Congress, with the twelve appropriations committees in each chamber passing a spending bill, reconciling it with the bill passed by the other chamber if there are differences, and then passing a single reconciled bill that is sent to the president for his signature. All twelve such bills are supposed to be passed before the August recess, to be signed into law by the president to take effect with the new fiscal year starting October 1.

Congress and the White House also have the option of using Supplemental Appropriations. This is meant to provide a way to deal with unexpected major expenditures that could not have been anticipated in the budget process, such as catastrophes like hurricanes and earthquakes. (In the past few years, however, this option has been heavily exploited to fund expenditures that are not emergences, like the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries. For example, in 2008 about $200 billion, about 17% of the total discretionary budget, was allocated to the so-called 'Global War on Terror' using supplemental appropriations. By not using the regular budget for these expenditures, the government can disguise the true cost of those wars. See this site for what the real costs of the wars are and how they are hidden from us.)

It all sounds very orderly, as one would expect from a government that has had over 200 years to develop a smooth working structure.

But what actually happens? "In 26 of the past 31 years (FY1977-FY2007), Congress and the President did not complete action on a majority of the regular bills by the start of the fiscal year (see Table 2). In eight years, they did not finish any of the bills by the deadline. They completed action on all the bills on schedule only four times: FY1977, FY1989, FY1995, and FY1997." (My italics)

In the current year as of today, already three months into the fiscal year, the Senate has not voted on a single one of the twelve appropriations and the House has voted on only two of them (Military/Veterans and Transportation/HUD). In an effort to obtain a budget, Congress tried as a last resort to pass all twelve separate appropriations bills by rolling them all into one gigantic $1.2 trillion 'omnibus' bill. But that attempt failed on December 16th because the Senate Republicans blocked it.

(Note: The total government expenditure (using the 2008 budget figures) is around $3.0 trillion. Of this, about $1.8 trillion consists of mandatory spending that Congress cannot tinker with (such as Social Security payments, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the national debt, etc.), leaving the Congress with just $1.2 trillion of so-called discretionary spending to cover all the rest of government. It is the allocation of this money that Congress has control over. The recent tax deal that was signed into law reduced revenue and increased expenses to the tune of $858 billion, about three-quarters of the discretionary budget, and yet it sailed through Congress because it benefited the oligarchy.)

So given that not a single appropriations bill has been passed and the omnibus bill failed too, the country is operating without a budget.

So how is the government functioning? By using the option of 'continuing resolutions', which allows the Congress to pass stopgap appropriations that are based on the previous year's expenditures, plus a few ad hoc changes to meet any contingencies that were not present the previous year. This means that almost all government agencies will be able to continue doing what they did the previous year.

In 2010, the first continuing resolution was passed on September 29, just before the beginning of the new fiscal year, that continued funding until December 3. Then just as that expired, a new continuing resolution was passed on December 4 extending the spending until Saturday, December 18. On Friday night, they passed another continuing resolution that lasted through December 21. Another continuing resolution was passed yesterday that extends this form of temporary funding until March 4, 2011.

So we now have a situation where the Congress will have to start the process of planning the budget for fiscal year 2012 before it has even passed a budget for fiscal year 2011. Is this any way to run the world's biggest economy, living hand-to-mouth by passing temporary spending authorizations that can last as little as just a few days?

It costs an enormous amount of money (over four billion dollars) to pay for both chambers of Congress. You would think that they would be obliged to complete the most basic task required of them, which is to pass a budget. It is an absolute disgrace that they have not passed a single one of the twelve appropriation bills so far, and that there seems to be no sign of them doing so in the near future. If members of Congress were treated like any other employees, they would have been fired for gross incompetence, instead of being allowed to bloviate over non-essential matters and preen before the TV cameras.

December 21, 2010

A new Time magazine to be aimed at adults

This clip that I showed some time ago illustrates why Time magazine's choice of Mark Zuckerberg as its Person of the Year is completely appropriate considering its audience.


TIME Announces New Version Of Magazine Aimed At Adults

Why they hate us

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The dysfunctional Congress-1: Theory

Much of the criticisms aimed at Congress have involved the high-profile legislative stalemates on some issues involving filibusters and the like, that have stymied progress on those issues that did not involve the interests of the oligarchy. What all that hoop-la has obscured is a far more serious criticism, the fact that the government has stopped carrying out the most basic of its functions.

The most essential function of government is to make sure that its institutions function smoothly. At the very least, this requires that the government pass a budget that allocates money to those institutions so that they know what they can and cannot do. It is shocking to realize to what extent the Congress has abdicated that fundamental responsibility.

A quick investigation reveals that the appropriation process by which the government allocates money has a straightforward and logical sequence.

  1. The President gives his State of the Union address at the end of January in which he lays out his general goals for the coming year.

  2. He is required to submit to Congress by the first Monday in February a budget for the fiscal year beginning on October 1.

  3. By April 15 the two chambers of Congress are supposed to pass a non-binding budget resolution that provides guidelines for taxes and appropriations for the next five years and this serves to provide a framework for both bodies to debate and allocate funds for the various agencies under their purview.

  4. In Congress, the budget expenditures are divided into twelve major appropriations categories:

    • Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies;
    • Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies;
    • Defense;
    • Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies;
    • Financial Services and General Government;
    • Department of Homeland Security;
    • Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies;
    • Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies;
    • Legislative Branch;
    • Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies;
    • State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs; and
    • Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.

    The twelve appropriations committees in each body farm out the work to its own specialized sub-committees to work on the budget for their agencies and report back to the committees, which then has to vote to submit their appropriation package to the full House or Senate, which has the option of proposing amendments to the committees' recommendations.

    (Technically, there is just one Appropriations Committee in the House and the above twelve are subcommittees of that body which have their own sub-sub-committees, but that gets confusing. There is also some difficulty in figuring out how money is allocated because the president's budget proposal is specified according to agencies and not split up according to these twelve categories. They do not seem to provide a summary spreadsheet of allocations, with the closest that I could find being here.)

  5. If the two chambers pass appropriation legislation that disagree (as often happens), a conference committee is set up to smooth out the differences and the jointly agreed-upon conference report is then sent to both chambers for voting. They two chambers cannot amend the conference report in any way but can only vote to accept or reject it. If it is rejected, it goes back to the conference committee for further work.

  6. The 12 appropriation resolutions are supposed to be presented to both full chambers and approved by the August recess, so that a final budget bill can be sent to the president.

  7. "After Congress sends the bill to the President, he has 10 days to sign or veto the measure. If he takes no action, the bill automatically becomes law at the end of the 10-day period… If the President vetoes the bill, he sends it back to Congress. Congress may override the veto by a two-thirds vote in both houses. If Congress successfully overrides the veto, the bill becomes law. If Congress is unsuccessful, the bill dies."

This whole structure is set up so that all government agencies know well in advance how much money they have been allocated for the coming year and how it should be spent so that they can transition smoothly when the new fiscal year begins on October 1. It allows them to plan what new initiatives to undertake and what old programs to end.

In theory, this should result in a smoothly running government.

Tomorrow: How the reality compares with the theory.

December 20, 2010

Dream ticket

This blog has been Sarah Palin-free for some time because I have little patience for the kind of obsession the media seem to have with breathlessly reporting her every utterance and tweet, however inconsequential. But for my own amusement I have been idly speculating as to whom she might choose as her running mate in the unlikely event that she becomes the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. Who could possibly match her in the looniness factor? Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachman is a possibility since she is surely nutty enough.

But we now have a clear winner! John Bolton is considering running for the nomination as well. Yes, John Bolton is so crazy that he thinks the country is looking for someone like him to lead it, which makes him a perfect match for Palin.

Palin-Bolton in 2012. Who could ask for anything more?

Time magazine's choice for Person of the Year

Although the magazine's online poll resulted in an easy win for Julian Assange with 382,026 votes (with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a distant second with 233,640 votes), to no one's surprise they ignored their own poll and gave this utterly pointless marketing gimmick title to Mark Zuckerberg, who came in 10th with a measly 18,353 votes.

Over at Saturday Night Live, we get Assange's reaction.

Happy anniversary to Baxter the Wonder Dog!

baxter1.JPG Yesterday (the 19th) was the fifth anniversary of Baxter the Wonder Dog joining the family as a three-month old puppy. On the right is a photo of him five years ago. Below is a recent photo of him.

baxterS.jpeg

And if you drop in at home you will often see this scene.

baxterM.jpeg

Bipartisanship in the service of the oligarchy

As expected, after much posturing about how much it pained them, Obama and the Democratic leadership joined with the Republicans and voted to give the oligarchy everything they demanded, while throwing some crumbs to the rest of us and deliberately inserting a Social Security bomb that will explode later. They even snuck in an extra goodie for the rich at the last minute in the form of more generous itemized deductions for high-income households that cost $20.7 billion. Yes, what rich people, who have smart accountants to find all manner of itemized deductions (legal and illegal) to reduce their taxes, really need are more deductions.

Did you notice how quickly action was taken to pass this legislation? How the so-called gridlocked Congress can act so rapidly when the oligarchy's interests are involved? It is just like the lightning speed with which Congress passed the Wall Street bailout in 2008. But when it comes to matters that affect the powerless, like the Zadroga bill aimed at providing medical relief to those first responders after 9/11 who now have serious health issues, nothing gets done. Jon Stewart has been outraged by this and his entire show on Thursday dealt with this single issue.

The absurdity of the tax cuts given to the rich becomes even more obvious when we look at this graph from the Congressional Budget Office at how after-tax average incomes have changed since 1979 for the various income categories. Note the steep rise in the last decade for the top 1% after the Bush tax cuts (that were just extended) were put into place.

figure5.png

The top 1.0% of incomes have increased four fold in that period, while the bottom 60% has been pretty much stagnant.

My prediction is that there will be a new 'bipartisan' effort to benefit the oligarchy even more. This one will be called tax 'reform'. (You should always be on your guard when the two parties speak of 'bipartisanship' and the 'reform' of any institution that serves the general public.) This will be promoted by saying that the present tax code is too complicated and needs to be 'simplified'. The servants of the oligarchy (aka the Democratic and Republican leadership) will agree that the changes must be 'revenue neutral', because it is now an article of faith that increasing taxes is the greatest evil in the world. But if there is to be no net gain or loss in net revenue, then any changes must mean that some will pay more tax and others will pay less. Guess who is going to win. And why? Because those who look after the interests of ordinary people will be excluded from the backrooms where the deal is hashed out.

David Stockman, budget director under Ronald Reagan and a consummate insider, points out how ordinary people get the short end:

It's hard to achieve because the general taxpayer is busy every day taking care of his own needs, his family, his job. And he doesn't have time to lobby for a broad tax base and reasonable rates. On the other hand, every special interest group has an economic interest in raising money through some kind of political action committee or education fund and then lobby for targeted, narrowly focused, sometimes even obscure language that they get either into the tax code on Capitol Hill or into the regulation.

So there's a kind of an asymmetry of democracy, which there is no clean answer to. So until we really change the role of money in politics, I don't know that we'll ever address the question you raised.

During such debates, there will be a lot of talk about 'fighting for the middle class' and it is important to keep in mind the actual facts about family income, because politicians use the label 'middle class' vaguely to hide the fact that they only care about the rich. According to the US Census Bureau's latest figures, the household income distribution by quintiles in 2009 was:

20% of households earn less than $20,450
20% of households earn between $20,450 and $38,530
20% of households earn between $38,530 and $61,800
20% of households earn between $61,800 and $100,000
20% of households earn over $100,000

The median household income (i.e., the 50% dividing line) is $50,221.

Only 5% of households earn over $180,000.

If we label the five quintiles as poor, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class, and rich, then a narrow definition of the middle class would be the middle 20% earning between $38,530 and $61,800 and the broadest definition of middle class would be the middle 60%, those households earning between $20,450 and $100,000. Obama's talk about 'middle class tax cuts' included households earning up to $250,000 which is ridiculous since that is five times the median income. People earning more than that constitute only 2% of all households. In a country with such enormous income disparities, how can anyone speak of 98% of the population as the middle class?

But such dishonest language comes easily to those politicians whose real agenda is different from their stated one. As George Orwell said in his classic 1949 must-read essay Politics and the English Language: "Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different…. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer."

December 19, 2010

The evil of the national security state

A recent Tom Tomorrow cartoon targets the TSA's invasive airport searches.

While everyone is up in arms about the TSA's security methods, let us not forget the bigger picture, that such practices are enabled because we have passively let the government create a national security state that thinks it can abuse people at will.

The really serious abuses are happening elsewhere, in the denial of basic protections to preserve the life and liberty promised in the constitution. Paul Craig Roberts provides a horrific account of what the government did with Omar Khadr and to Dr. Aafia Siddiqui and her three young children who are now missing.

As Roberts says:

We have a Congress that has forfeited its power to declare war and sits complicit while the president not only usurps its power but uses illegitimate power to commit war crimes by launching naked aggressions on the basis of lies and deception.

We have a Congress that turns a blind eye to criminal actions by the president, vice president, and executive branch, including violations of US statutory law against torture, violations of US statutory law against spying on Americans without warrants, and violations of every legal protection in the Bill of Rights, from the right of privacy to habeas corpus.

The hallmarks of the remade US legal system, thanks to the "war on terror," are coerced self-incrimination and indefinite detention or murder without charges or evidence.

We should not be satisfied with reforming just airport security, we should seek the dismantling of the entire national security state and restoring the democratic rights that are being stolen from us.

Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Yesterday Congress finally repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military. This move has both small and big implications.

It is small in the sense that it affects a small segment of the population (gay people in the military) and eliminating this rule will not cost any money or changes in the way the military is run or affect the nation in any noticeable way. It will not be long before people wonder (if they remember it at all) what all the fuss was about, why we had such an absurd rule in the first place, and why it was so hard to eliminate it.

But this change is big in a symbolic sense, and should give a boost to efforts to obtain full equal rights for gays in all areas of society. When the government condones discrimination in one of its major institutions, it gives ammunition to all the homophobes who want to deny gays their rights in other areas. So the long-term significance of this repeal should not be underestimated. It may well symbolize the beginning of the end for anti-gay discrimination in the US.

But this high profile debate illustrates another feature. The one-party oligarchic state that we have in the US cannot be too obvious about its monolithic nature. It needs hot-button issues that the oligarchy does not care about (sexuality, abortion, guns, religion, etc.) that the two factions can strongly disagree on and fight over, and which serve to give us the illusion that we have two opposing parties instead of two factions of the same party. This allows for heated fights and gives each faction's supporters the impression that they are winning some battles and losing others, when in reality, the oligarchy is winning on all the major issues. So repeal of DADT gives supporters of the Democratic faction something to feel good about and to rally around their leaders.

But even allowing for that, the repeal of DADT is to be welcomed and congratulations extended to all those who fought so hard for it.

Stephen Colbert's congressional testimony on migrant workers

David Stockman on the recent tax cut deal

David Stockman, budget director under Ronald Reagan and a consummate insider, slams the recent tax cut deal that was passed with such speed and bipartisanship:

What we're doing is perpetuating the most colossal fiscal mistake in history. These tax cuts and the Bush tax cuts were originally put in in 2001, 2003. They were premised on the prospect of a five trillion budget surplus over the coming 10 years, and the idea was to give some money back to the taxpayer.

Well, here we are 10 years later, two unfinanced wars, housing boom and bust, and bailouts everywhere, the huge stimulus programs, massive deficits have broken out. And in that 10 years, we've actually had five trillion of deficits.

So, we have accomplished over the last decade a $10 trillion swing from an illusory surplus to a gigantic deficit. And therefore, it just underscores even more as unaffordable as they were a decade ago. It is utter folly in the face of this deficit to be extending them. (My italics)

The idea of this will stimulate domestic production and jobs as wrong. That's an obsolete idea that may have been true 40 years ago. But today, given that we buy almost everything we consume from abroad, this tax cut-induced spending really is going to stimulate the Chinese economy, not ours, build up our debt further and require that we borrow from China so that we can increase the deficit here in the United States.

When one of the architects of Reagonomics (whose views haven't changed much since those days) blasts away at the fiscal irresponsibility in government and comes off as a militant progressive, you know that the greed of the oligarchy is out of control.

December 18, 2010

Bank of America and WikiLeaks

Bank of America has said that it will no process any transactions for WikiLeaks.

It is interesting that this is the same bank that is rumored to be a target of a release in January 2011 by WikiLeaks of documents that will presumably expose its shady practices.

I wrote about this earlier where I said that the oligarchy (of which the big banks are a central part) will fight back with everything they've got to preserve their right to continue looting the system.

Glenn Greenwald debates Jamie Rubin and John Burns

In this radio program, Glenn Greenwald discusses the WikiLeaks issue with Jamie Rubin, a former State Department spokesperson, and John Burns of the New York Times, whom Greenwald has criticized before for his hatchet job on Julian Assange.

The first 22 minutes consists of Burns talking about the Assange court hearing in London and the next 10 minutes has Rubin making the case why what WikiLeaks does is bad. Greenwald only enters the discussion around the 32-minute mark. If you don't have time to listen to the whole thing, I would suggest that you start there because it then becomes very lively as Greenwald points out how people like Rubin simply make up stuff in their efforts to discredit Wikileaks.

It is interesting that when confronted with facts that go against their position (and Greenwald usually has the goods), both Rubin and Burns either make up stuff or say that they cannot be bothered to debate Greenwald. The common view of Burns and Rubin symbolizes perfectly the collusion between the mainstream media and the government when any challenge to the establishment comes up.

After the program, Greenwald put up a blog post documenting how Rubin was flat out wrong in his statements.

Jesus is a liberal democrat

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive

December 17, 2010

Plenty of time for evolution to occur

Critics of evolution sometimes try to argue that the mechanism of natural selection works too slowly to produce the world we now have in the time that was available. P. Z. Myers shows why that argument is wrong.

Cheap news is no news

David Cay Johnson describes how the drive for profits in the newspaper industry is eliminating beat reporting and replacing it with filler material that is of little value.

Beats are fundamental to journalism, but our foundation is crumbling. Whole huge agencies of the federal government and, for many news organizations, the entirety of state government go uncovered. There are school boards and city councils and planning commissions that have not seen a reporter in years. The outrageous salaries that were paid to Bell, California city officials—close to $800,000 to the city manager, for example—would not have happened if just one competent reporter had been covering that city hall in Southern California. But no one was, and it took an accidental set of circumstances for two reporters from the Los Angeles Times to reveal this scandal.

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch. Don’t take my word for it. Instead look at declining circulation figures. People know value and they know when what they’re getting is worth their time or worth the steadily rising cost of a subscription.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution.

What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

Fry and Laurie on sex education

Creating a nation of spies and informants

In most countries that have endemic terrorism, leaders know that they cannot protect their people from random attacks and their usual appeal is for people to remain calm and go about their normal business. In the US, though, the leaders seek to ratchet up the fear all the time. When did you last hear a leading US politician or high government official say that we should simply go about our business and not be obsessed with terrorist attacks? Where is the modern day equivalent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to say that the only thing we need to fear is fear itself?

Instead we now have the US government joining up with Walmart (yes, Walmart!) and other places in a "See something, say something" program to encourage people to keep a sharp eye on the people around them and report any 'suspicious' behavior to store managers. Isn't there something creepy about the cabinet secretary in charge of the equally creepily named 'Department of Homeland Security' appearing on video screens all over the place urging people to become essentially spies and informants for the government?

Besides, what are people supposed to be looking for? Are they supposed to be like Mr. Whipple, constantly on the lookout for people squeezing the Charmin?

It seems like the next logical step will be to pass laws to create some kind of counter-terrorism investigative unit that reports only to high government officials (say the head of the Department of Homeland Security) and is exempt from all the quaint old legal restraints that used to preserve our civil liberties, such as obtaining warrants to intercept our private communications or to take people in for questioning or to read them their rights and allow them to have lawyers. The people who work for this agency will be granted immunity from any legal oversight in order to allow them to pursue 'terrorists' freely, all to keep us safe of course. People will be asked to cooperate with this agency and report to them anyone who is acting suspiciously, whether it be neighbors, co-workers, passers by, shoppers (see Walmart, above) or even friends and family members. Such an organization will bear a strong resemblance to the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police, but our media will not be so impolite as to point this out.

Does this sound paranoid? Paul Craig Roberts says that initial steps in this direction are already being taken and that all the half-baked terrorist plots that required government coaxing and even bribes to get people to agree to participate in are part of the process of softening us up to accept these moves as being necessary to 'protect' us.

What is it really all about? Could it be that the US government needs terrorist events in order to completely destroy the US Constitution? On November 24, National Public Radio broadcast a report by Dina Temple-Raston: "Administration officials are looking at the possibility of codifying detention without trial and are awaiting legislation that is supposed to come out of Congress early next year." Of course, the legislation will not come out of Congress. It will be written by Homeland Security and the Justice (sic) Department. The impotent Congress will merely rubber-stamp it.

The obliteration of habeas corpus, the most necessary and important protection of liberty ever institutionalized in law and governing constitution, has become necessary for the US government, because a jury might acquit an alleged or mock "terrorist" or framed person whom the US government has declared prior to the trial will be held forever in indefinite detention even if acquitted in a US court of law. The attorney general of the United States has declared that any "terrorist" that he puts on trial who is acquitted by a jury will remain in detention regardless of the verdict. Such an event would reveal the total lawlessness of American "justice."

Scott Horton at Harpers describes how all this is done by abusing the term "terrorist" so that it becomes a catch-all term that can be applied to anyone the government dislikes, like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Burma and Zimbabwe are the leaders in this kind of abuse but the US is quickly catching up, and the proposed SHIELD legislation is another step towards that goal.

Naomi Wolf, author of The End of America (2007), has also been warning about this for some time and says that the invocation of the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is a dangerous sign of things to come.

The Espionage Act was crafted in 1917 -- because President Woodrow Wilson wanted a war and, faced with the troublesome First Amendment, wished to criminalize speech critical of his war. In the run-up to World War One, there were many ordinary citizens -- educators, journalists, publishers, civil rights leaders, union activists -- who were speaking out against US involvement in the war. The Espionage Act was used to round these citizens by the thousands for the newly minted 'crime' of their exercising their First Amendment Rights.

That is why prosecution via the Espionage Act is so dangerous -- not for Assange alone, but for every one of us, regardless of our political views.

This is far from a feverish projection: if you study the history of closing societies, as I have, you see that every closing society creates a kind of 'third rail' of material, with legislation that proliferates around it. The goal of the legislation is to call those who criticize the government 'spies', 'traitors', enemies of the state' and so on. Always the issue of national security is invoked as the reason for this proliferating legislation. The outcome? A hydra that breeds fear. Under similar laws in Germany in the early thirties, it became a form of 'espionage' and 'treason' to criticize the Nazi party, to listen to British radio programs, to joke about the fuhrer, or to read cartoons that mocked the government. Communist Russia in the 30's, East Germany in the 50's, and China today all use parallel legislation to call criticism of the government -- or whistleblowing -- 'espionage' and 'treason', and 'legally' imprison or even execute journalists, editors, and human rights activists accordingly.

Do we really want to create a society where measures carefully developed over centuries to preserve civil liberties and encoded in laws and constitutional protections are tossed away, and where people see as their duty to act as spies for the government on their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and random people around them?

What such initiatives invariably do is result in a lot of 'false positive' information, where people who were doing perfectly legal things are reported because their actions lie outside the narrow range of activities that the observer is familiar with. This will result in law enforcement agencies being swamped chasing false leads and the falsely accused people spending enormous amounts of time and money trying to clear their names.

December 16, 2010

The WikiLeaks story

A one-hour documentary produced by SVT, the Swedish equivalent of the BBC, on the origins and methods of the organization. Gripping.

Joseph Smith visits Jesus and Mo

The comic strip Jesus and Mo have up to now featured just four characters: Jesus and Mohammed and the atheist barmaid as regulars, with cameo appearances by Moses. Our two heroes have now been joined by Joseph Smith.

That conman finds that Jesus and Mo are as gullible as any of their own religious followers.

Stephen Sondheim on The Colbert Report

A truly great lyricist of musical theater has an enjoyable conversation with the host. Colbert's suggested ending for the song Send in the Clowns is priceless.

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The radio discussion on the Pew religion survey

The call-in radio program on the Pew survey on religious knowledge (in which atheists and agnostics turned out to know the most about religion) was interesting. The other members of the panel were Tim Beal, a professor of religious studies at my own university (whose field of specialization is the Old Testament), and Reverend Marvin McMickle, the pastor of a Baptist church in Cleveland. (You can listen to the program here and it is also available as a downloadable podcast.)

The discussion got quite interesting around the 21-minute mark when Beal pointed out that many professors of religious studies are, in fact, atheists. I followed up by pointing out that the more one knew what was in the Bible or the more one learned about the background to the Bible, the more likely one was to become an unbeliever. Most people's knowledge of religion is what they learned as stories when they were children in Sunday school and does not get much more sophisticated than that. I pointed out that almost anyone who went to seminary and studied the Bible learned that much of what they believed had no basis and that this came as a shock to many, moving them towards unbelief. I quoted the study by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola on unbelieving priests where they said that a common joke they heard from them was that "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention."

After all, there is no historical or archeological evidence for almost all of the Old Testament. Let alone the obvious fictions about Adam and Even and Noah and the like, there is no evidence for Abraham, Moses, of Israelis kept in captivity, and no archeological evidence of the exodus consisting of 600,000 warriors (about 3 million people) wandering for forty years in the Sinai desert. The conquest by Joshua never happened and Jericho was an insignificant little town that was unwalled. No traces of the kingdoms and the magnificent palaces of David and Solomon have ever been found though excavations have unearthed traces of older societies. The main controversy among scholars is whether the famous king David existed at all or was at most a minor chieftain.

Instead of being a continuous narrative of the history of a people, the OT should be considered as a library of fictional books written by multiple authors between the late 6th century BCE and the early 2nd century BCE in order to propagate certain myths and promote monotheism. It has been revised repeatedly over the years until being 'canonized' around the 4th century CE as the Bible that people now take to be the word of god. Beal agreed with me on these facts.

McMickle was clearly agitated by my comments and protested vehemently. What I found amusing was that he did not challenge me on the facts, which of course he cannot. He instead said that he was shocked that I could so casually dismiss three thousand years of belief by so many people. He went on to speak of the value of religion in sustaining people through slavery. He (and a caller) implied that they did not worry too much about the historical and scientific accuracy of the Bible but that simply accepted the canonical Bible.

I was also amused that a caller (at around the 30 minute mark) seemed to be incredulous that someone who had once been a Christian seemed to be denying Jesus and was 'almost' blaspheming. I made it clear in my response that I was definitely denying Jesus and had no problems with being considered a blasphemer. I later regretted that I did not add that I also denied Allah, Krishna, Yahweh, Zoroaster, Zeus, and even the Holy Spirit (whom I like to fondly call Harvey), which is the one sin that Jesus says that Melvin will not forgive. I like to think of myself as an equal opportunity blasphemer.

A little later, in response to an atheist caller who said that he was angry that none of his priests had told him about the lack of historicity and unknown authorship of the gospels (another fact that Beal confirmed), I said almost all priests know all this stuff but cannot share this with their parishioners because that would be a bad career move. It would freak out their flock and likely get them fired and there is little that an ex-priest is qualified for. So they stay silent and allow their parishioners to continue to hold on to their childish Sunday school myths as if it were history. Preachers like McMickle are willing to concede obliquely in intellectual conversations that it is not important to them whether the events in Bible are historically true or not but you can be sure that they will never say from their pulpits that there is no evidence that the events described in the OT ever occurred.

The key difference between scientists and religious people is that scientists value the role of evidence in supporting belief and care whether something is true or not, and know that it is quite possible for almost everyone to believe things that are false for a very long time. So the fact that people have believed their religious myths for millennia is of sociological interest but of no significance as regards to its truth-value. The key question is whether there is any evidence for these beliefs. The fact is that there is none. There is as much evidence for Moses as there is for Santa Claus.

As for the benefit of religion sustaining people through slavery, one could just as well make the case that the reason slaveholders encouraged slaves to become Christians was to make them passive and accepting of their awful lot in this world, with the promise of rewards after they die.

December 15, 2010

Census maps of the US

The New York Times has put together a map that can give you the racial-ethnic, income, education, housing, and family distributions of any area in the US.

The disgusting treatment of Bradley Manning

The man accused of being the source for WikiLeaks has not been convicted of any crime. And yet look at how he is being treated.

For 23 out of 24 hours every day -- for seven straight months and counting -- he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he's barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he's being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs.

Just by itself, the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Manning has been subjected for many months is widely viewed around the world as highly injurious, inhumane, punitive, and arguably even a form of torture.

For that reason, many Western nations -- and even some non-Western nations notorious for human rights abuses -- refuse to employ prolonged solitary confinement except in the most extreme cases of prisoner violence.

This is why the conditions under which Manning is being detained were once recognized in the U.S. -- and are still recognized in many Western nations -- as not only cruel and inhumane, but torture.

All this is occurring under the administration of an alleged 'constitutional scholar' who campaigned to stop the abuses committed by his predecessor.

Meanwhile, veteran journalist John Pilger says that Julian Assange is also being held in solitary confinement in London's largest prison.

The consequences of anti-tax extremism

As the tax cut mania spreads, more and more public services are being cut. Some of you would have heard the appalling story of firefighters who stood by and watched a house burn down because the occupant had not paid a $75 fee for fire protection. That is yet another sign of how public services are now being privatized and will be available only to those who can afford to pay for them. Will police be next?

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie satirized this trend a long time ago.

The United States of Fear

There is no question that the current level of fear of terrorist attacks is highly irrational. I should make it clear that I am not saying that terrorist attacks within the US are unlikely. Quite the contrary. It is very likely that there will be repeated attempts at bombings targeting innocent people within the US and that some of these will undoubtedly be successful and result in casualties. Given that the US is engaging in warfare in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and bombing those countries and killing civilians in the process, there is no doubt that some people there, or people here who have sympathies with those being killed, are going to be enraged enough to seek revenge and use groups like al Qaeda or its proxies as vehicles to do so.

What I am saying is that being obsessed with taking extreme measures to prevent such attempts is irrational. The US is a big country that is still fairly open. It is impossible to prevent people who are willing to martyr themselves for a cause from harming other people. This is the reality we have to learn to live with if we are to maintain our sanity, let alone the freedoms and civil liberties that make life worth living.

As Evan DeFilippis writes:

The odds of dying on an airplane as a result of a terrorist hijacking are less than 1 in 25 million — which, for all intents and purposes, is effectively zero — according to Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. By comparison, the odds of dying in a normal airplane crash, according to the OAG Aviation Database, are 1 in 9.2 million. This means that, on average, pilots are responsible for more deaths than terrorists.

In the same vein, the average American is 87 times more likely to drown than die by a terrorist attack; 50 times more likely to die by lightning; and 8 times more likely to die by a police officer, according to the National Safety Council's 2004 estimates. I can go on, the point is this: the risk of a terrorist attack is so infinitesimal and its impact so relatively insignificant that it doesn't make rational sense to accept the suspension of liberty for the sake of avoiding a statistical anomaly.

Would it be appropriate for the TSA to populate public parks, restaurants, casinos, zoos and public transit, all in the name of security? After all, in 2006 the Department of Homeland Security listed those places as "top terrorist targets." And if we were to use the same logic forwarded by TSA-proponents, we would say that because people aren't required to go to these places, it's okay to coerce them into abridging their rights. It's their choice, after all. Yet, we obviously wouldn't accept such a system if it were implemented, so why do we accept the same humiliating system at airports?

Over at Mother Jones Kevin Drum argues that such comparisons are meaningless because people fear death from terrorism more than deaths from other routine causes and thus want their governments to take extreme measures to prevent it.

If, for example, I hear one more person compare the number of deaths from terrorism to the number of deaths from car accidents, I think I'm going to scream. Human beings react differently to accidental death than they do to deliberate attacks from other human beings. This is human nature 101. If you honestly think that the car-terrorism comparison is persuasive to anyone, you are so wildly out of touch with your fellow humans that there's probably no hope for you.

I disagree. I think it is Drum who is out of touch. We live with the possibility of 'deliberate attacks from other human beings' all the time, in the form of muggings and assaults and murders. Even people living in high crime areas do not lock themselves up in their homes or demand the setting up of bomb detection equipment at every intersection. Drum has bought into the government propaganda that there is nothing worse than dying from a terrorist attack. If you look at countries that have had had long periods of random and deadly terrorist activity (Peru, Sri Lanka, Spain, Northern Ireland, India, etc.), you find that people just factor it in as a slightly elevated risk in their lives. They know that it is just bad luck if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you are in a crowded place or at some big ceremonial function or somewhere where some major political figure is present, the odds of being harmed go up slightly. People gauge for themselves if the trade-off is worth it. Some avoid such places and events, others don't. But for the most part people just go about their normal lives not worrying about being killed by explosives. That was the attitude of everyone I knew during the extremely long and violent period in Sri Lanka.

It is preposterous to think that people in America are intrinsically more fearful than the people in those other countries. What has happened is that they have been beaten down. Rather than appealing to people's bravery and resilience, appeals that uplift and ennoble the human spirit, the US government seems to go out of its way to demoralize Americans by portraying them as weak and helpless and fearful, needing the protective arm of the government to go about even their normal daily routine.

The US national anthem correctly pairs the phrase 'the home of the brave' with 'the land of the free' because it is only brave people who are truly free. Shakespeare put it even better in Julius Caesar (Act 2, Scene II) saying "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."

Those who are fearful are only too willing to trade away their freedoms. As Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

December 14, 2010

What has happened to the Nobel Peace Prize?

I did not know much about this year's winner of the Nobel Peace Prize except that I'd heard that he was a critic of the Chinese government and had been jailed by them for expressing his views, which made me instinctively supportive of him. But Tariq Ali points out that irrespective of Liu Xiaobo's merits as an opponent of China's authoritarian government, he is not actually much of a peace advocate.

For the record, Liu Xiaobo has stated publicly that in his view:

(a) China's tragedy is that it wasn't colonised for at least 300 years by a Western power or Japan. This would apparently have civilised it for ever;

(b) The Korean and Vietnam wars fought by the US were wars against totalitarianism and enhanced Washington's 'moral credibility';

(c) Bush was right to go to war in Iraq and Senator Kerry's criticisms were 'slander-mongering';

(d) Afghanistan? No surprises here: Full support for Nato's war.

He has a right to these opinions, but should they get a peace prize?

Apparently, the Nobel committee at one time even "thought about giving Bush and Blair a joint peace prize for invading Iraq but a public outcry forced a retreat."

Given that the Peace Prize was given last year to Barack Obama who has escalated the war in Afghanistan and is steadily raining down bombs on that country as well as Iraq, Yemen, and Pakistan and killing hundred of innocent people in the process, perhaps they should rename it the War Prize.

More on failed terrorist plots

In an earlier post, I said that it seemed like the failed recent attempts to bring down airplanes using incompetent people with half-baked plans may not be signs of incompetence on the part of al Qaeda as popularly perceived but may be part of a strategy to take advantage of two things: the ridiculously high levels of manufactured fear of the US public combined with the huge money-making counter-terrorist industry that is exploiting this fear.

After all, if al Qaeda wanted to really kill people, all it would have to do is set off bombs in shopping malls, sporting events, movie theaters, megachurches, and the like. They seem to have little or no interest in such acts. But, you may object, what about the alleged terror plots against bridges and buildings in Times Square, Miami, Portland, Baltimore, etc. that have been recently foiled with great fanfare?

Paul Craig Roberts lists all such terror 'plots' that have been uncovered so far and notes that there is a common thread that runs through nearly all of them, apart from their ineptness, and that is that in each case the authorities were actively involved in instigating fairly dimwitted people to become part of the plot, by posing as al Qaeda operatives to entice them. So al Qaeda was not behind the plots, the FBI was.

One recent 'plot' that was uncovered was in California where a convicted criminal was recruited by the FBI to pretend to be a devout Muslim, attend a mosque, and talk about jihad incessantly. He so alarmed the other mosque attendees that they got a restraining order against him forbidding him to attend. But it was trumpeted as another terrorist plot uncovered!

Another 'plot' that was uncovered was in Baltimore, where the FBI targeted a young Muslim convert who had made some incendiary comments on Facebook to lure him into agreeing to a plot.

Joe Quinn also examines the role of the authorities in these plots, especially the highly publicized Miami one which seemed to involve a bizarre religious sect whose members seem to be at a minimum borderline deranged.

The only bombing plan uncovered so far that seemed to be spontaneous was the Times Square bomber.

So what is going on?

The sad fact is that here are many young people who are not very bright and are angry for all kinds of reasons. As Robert Pape points out, one major reason is that they are Muslims angered by what they see as indiscriminate killing by the US government of their co-religionists in other countries. But there are other reasons for anger that have no connection with Islam or al Qaeda, such as abortion, fears of gun control, opposition to government in general and taxes in particular.

Then there are those who are so poor and desperate that if you dangle some money in front of them they may be willing to do things they would not otherwise have considered. Combined with the stupidity and bravado that some young men tend to have, it would not take much for people with almost unlimited money and other resources (as the government has) to persuade such people to sign on to some half-baked plot and then later unmask it as another 'success' in the war on terror.

As Roberts says:

If you are not too bright and some tough looking guys accost you and tell you that they are Al Qaeda and expect your help in a terrorist operation, you might be afraid to say no, or you might be thrilled to be part of a blowback against an American population that is indifferent to their government's slaughter of people of your ethnicity in your country of origin. Whichever way it falls, it is unlikely the ensnared person would ever have done anything beyond talk had the FBI not organized them into action. In other cases the FBI entices people with money to participate in its fake plots.

The real question is why the government is going to such lengths to do so. Roberts harbors dark suspicions:

When the US government has to go to such lengths to create "terrorists" out of hapless people, an undeclared agenda is being served. What could this agenda be?

The answer is many agendas. One agenda is to justify wars of aggression that are war crimes under the Nuremberg standard created by the US government itself. One way to avoid war crimes charges is to create acts of terrorism that justify the naked aggressions against "terrorist countries."

Another agenda is to create a police state. A police state can control people who object to their impoverishment for the benefit of the superrich much more easily than can a democracy endowed with constitutional civil liberties.

The "war on terror" provides an opportunity for a few well-connected people to become very rich. If they leave Americans with a third world police state, they will be living it up in Gstaad.

He points out that Michael Chertoff, "former head of US Homeland Security, is the lobbyist who represents Rapiscan, the company that manufactures the full body porno-scanners that, following the "underwear bomber" event, are now filling up US airports. Homeland Security has announced that they are going to purchase the porno-scanners for trains, buses, subways, court houses, and sports events. How can shopping malls and roads escape? Recently on Interstate 20 west of Atlanta, trucks had to drive through a similar device. Everyone has forgotten that the underwear bomber lacked required documents and was escorted aboard the airliner by an official."

So now we have the bizarre combination of al Qaeda, the government, and the private counter-terrorism industry all having different motives but working towards the same goal: to keep the nation in a state of perpetual fear.

December 13, 2010

Ricky Gervais on Noah (language advisory)

(via Machines Like Us)

Naomi Wolf on WikiLeaks and the Espionage Act

She has an excellent article that is well-worth reading in full but I will give you a few paragraphs to whet your appetite.

The Espionage Act was crafted in 1917 -- because President Woodrow Wilson wanted a war and, faced with the troublesome First Amendment, wished to criminalize speech critical of his war. In the run-up to World War One, there were many ordinary citizens -- educators, journalists, publishers, civil rights leaders, union activists -- who were speaking out against US involvement in the war. The Espionage Act was used to round these citizens by the thousands for the newly minted 'crime' of their exercising their First Amendment Rights.

I predicted in 2006 that the forces that wish to strip American citizens of their freedoms, so as to benefit from a profitable and endless state of war -- forces that are still powerful in the Obama years, and even more powerful now that the Supreme Court decision striking down limits on corporate contributions to our leaders has taken effect -- would pressure Congress and the White House to try to breathe new life yet again into the terrifying Espionage Act in order to silence dissent.

Let me explain clearly why activating -- rather than abolishing -- the Espionage Act is an act of profound aggression against the American people.

As I noted in The End of America, if you prosecute journalists -- and Assange, let us remember, is the New York Times in the parallel case of the Pentagon Papers, not Daniel Ellsberg; he is the publisher, not the one who revealed the classified information -- then any outlet, any citizen, who discusses or addresses 'classified' information can be arrested on 'national security' grounds. If Assange can be prosecuted under the Espionage Act, then so can the New York Times; and the producers of Parker Spitzer, who discussed the WikiLeaks material two nights ago; and the people who posted a mirror WikiLeaks site on my Facebook 'fan' page; and Fox News producers, who addressed the leak and summarized the content of the classified information; and every one of you who may have downloaded information about it; and so on. That is why prosecution via the Espionage Act is so dangerous -- not for Assange alone, but for every one of us, regardless of our political views.

She calls on people to demand the repeal of the Espionage Act.

Informative discussion on al Jazeera about WikiLeaks

al Qaeda: Extremely clever or incredibly stupid?

The recent spate of news over airport security has brought to the forefront of my mind a question that has been puzzling me for some time. Why are terrorist acts seemingly focused on attacking airplanes?

While the attacks on 9/11 were highly sophisticated, involving careful planning and almost military-level coordination of a large number of well-trained people, the more recent attempts such as the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber have been amateurish.

Furthermore, following 9/11, two features have been adopted that have really increased airplane security that make them much harder targets. The first is that the cockpit doors are securely locked and the pilots have weapons. The second is that passengers no longer are passive when someone starts behaving weirdly or threateningly or just acts up. Instead, they now fight back. As a result, it would be impossible now for a few hijackers with boxcutters or knives or even axes and samurai swords to take control of a plane. The crew and other passengers would be able to quickly subdue them with no risk to the plane. So all this effort and expense directed towards confiscating nail clippers, screwdrivers, pocket knives, etc. seems pointless and wasted.

When I was returning last year to the US from a trip to Hong Kong airport, the security person viewing the scanner saw something in my carry-on bag that aroused his suspicions but he could not find it and did not tell me what he was looking for. He repeatedly put my bag through the scanner and searched everywhere looking for secret compartments and the like and I was baffled as to what could be the problem. Finally, he triumphantly found it. It was a small screwdriver, with a blade about an inch long, that I use to tighten the tiny screws on the frame of my glasses that hold the lens in place. I have carried it in my laptop bag ever since a screw fell out once when I was attending a conference and I could not use my glasses. I had forgotten about it since the bag had gone through security many times since then without any problem until the security person in Hong Kong noticed it and confiscated it. But really, the idea that anyone could take over a plane with that instrument is laughable.

Guns are more serious. I am not sure if bullets passing through the fuselage are sufficient to depressurize the cabin and bring the plane down but security measures to prevent guns on planes seem reasonable. The next danger is whether there is something that a passenger could do in the privacy of the bathroom that could bring down the plane, and this brings us to the realm of whether chemicals can be combined to create an explosive mixture sufficiently powerful to bring down a plane. The evidence seems mixed on this.

But my main point is that it is now very hard to bring down a plane so why does al Qaeda bother with trying to do so when there are so many alternative soft targets? But so far the terrorist attempts at soft targets in the US, like the Times Square bomber, seem hopelessly inept, even half-hearted. Are they stupid, trying to carry out the same failed strategy over and over?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writing in Foreign Policy reports that Inspire, the English-language online magazine produced by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), its Yemen branch (who knew that they actually publish a magazine?), says that al Qaeda, far from being stupid, is pursuing is a clever 'strategy of a thousand cuts'. They know that even weak plans that are foiled will trigger vast and expensive countermeasures by the US. For example, the recent failed plot using printer cartridges shipped as freight in packages cost al Qaeda around $4,200, but it will trigger responses costing billions of dollars. Their goal seems to be to bleed America dry and they warn that future attacks will be smaller but more frequent. Getting the US deeply involved in multiple wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iran) is also part of their strategy to bankrupt the US.

Gartenstein-Ross sums up what al Qaeda is trying to do:

The point is clear: Security is expensive, and driving up costs is one way jihadists can wear down Western economies. The writer [of the Inspire article] encourages the United States "not to spare millions of dollars to protect these targets" by increasing the number of guards, searching all who enter those places, and even preventing flying objects from approaching the targets. "Tell them that the life of the American citizen is in danger and that his life is more significant than billions of dollars," he wrote. "Hand in hand, we will be with you until you are bankrupt and your economy collapses."

Unfortunately, the author, and the editors of Inspire, are all too right: The economics of this fight favor the terrorists, not those seeking to defend against terrorism. Although there is a tone of triumphalism to al Qaeda's latest statements -- and a clear attempt to spin its recent failures -- we would be foolish to ignore the group's warnings and its clearly articulated strategy.

When Sri Lanka went through several decades of insurgencies and civil war, the opponents of the government did not, as far as I am aware, try to smuggle weapons on to planes. Instead attacks were made on trains and buses and marketplaces, places where large numbers of people congregated. Such targets were impossible to defend against. People got used to the idea that a bomb might go off anywhere but went about their normal business, aware of the danger that they might be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but not letting themselves be terrorized to the point of paralysis.

Can Americans reach that same level of detachment about personal risk and thus foil al Qaeda's ultimate goal of bankrupting the US by causing expensive over-reactions? The catch is that there is a vast counter-terrorism industry in the US that is making a killing off people's fear and they have no interest in ratcheting terror down and every incentive to increase it. So ordinary people are at the mercy of a tag team of al Qaeda and the counter-terrorism industry, buffeting them from all sides.

December 12, 2010

Obama talks to the nation

George Carlin on the American dream

He tells it like it is. Since it is George Carlin, there is the obligatory language advisory.

His comments about education were echoed by me in the last chapter of my second book The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine (2005).

(Thanks to Norm)

Power corrupts

Pratap Chatterjee in The Guardian has an interesting article on how advocates of civil liberties and human rights quickly succumb to becoming advocates of the imperial presidency when they join the government. He gives as examples people like Harold Koh, dean of the Yale Law School, and John Yoo, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. Both had secure jobs in which tenure is given to empower people to challenge authority, tradition, and conventional wisdom without fear of repercussions. But as soon as they were given government positions, they became advocates for some of the most repressive policies against human rights.

If even tenured professors can be so easily subverted, this shows why we need structures outside of the establishment to maintain transparency and uphold true democratic values. Institutions like WikiLeaks challenge the power structure and we should support them.

December 11, 2010

Daniel Ellsberg talks to Stephen Colbert about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

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It never ceases to shock me that so-called 'respectable' media commentators can so casually and even gleefully publicly call for the murder of people. Have we reached such a level of barbarity that such talk does not arouse widespread condemnation? Have we, at last, no shame?

I will be on the radio

On Tuesday, December 14 from 9:00am to 10:00 am, I will be on our local NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 on their Sound of Ideas program to discuss the results of the latest Pew survey on the state of religious knowledge, in which atheists/agnostics came out as the best informed.

This was the show that was re-scheduled from two months ago.

You can listen live or to a podcast after the show.

How bacteria talk to each other...

... and can thus work together for good or bad. Fascinating.

December 10, 2010

The fix is in for Social Security

When Obama announced his deal with the Republicans, I said that I was suspicious of his decision to reduce the payroll tax from 6.2% to 4.2% for one year. I said that this would help to actually create a crisis in the Social Security trust fund (that is currently in good shape) that those who want to loot that fund need in order to push through their plans. I am becoming more and more convinced that my cynicism was justified.

The first reason is that we have seen that no tax cut is 'temporary'. As with the Bush 'temporary' tax cuts that were due to expire this year, not continuing them is now being portrayed as a tax increase. So it will be at the end of next year when the payroll tax cut expires. People who oppose the end of this cut will refer to the end as a tax increase and the Democrats will cave and continue it, and this will actually throw all the actuarial calculations out of whack, just as the looters want.

Secondly, the idea that the payroll tax cut will spur consumption (that will in turn act as source of economic stimulus) does not hold up. The small rise in the take home pay (less that $100 per month for a median household income of $50,000) is unlikely to cause people to rush out and buy stuff. If a one-year stimulus plan were the goal, it would have been better to keep the tax level unchanged and send that same family a single check for $1,000, which has a greater chance of being spent. This is the same kind of gimmicky tax rebate stunt that George W. Bush pulled, but it causes less damage than a 'temporary' payroll tax cut that will become permanent. (Note that I personally think that a consumption-based economy is insane but for the purpose of argument I am staying within that framework.)

I have a very bad feeling about this. It reinforces my belief that when it comes to adopting policies that harm the poor and middle class, the Democrats are the party of choice for the oligarchs because they know that party supporters will not revolt against their own leadership. They used Bill Clinton to cut welfare benefits to the poor and they are using Obama to attack Social Security. Their plan seems to be working.

How the rich win coming and going

The sub-prime mortgage debacle that fuelled the current economic crisis has been devastating for a lot of people. But not all. We know that some actually made huge profits from it. A recent report reveals that some of these same people then made even more profits from the government's bailout plans, using the low interest money they were given.

The news reporter says, "The fact that some investors who profited amid the financial downturn benefited from TALF could elicit questions about why a U.S. bailout using taxpayer money helped finance new investments for them." She is living in a fantasyland. Questions are rarely raised about why the government goes out of its way to help the wealthy get even wealthier. Only policies that help poor people get that kind of close scrutiny.

The weak legal case against Assange and WikiLeaks

Time magazine has a good article on this.

See also Ted Rall's latest cartoon.

Competing explanations

Obama apologists say that he had to bribe the Republicans with tax breaks (income, estate, dividends) for wealthy people in order to get the things he really wanted (extension of tax cuts for families earning less that $250,000, extension of unemployment benefits).

But there is an alternative hypothesis that explains the same events: that what Obama really wanted was to give the wealthy their tax breaks and that he had to bribe his supporters with the other package in order to get them to support it.

Given his track record and the discussion that has ensued since the deal was announced, which hypothesis makes more sense?

Why the greater fuss over the latest WikiLeaks release?

Chris Floyd takes a stab at why this particular WikiLeaks release has aroused much greater fury than the previous ones that dealt with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that this joint action by the world elite to shut down WikiLeaks – which has been operating for four years – comes after the release of diplomatic cables, not in response to earlier leaks which provided detailed evidence of crimes and atrocities committed by the perpetrators and continuers of Washington's Terror War. I suppose this is because the diplomatic cables have upset the smooth running of the corrupt and cynical backroom operations that actually govern our world, behind the ludicrous lies and self-righteous posturing that our great and good lay on for the public. They didn't mind being unmasked as accomplices in mass murder and fomenters of suffering and hatred; in fact, they were rather proud of it. And they certainly knew that their fellow corruptocrats in foreign governments – not to mention the perpetually stunned and supine American people – wouldn't give a toss about a bunch of worthless peons in Iraq and Afghanistan getting killed. But the diplomatic cables have caused an embarrassing stink among the closed little clique of the movers and shakers. And that is a crime deserving of vast eons in stir – or death.

WikiLeaks will doubtless try to struggle on. And Assange says he has given the entire diplomatic trove to 100,000 people. By dribs and drabs, shards of truth will get out. But the world's journalists – and those persons of conscience working in the world's governments – have been given a hard, harsh, unmistakable lesson in the new realities of our degraded time. Tell a truth that discomforts power, that challenges its domination over our lives, our discourse, our very thoughts, and you will be destroyed. No institution, public or private, will stand with you; the most powerful entities, public and private, will be arrayed against you, backed up by overwhelming violent force. This is where we are now. This is what we are now.

Jack Shafer writes about some of the things we have learned thanks to WikiLeaks that might have caused the deeper concern this time.

The recent WikiLeaks release, for example, shows the low regard U.S. secretaries of state hold for international treaties that bar spying at the United Nations. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, systematically and serially violated those treaties to gain an incremental upper hand. And they did it in writing! That Clinton now decries Julian Assange's truth-telling as an "attack" on America but excuses her cavalier approach to treaty violation tells you all you need to know about U.S. diplomacy.

It is quite extraordinary that the US government would seek to obtain the credit card numbers and passwords of high-ranking UN officials. Clinton's actions are not, as it is being pooh-poohed by our elites, business as usual in the world of diplomacy. Treaties are binding as law. What possible use would such information provide as far as diplomacy is concerned? Paul Craig Roberts speculates that they might have planned to use it in some future blackmail operation. It sounds incredible, like something out of a spy novel, but when you have a lawless government like the US, whose officials have created a cocoon of immunity around themselves, people tend to get carried away with what they think they can get away with.

Justin Raimondo reminds us what is at stake in the case of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange:

What this all means is that the future of the internet is being decided, right here, right now: if the worldwide alliance of tyrants and crooks succeeds in shutting WikiLeaks down, the rest of us are doomed. If they can get away with this, they can get away with anything – including legislation regulating content. That's where we're headed, unless the authoritarian assault – led by Senators Joe Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein, Fox News (excepting Judge Napolitano, of course), and neocons left and right – is repulsed.

There is no more important task for antiwar activists, civil libertarians, and all those who treasure freedom than the defense of WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange. That's why the Amazon boycott is so important. That's why we've got to work tirelessly to free Assange. That's why we must never give in to the Liebermans, the Feinsteins, and the Fox News lynch mob. As the commies would say: No Pasaran!

The extradition of Assange to Sweden would signal the final phase of Britain's long slow slide into authoritarianism, an outcome that seems nearly inevitable for a society that imposes a draconian "speech code," and has its population under constant surveillance. From there the plan is obviously to jail him in Sweden until the US can cook up a "legal" rationale to have him extradited for trial in the US – perhaps as a material witness in the case of Bradley Manning, suspected of providing the diplomatic cables – and the Afghan and Iraq war logs – to WikiLeaks.

Truth is on trial – and a conviction would be fatal not only to WikiLeaks, but for the cause of liberty itself. This is an issue that the ruling elite is counting on to plug the giant hole in their armor called the internet. We can't afford to lose this one – at least without inflicting some pretty heavy damage on the enemy.

Assange is the first high-profile political prisoner is a new age of repression and fear. If he is martyred to the cause of liberty, let his bravery and determination serve as an example and an inspiration to us all. But we don't need any more martyrs: we need living activists, like Assange, who are willing to take on the States of the world. We must tirelessly work to free him, and in the process free ourselves.

Raimondo's comment about holding Assange as a 'material witness' is important. The US and other governments are in a quandary because there is nothing that WikiLeaks has done that major news organizations have not also done. So they will try and argue something like Assange colluded with the leaker and hold him as a material witness. If the US government declares someone to be a 'material witness' that person's habeas corpus and other rights go out the window and he can be held incommunicado indefinitely.

WikiLeaks is the future and we cannot turn our backs on it.

December 09, 2010

The Daily Show on the budget deal

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Why the Australian PM is angry with WIkiLeaks

I was surprised that the new Australian prime minister Julia Gillard has been such a harsh critic of WikiLeaks, since its editor Julian Assange is an Australian citizen after all and WikiLeaks has not committed any crime. I suspected that there may be more to the story.

Well, yet another released cable may explain it. The Age reports that:

FEDERAL minister and right-wing Labor powerbroker Mark Arbib has been revealed as a confidential contact of the United States embassy in Canberra, providing inside information and commentary for Washington on the workings of the Australian government and the Labor Party.

Secret US embassy cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available exclusively to The Age reveal that Senator Arbib, one of the architects of Kevin Rudd's removal as prime minister, has been in regular contact with US embassy officers.

His candid comments have been incorporated into reports to Washington with repeated requests that his identity as a ''protected'' source be guarded.

Embassy cables reporting on the Labor Party and national political developments, frequently classified "No Forn" - meaning no distribution to non-US personnel - refer to Senator Arbib as a strong supporter of Australia's alliance with the US.

They identify him as a valuable source of information on Labor politics, including Mr Rudd's hopes to forestall an eventual leadership challenge from then deputy prime minister Julia Gillard.

Arbib helped Gillard become PM and she would not like to see her ally revealed as a US agent. Assange has criticized the Australian government saying that the Australian government is more interested in pleasing the US than protecting the rights of its own citizens. "Australians should observe with no pride the disgraceful pandering to these sentiments by Julia Gillard and her government. The powers of the Australian government appear to be fully at the disposal of the US as to whether to cancel my Australian passport, or to spy on or harass WikiLeaks supporters. The Australian Attorney-General is doing everything he can to help a US investigation clearly directed at framing Australian citizens and shipping them to the US."

There are reports that a whole bunch of cables relating to Australia will be released within a month. No wonder Gillard is miffed with WikiLeaks. What WIkiLeaks is revealing that the leaders of many countries think their primary allegiance is to the US and not their own people. Politicians hate it when their hypocrisy and shady dealings see the light of day.

If you can get hold of it, I strongly recommend seeing A Very British Coup (1988). It is an outstanding 150-minutes British TV mini-series showing how the US tries to use its agents within the British government and its bureaucracy to overthrow a progressive British government that has a former steelworker as prime minister, a man who really does want to carry out his campaign promises, a kind of anti-Obama if you will.

Here is a clip from a key scene when the upper-class head of British intelligence, who hates everything the prime minister stands for, gives him an ultimatum.

The part 2 continuation of the clip leads to the climax.

The hysterical and lawless war against WikiLeaks

Although WikiLeaks itself has not been charged with any crime, the US and other governments are talking about the organization as if they as criminals and taken actions against them without any due process. This lawless behavior by governments is now routine and the establishment media goes along with it but it is really quite extraordinary how vicious the reaction has been.

What the WikiLeaks furor has revealed is the oligarchic nature of the national security state, when with wink and a nod, governments can enlist the support of the business sector (Banks, Amazon, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal) in its war on information. (PayPal said they closed the WikiLeaks channel simply because the State Department asked it to.) We saw this before when the telecommunications companies colluded with the government to spy on people, and we should expect to see more unless they are exposed enough that people wake up and see the extent to which the national security state has taken over their lives.

John Naughton has an excellent article in The Guardian that says that governments are upset because WikiLeaks has exposed how they systematically lie to their own people.

'Never waste a good crisis' used to be the catchphrase of the Obama team in the runup to the presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from official reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations.

The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.

And as the backlash unfolds – first with deniable attacks on internet service providers hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay and PayPal suddenly "discovering" that their terms and conditions preclude them from offering services to WikiLeaks, and then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia students posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook – the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured. The response has been vicious, co-ordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the net.

There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamouring to shut WikiLeaks down.

In going after WikiLeaks with such ferocity, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can be assured that the US media will not accuse them of hypocrisy. For example, NPR's Morning Edition had a recent item on how high levels in the Chinese government tried to hack into Google earlier this year to gain information on human-rights activists. This lengthy report was based on a single speculative cable sent by a US diplomat and released by WikiLeaks. Hillary Clinton said at that time said that Barack Obama on his visit to China had "defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity." Because of course we know how highly Obama and Clinton value the free flow of information.

People like Obama and Clinton have no shame because those noble sentiments only apply to other countries. Are NPR's investigative reporters looking into who is behind the denial-of-service attacks on the WikiLeaks servers? You can be sure that Tom Gjelten, who reported the NPR story about Chinese government abuse, won't investigate because he has long been a slavish admirer of the Pentagon and the US government, which is why I always think of him as the correspondent for National Pentagon Radio.

Naughton continues:

One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates.

The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.

The problem is that they cannot face their electorates – who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly – and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.

The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies -- with the exception of Twitter, so far -- bending to their will.

But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won't work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.

Government lies have to be exposed if democracy is to have any meaning because otherwise they are not accountable.

December 08, 2010

Garry Trudeau

I have been a fan of the Doonesbury comic strip from almost its inception 40 years ago and it was nice to see the author interviewed on The Colbert Report.

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The strange case against Julian Assange

As everyone knows by now, Swedish authorities are seeking to extradite Julian Assange to that country. The Daily Mail has a detailed chronology of the sequence of events and the people involved that have led to the Swedish authorities to pursue him. Justin Raimondo also looks closely at the charges.

The solution to every problem

This cartoon is from 2008 but it never ceases to be topical.

taxcuts.gif

Fighting WikiLeaks' enemies

It is no secret that the US government is trying hard to deny people's access to WikiLeaks, even to the extent of telling government employees, and even people who might think of applying for government jobs in the future, to not read the released documents. Since in an oligarchy government and big business work in concert, it did not take long for Amazon to realize that it had better remove WikiLeaks from their cloud servers, for EveryDNS, a US-based domain name provider, to close their service to WikiLeaks, and for PayPal to stop allowing people to contribute to WikiLeaks through their service. Visa and MasterCard have reportedly stopped allowing payments to WikiLeaks (though my contribution on Sunday went through). We have also seen denial of service attacks to disable their servers.

When the Chinese government tried to limit the access of their people to the internet, there were big protests in the US about the suppression of free speech by the same people who are now cheering the actions against WikiLeaks led by the US government, but this kind of hypocrisy by the US government and its media lackeys has become depressingly routine. Via the invaluable Glenn Greenwald, I learned that the State Department just issued a press release proudly announcing that the US is going to Host World Press Freedom Day in 2011 where they will honor a "a person, organization or institution that has notably contributed to the defense and/or promotion of press freedom, especially where risks have been undertaken." WikiLeaks and Julian Assange should be shoo-ins for that award. I wonder if Assistant Secretary of State P. J. Crowley (the author of the State Department press release and whose hypocrisy I have written about before) ever looks at himself in the mirror and wonders how he could have sunk so low.

The media organization Reporters Without Borders has issued a strong statement condemning the efforts to suppress WikiLeaks.

Reporters Without Borders condemns the blocking, cyber-attacks and political pressure being directed at cablegate.wikileaks.org, the website dedicated to the US diplomatic cables. The organization is also concerned by some of the extreme comments made by American authorities concerning WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.

This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency. We are shocked to find countries such as France and the United States suddenly bringing their policies on freedom of expression into line with those of China. We point out that in France and the United States, it is up to the courts, not politicians, to decide whether or not a website should be closed.

Reporters Without Borders can only condemn this determination to hound Assange and reiterates its conviction that WikiLeaks has a right under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment to publish these documents and is even playing a useful role by making them available to journalists and the greater public.

We stress that any restriction on the freedom to disseminate this body of documents will affect the entire press, which has given detailed coverage to the information made available by WikiLeaks, with five leading international newspapers actively cooperating in preparing it for publication.

Reporters Without Borders would also like to stress that it has always defended online freedom and the principle of "Net neutrality," according to which Internet Service Providers and hosting companies should play no role in choosing the content that is placed online.

Of course, WikiLeaks is resourceful enough to find ways around these efforts at information suppression and it has plenty of allies on the internet who know how to counter government efforts at repression. Already about 200 mirror sites have been created with their creators using Twitter to organize their countermove. A group called Anonymous has launched Operation Payback targeting those entities trying to attack WikiLeaks and have themselves taken down the website of MasterCard and the Swiss bank that froze Assange's legal defense fund. They have issued a manifesto on YouTube. (It is interesting that they are using the V for Vendetta mask as a rallying symbol, the way it was used in that film. I wrote about the deep significance of this film and its politics when it was released in 2006.)

WikiLeaks has also created an encrypted 'insurance file' containing more secret documents that would be released if anything serious were to happen to Julian Assange or WikiLeaks.

In an information war between repressive governments and their corporate allies and media lackeys on the one hand, and freedom-loving people with hacker credentials on the other, it is not clear that the government side can win without actually shutting down the internet.

I think it should be pretty clear which side I am on. In order to increase access to WikiLeaks, I have added a link to the WikiLeaks home page on the right hand side navigation column bar that I will update whenever necessary. If you click on that link, it will take you to their home page where all the released documents can be accessed and has a link to a page that gives you options to contribute money.

December 07, 2010

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on the war being waged by the rich on the poor

The contents of the speech will be familiar to the readers of this blog but it is well worth watching.

Christmas comes early to the oligarchy, thanks to Santa Obama

So, as I predicted, Barack Obama and the Democrats have, with much handwringing about how sad they are to do this but had no choice, given the oligarchy all that they want, and more.

Obama announced that he had agreed to:

  1. Retain all the tax cuts given to the wealthy.
  2. Exempt from the estate tax inheritances up to $5 million while cutting the rate heirs pay to 35 percent for amounts above that. In 2009 the exemption figure had been $3.5 million exemption with a 45 percent tax rate, and this had been 'temporarily' reduced to zero this year. But it was due to return in 2011 to the $1 million exemption level and a top rate of 55%. So the heirs of the oligarchs get to keep the money to themselves. Paris Hilton must be so pleased.
  3. Keep taxes on unearned income low by having the top tax rate on capital gains and dividends (the source of much of the oligarchy's wealth) be 15% for two years. In 2011 it had been due to become 20% for long term capital gains and 39.6% for short term.

In a gesture to unemployed, Obama extended the period of unemployment benefits but the oligarchy really does not care about a few crumbs tossed to the poor (or the deficit for that matter) as long as waves of money keep getting directed towards them.

In another gesture to the poor and middle class, Obama also cut the employee contribution to payroll (i.e., Social Security) taxes from 6.2% to 4.2%, so that their take home pay would increase. But being deeply suspicious as I am, I wonder if this alleged benefit also has an ulterior motive to favor the oligarchy. Remember that the oligarchy wants to raid the Social Security funds under the guise of 'rescuing' it from a crisis. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, there is no long-term Social Security crisis that cannot be solved with minor adjustments. Could this new move be a means of artificially creating a crisis, since revenues will now go down?

Obama is assuring everyone that the shortfall in Social Security revenues will be covered by general revenues. But that is not the point since the government was always obliged to cover the costs. The point is that as far as book-keeping goes, Social Security will now actually have a serious long-term deficit and this is what the raiders will point to down the road to argue that it needs rescuing.

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow captures the essence of the charade that Obama, the Democrats, and the Republicans have been playing on us, though he seems to fall into the common liberal trap of thinking that Obama is naïve and ingenuous, while I think he knows exactly what he is doing and for whose benefit. One thing that Tomorrow gets exactly right is that it is telling that Obama's ingratiating and obsequious approach to the Republicans switches to becoming really animated and angry at the very people whose energy and support propelled him to office.

There will still be some Kabuki theater with some rank and file progressive Democrats trying to kill this deal But the fix was in a long time ago. I hope I am proved wrong on this but I am not optimistic.

And the lies about WikiLeaks continue…

Glenn Greenwald documents how critics of WikiLeaks are basing their arguments on a falsehood and squirming to find ways to just indict WikiLeaks while not targeting all the newspapers that published the same cables.

As Julian Assange says, "WikiLeaks is not the only publisher of the US embassy cables. Other media outlets, including Britain's The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais in Spain and Der Spiegel in Germany have published the same redacted cables."

So why is WikiLeaks being singled out? Because governments always target the powerless and want to teach a lesson to any upstart group that harbors similar ideas of openness.

As Assange says, "Prime Minister Gillard and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have not had a word of criticism for the other media organisations. That is because The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel are old and large, while WikiLeaks is as yet young and small."

Freedom-loving people have to fight the combination of secretive governments and their media allies who conspire to hide the fact that they exist just to serve the oligarchy. Transparency to them is like sunlight to a vampire.

The War on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

Julian Assange has been arrested and denied bail in England.

Meanwhile he has an op-ed in an Australian newspaper.

The internet war over WikiLeaks heats up

As governments pressure their business and media lackeys to choke off WikiLeaks, internet activists are striking back.

WikiLeaks' collateral damage

WikiLeaks' repeated release of secret documents has produced considerable collateral damage. No, I am not talking about the harm done to innocent people. While the government and its lackeys in the media have been howling that WikiLeaks' has 'blood on its hands' (how they love that phrase!) because of its 'irresponsibility' in releasing could result in the deaths of those people who have helped the western occupying forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have been forced to concede that none of their fears have been realized. Actually, those 'fears' are better called 'hopes' because I think they wanted someone named in the documents to be killed so that it could be used to discredit WikiLeaks.

Of course, even the most cursory survey of recent history shows that the US government doesn't give two cents about the lives of innocent people in the countries that it invades, killing hundreds of thousands of them in the pursuit of its geostrategic goals. All this squealing is because the documents have revealed the systemic lying and hypocrisy of the government. Barack Obama, who came to power promising to bring a new transparency and openness to government and to stop the abuses of his predecessor, is revealed (along with Hillary Clinton) to be one of the biggest hypocrites of them all because the distance between his words and actions is even greater than those of the appalling Bush-Cheney regime whose contempt for democracy and the rule of law was out in the open.

But the collateral damage in this case is the exposure of the ineffectual and servile nature of the media. What WikiLeaks is doing is revealing important stories that the media did not uncover, did not seek to uncover, or knew about and did not reveal to the public because of its desire to be in the good graces of the government. It is because the media have been stripped naked by WikiLeaks that they are the ones who are almost apoplectic in demanding that the government protect its secrets better. They know that if this continues, sooner-or-later even the most dim-witted observer of the national scene is going to start to wonder why it is that it is WikiLeaks that is breaking these major stories while the mainstream media is obsessed with Sarah Palin's tweets.

Even former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Dowd is appalled at the government and media response to the WikiLeaks release.

In Washington’s polarized political environment, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on a few things: That the government, in the name of fighting terrorism, has the right to listen in on all of our phone conversations and read our e-mails, even if it has no compelling reason for doing so. That the government can use machines at the airport that basically conduct the equivalent of strip searches of every passenger. That the government, for as long as it wants, can withhold any information from the public that it decides is in the national interest and is classified. And that when someone reveals this information, they are reviled on all sides, with the press corps staying silent.

When did we decide that we trust the government more than its citizens? And that revealing the truth about the government is wrong? And why is the media complicit in this? Did we not learn anything from the run-up to the Iraq war when no one asked hard questions about the justifications for the war and when we accepted statements from government officials without proper pushback?

And shouldn’t news organizations be defending WikiLeaks and doing some soul-searching of their own about why they aren’t devoting more resources to the search for the truth? Why is it that the National Enquirer and Internet blogs sometimes seem better than they are at finding out what’s really going on?

Glenn Greenwald provides an example of the bipartisanship that Dowd refers to.

[T]he loathsome Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) -- the National-Security-State-venerating Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who lives off her defense contractor-husband's vast wealth -- announced that she supports re-writing and expanding the Espionage Act of 1917 to make it easier to prosecute WikiLeaks and those like them; as always, Feinstein abuses her role as Chair of the "oversight" Committee not to scrutinize and limit the abuses of the intelligence community but to protect them at all costs, as that's where her source of wealth and power lie. She was responding to yesterday's announcement that Joe Lieberman -- joined by GOP Senators Scott Brown and John Ensign -- introduced a bill intended to make it easier to prosecute Assange. Exactly as Dowd says, when it comes to authoritarian punishments for those who dare to expose what the U.S. Government does, the mindset is entirely bipartisan.

Lieberman's bill has the cute acronym that now seems to be obligatory for any draconian anti-democratic legislation (Remember the odious USA PATRIOT act?) and is called the SHIELD law (for Securing Human Intelligence and Enforcing Lawful Dissemination), "which would make it a crime to publish information that might harm U.S. agents or informants, or would otherwise be contrary to the national interest." Such broad language seeks to totally gut the First Amendment.

The real target of such moves is, of course, not WikiLeaks alone but the media in general. It is a long-established practice of governments to use moments of intense crisis (9/11 and the Gulf of Tonkin are good examples) to ram through measures to increase their powers that they can then use against everyone. You can be sure that the US mainstream media, rather than fight such censorship efforts tooth and nail because it can so easily be turned against them in the future, will be cheering on this example of 'responsible bipartisanship', a great example of the 'two parties working together for the nation's good', providing a welcome respite from the 'partisan acrimony' that they constantly bemoan.

Censorship and a free press are natural enemies. So why does the establishment media go against what should be their own interests? Because that is how the corporate media serves the interests of the oligarchic one-party state. Because they cannot openly say that they exist to serve the interests of the oligarchy, they have to instead say that they are 'responsible' and 'law abiding' and as such their hands are tied. So they willingly extend their hands to be tied, rather than accepting the gift that WikiLeaks has provided them with in the form of a treasure trove of information for use in their own reporting.

This is what WikiLeaks has exposed in releasing the documents and why the corporate media (apart from a few notable exceptions such as David Samuels who has a wonderful article in The Atlantic) hate WikiLeaks so much.

This is also why I support WikiLeaks with both words and money. It is easy to donate. The link on the right hand side navigation bar will take you to their home page.

December 06, 2010

Random acts of culture

Here's another flash mob of singers from Florida Grand Opera surprising shoppers at a Macy's department store in the Dadeland Mall in Florida.

Random Act of Culture at Dadeland Mall from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

The exact number of crazy people in the population

When opinion polls are conducted and the results released, I always wonder at what level of support we should begin to take minority viewpoints seriously. I had arrived at a rough rule of thumb that, depending on the issue being polled (politics, religion, science, etc.), you could always find anywhere between 10-20% of the population willing to subscribe to whatever truly nutty option is offered to them, whether it is because they are truly believe in it or are answering at random or are just having fun at the pollsters' expense. (Whenever polls survey young people about their beliefs and activities, I suspect that the last factor rises considerably.)

Back in 2005, Kung Fu Monkey was able to put a more precise figure on the nutty segment, at least when it comes to people's preferences for political candidates: 27%.

John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --

Tyrone: 27%.

John: ... you said that immmediately, and with some authority.

Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

Makes sense to me. So when you find people like Sarah Palin polling in the mid-twenties as people's choice for president, bear that in mind.

Why the US mainstream media cannot be trusted

Gareth Porter uses the latest WikiLeaks release to illustrate how the New York Times and the Washington Post lie to their readers by omission, carefully editing their stories to reflect the views of the government.

A diplomatic cable from last February released by Wikileaks provides a detailed account of how Russian specialists on the Iranian ballistic missile program refuted the U.S. suggestion that Iran has missiles that could target European capitals or intends to develop such a capability.

In fact, the Russians challenged the very existence of the mystery missile the U.S. claims Iran acquired from North Korea.

But readers of the two leading U.S. newspapers never learned those key facts about the document.

The New York Times and Washington Post reported only that the United States believed Iran had acquired such missiles - supposedly called the BM-25 - from North Korea. Neither newspaper reported the detailed Russian refutation of the U.S. view on the issue or the lack of hard evidence for the BM-25 from the U.S. side.

The Times, which had obtained the diplomatic cables not from Wikileaks but from The Guardian, according to a Washington Post story Monday, did not publish the text of the cable.

The Times story said the newspaper had made the decision not to publish "at the request of the Obama administration". That meant that its readers could not compare the highly-distorted account of the document in the Times story against the original document without searching the Wikileaks website.

NPR is only marginally less obsequious to US government interests. As Paul Craig Roberts writes,

On November 29, National Public Radio emphasized that the cables showed that Iran was isolated even in the Muslim world, making it easier for the Israelis and Americans to attack. The leaked cables reveal that the president of Egypt, an American puppet, hates Iran, and the Saudi Arabian government has been long urging the US government to attack Iran. In other words, Iran is so dangerous to the world that even its co-religionists want Iran wiped off the face of the earth.

NPR presented several nonobjective "Iranian experts" who denigrated Iran and its leadership and declared that the US government, by resisting its Middle Eastern allies' calls for bombing Iran, was the moderate in the picture. The fact that President George W. Bush declared Iran to be a member of "the axis of evil" and threatened repeatedly to attack Iran, and that President Obama has continued the threats--Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has just reiterated that the US hasn't taken the attack option off the table--are not regarded by American "Iran experts" as indications of anything other than American moderation.

Somehow it did not come across in the NPR newscast that it is not Iran but Israel that routinely slaughters civilians in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, and that it is not Iran but the US and its NATO mercenaries who slaughter civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yeman, and Pakistan.

Iran has not invaded any of its neighbors, but the Americans are invading countries half way around the globe.

Notice that the items in the cables that have received the most publicity is how some Arab leaders want Iran to be bombed. The media spotlight this because this continues the demonizing of Iran, which is a key policy objective of the US and Israel and helps prepare the groundwork for a potential attack on Iran. They also act as if the views of these leaders are also the views of the people in those nations. Noam Chomsky, appearing on Democracy Now!, gives the unreported other side of the story:

[T]he main significance of the cables that have been released so far is what they tell us about Western leadership. So, Hillary Clinton and Binyamin Netanyahu surely know of the careful polls of Arab public opinion. The Brookings Institute just a few months ago released extensive polls of what Arabs think about Iran. And the results are rather striking. They show that Arab opinion does—holds that the major threat in the region is Israel, that’s 80 percent; the second major threat is the United States, that’s 77 percent. Iran is listed as a threat by 10 percent. With regard to nuclear weapons, rather remarkably, a majority, in fact, 57 percent, say that the region will be—it would have a positive effect in the region if Iran had nuclear weapons. Now, these are not small numbers. Eighty percent, 77 percent say that the U.S. and Israel are the major threat. Ten percent say that Iran is the major threat.

Surely the question of why the dictators of these Arab countries want the US to attack Iran in the face of wide opposition of their own people should be of some interest? But that is a discussion that you will rarely hear. But Roberts gives a possible explanation:

The "Iranian experts" treated the Saudi and Egyptian rulers' hatred of Iran as a vindication of the US and Israeli governments' demonization of Iran. Not a single "Iranian expert" was capable of pointing out that the tyrants who rule Egypt and Saudi Arabia fear Iran because the Iranian government represents the interests of Muslims, and the Saudi and Egyptian governments represent the interests of the Americans.

Think what it must feel like to be a tyrant suppressing the aspirations of your own people in order to serve the hegemony of a foreign country, while a nearby Muslim government strives to protect its people's independence from foreign hegemony.

Undoubtedly, the tyrants become very anxious. What if their oppressed subjects get ideas? Little wonder the Saudis and Egyptian rulers want the Americans to eliminate the independent-minded country that is a bad example for Egyptian and Saudi subjects.

Pause for a moment and reflect. The government of Iran is by no means an admirable one. It has many, many serious defects. But the US and Israel would be very pleased if it were replaced by dictators like those in Saudi Arabia, a proud US ally, but a country whose rulers are far worse than Iran's in almost every respect.

This is why anyone who really seeks to be informed has to find sources beyond the ones that are not mainstream ones. In a future post, I will try and provide a list of the sources I use that some readers might find helpful.

December 05, 2010

When 'Judeo-Christian' really means just 'Christian'

There is a move to dump the present speaker of the Texas house of representatives because he is a Jew, with some saying "We elected a house with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it."

But of course they resent any suggestion that they are bigoted towards Jews. As one of them said, "My favorite person that's ever been on this earth is a Jew… How can they possibly think that [I am a bigot] if Jesus Christ is a Jew, and he's my favorite person that's ever been on this earth?"

Who can argue with logic like that?

December 04, 2010

Christians are so cute when they are self-unaware

At the opening of a recent conference in Cancun, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change invoked the Mayan goddess Ixchel as "the goddess of reason, creativity and weaving. May she inspire you -- because today, you are gathered in Cancun to weave together the elements of a solid response to climate change, using both reason and creativity as your tools."

This caused considerable snickering among our Christian commentariat at these strange and obviously false gods.

I think it is time to show again a cartoon that I suspect is going to get a lot of use.

Update on the War on Christmas

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Blitzkrieg On Grinchitude - Atheist Billboard & Capitol Christmas Tree<a>
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

David Stockman, progressive?

It's a sign of how insane the current state of politics has become when David Stockman, the budget director for Ronald Reagan (who was considered a right wing extremist in those days), is advocating policies to curb the debt that would be considered far too progressive by even Obama and the Democrats .

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
David Stockman
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

December 03, 2010

Democracy Now! on the Wikileaks release

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists is one of those people who tries to be a 'responsible' transparency advocate which requires him to criticize WikiLeaks. Democracy Now!, a wonderful news source, has Glenn Greenwald debate him. Well worth watching, right up to the end where host Amy Goodman reads memos from the government warning employees not to even read the cables released by WikiLeaks, even on their home computers!

Jeremy Scahill talks about his recent trip to Afghanistan

Scahill is both a good reporter and, unlike most US mainstream correspondents, is unembedded with US troops, so his view is not distorted and thus what he says is always worth paying attention to.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Benjamin Libet's 1983 experiment

I came across this video of how Libet's experiments, that started the serious empirical testing of free will, were done.

Why I support WikiLeaks

The latest WikiLeaks release, like the previous ones, have resulted in people taking two contradictory positions. On the one hand there are those who seek to minimize the importance of the release by focusing on the titillating bits of gossip conveyed by diplomatic cable and suggesting, in an oh-so-weary insider tone, that this is the normal business of governments. Such people say that the leaks reveal nothing of value. Glenn Greenwald points out that this is not true (He gives links to all the claims he makes):

In this latest WikiLeaks release -- probably the least informative of them all, at least so far -- we learned a great deal as well. Juan Cole today details the 10 most important revelations about the Middle East. Scott Horton examines the revelation that the State Department pressured and bullied Germany out of criminally investigating the CIA's kidnapping of one of their citizens who turned out to be completely innocent. The head of the Bank of England got caught interfering in British politics to induce harsher austerity measures in violation of his duty to remain apolitical and removed from the political process, a scandal resulting in calls for his resignation. British officials, while pretending to conduct a sweeping investigation into the Iraq War, were privately pledging to protect Bush officials from embarrassing disclosures. Hillary Clinton's State Department ordered U.N. diplomats to collect passwords, emails, and biometric data in order to spy on top U.N. officials and others, likely in violation of the Vienna Treaty of 1961 (see Articles 27 and 30; and, believe me, I know: it's just "law," nothing any Serious person believes should constrain our great leaders).

Then we have the other extreme, those who are actually calling for the murder of Julian Assange because of the supposedly serious damage he has done to the US, an odd charge if the release contains nothing of value. I find it chilling that we have reached the stage when it is considered perfectly acceptable for so called 'respectable' people to publicly call for the extra-judicial killing of those who have not been found guilty of any crime whatsoever. This kind of speech ("Kill Julian Assange! Hang Bradley Manning! Nuke North Korea! Bomb Iran!") used to be the preserve of the recognizably lunatic fringe of society, the ravings of drunks and racists and bigots or the just plan stupid. But not anymore. People say these things on TV and in the newspapers and are treated as if they are serious commentators.

Greenwald also takes on those who try to straddle the issue, wanting to preserve their vaguely independent bona fides while still seeking to be seen as 'respectable' by the political and media establishment. These people pick on missteps by WikiLeaks to tut-tut about how they should have done it better.

One could respond that it's good that we know these specific things, but not other things WikiLeaks has released. That's all well and good; as I've said several times, there are reasonable concerns about some specific disclosures here. But in the real world, this ideal, perfectly calibrated subversion of the secrecy regime doesn't exist. WikiLeaks is it. We have occasional investigative probes of isolated government secrets coming from establishment media outlets (the illegal NSA program, the CIA black sites, the Pentagon propaganda program), along with transparency groups such as the ACLU, CCR, EPIC and EFF valiantly battling through protracted litigation to uncover secrets. But nothing comes close to the blows WikiLeaks has struck in undermining that regime.

The real-world alternative to the current iteration of WikiLeaks is not The Perfect Wikileaks that makes perfect judgments about what should and should not be disclosed, but rather, the ongoing, essentially unchallenged hegemony of the permanent National Security State, for which secrecy is the first article of faith and prime weapon. (My emphasis)

Greenwald highlights the steady perversion of democracy that has happened right before our eyes.

Because we're supposed to have an open government - a democracy - everything the Government does is presumptively public, and can be legitimately concealed only with compelling justifications. That's not just some lofty, abstract theory; it's central to having anything resembling "consent of the governed."

But we have completely abandoned that principle; we've reversed it. Now, everything the Government does is presumptively secret; only the most ceremonial and empty gestures are made public. That abuse of secrecy powers is vast, deliberate, pervasive, dangerous and destructive. That's the abuse that WikiLeaks is devoted to destroying, and which its harshest critics - whether intended or not - are helping to preserve.

In this interview with NPR, Der Spiegel reporter Gregor Peter Schmitz, who has been one of those studying the recent WikiLeaks documents for months, says that upcoming reports will reveal a lot of important things and they are not just gossip meant to embarrass the US, as many have been quick to claim. He says, "If you read the whole coverage that is coming out over the next weeks or so, you will realize that this is about important global developments; it's giving you an insight into, well, basically how the world is perceived and run from an American's perspective, and I think that is something that the public has a right to know, yeah."

As time goes by and independent analysts (i.e., people not concerned about being in the good graces of the government) have more opportunities to study the cables, other revelations will surely follow and I will highlight them as they emerge.

The legendary investigative journalist I. F. Stone said, "Every government is run by liars and nothing they say should be believed." WikiLeaks is striking a blow for openness and transparency, the very essence of democracy.

The critics of WikiLeaks seem to have forgotten what they are entitled to by being members of a democracy, and do not see that WikiLeaks is returning to them something precious that they have mindlessly given away. All those who value those things should support it.

December 02, 2010

I'll say it one more time

As we see the widespread handwringing among supporters of Obama as to why he seems to be such a lousy negotiator that he keeps overlooking obvious winning strategies for his policies and thus keeps getting rolled by the Republicans, I will repeat what I have said many, many times before, this time in boldface:

When it comes to any policy that the Democrats say they espouse but which hurts the interests of the oligarchy, the Democrats do not want a strategy that will win, they seek one that will lose.

By that measure, they are very, very good negotiators.

On free will-16: A sense of self in the absence of free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

According to the writer Isaac Beshevis Singer, "We must believe in free will, we have no choice." It is a funny line because of its paradoxical nature and yet also profound because of its multiple layers of meaning. On the one hand, it could be interpreted as saying that belief in free will is likely hardwired in our brains and we are thus compelled to believe in it, whether it is true or not. On the other, it implies that the idea of free will is so important to our sense of self as autonomous agents and to the way that our society is organized that even if we realize it is a fiction, it is a fiction that we must adopt because to abandon it might lead to cognitive confusion and social disarray. This series of posts has tried to show that this fear is unwarranted and in this, the last post, I want to address the issue of what it all means for our sense of self.

Does the lack of free will mean that I am an automaton, simply obeying the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, and that my sense that 'I' am controlling my actions is an illusion? If by 'I' we mean an autonomous agent that acts independently of the body, then yes, that is an illusion. But what we mean by 'I' is more complex than that. As several alert readers have pointed out, even though this series of posts has argued that free will as traditionally conceived does not seem to exist, I have made statements that suggest that I am dependent on the concept, writing things like, 'This may also explain why it is so hard to change the way we are used to doing things and the importance of developing good habits early." As one emailer astutely pointed out, "If there is no free will how do you 'change' or 'develop'?"

As another example, I wrote that there is benefit to society punishing crimes as a means of deterring future crimes. But this implies that society is making a choice of one policy over another. Who exactly is doing this choosing and what does it mean in the absence of free will? Similarly, while we can understand why devoting hours to practicing tennis can create brain networks that make good choices of play automatic, what was behind the decision by expert players to 'choose' to devote so much time to this kind of activity in the first place? Was that choice also predetermined?

Such questions go to the heart of our misgivings about the lack of free will.

Part of the problem is that our language is so immersed in the idea of free will that it is hard to avoid the kind verbal ditches that I appear to have plunged headlong into. Trying to carefully formulate sentences to avoid the impression of acting out of free will leads to convoluted language. Fortunately for us, as I said in the previous post, for most practical purposes, we can continue to act and speak as if there is free will without it creating any operational differences that we can detect, at least at a coarse, everyday level. One needs to go into the laboratory to see these effects.

But before we can agree to continue to use the language developed around the fiction of free will because it is familiar and simpler, we have to come to a consensus on what it really means, in the absence of free will, to say that 'I' 'decide' or 'choose' to do one thing instead of another.

Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, p. 174) tries to clarify this point:

In the traditional conception of a ghost in the machine, our bodies are inhabited by a self or a soul that chooses the behavior to be executed by the body. These choices are not compelled by some prior physical event, like one billiard ball smacking into another and sending it into a corner pocket. The idea that our behavior is caused by the physiological activity of a genetically shaped brain would seem to refute the traditional view. It would make our behavior an automatic consequence of molecules in motion and leave no room for an uncaused behavior-chooser.

One fear of determinism is a gaping existential anxiety: that deep down we are not in control of our own choices. All our brooding and agonizing over the right thing to do is pointless, it would seem, because everything has already been preordained by the state of our brains. If you suffer from this anxiety, I suggest the following experiment. For the next few days, don't bother deliberating over your actions. It's a waste of time, after all; they have already been determined. Shoot from the hip, live for the moment, and if it feels good do it. No, I am not seriously suggesting that you try this! But a moment's reflection on what would happen if you did try to give up making decisions should serve as a Valium for the existential anxiety. The experience of choosing is not a fiction, regardless of how the brain works. It is a real neural process, with the obvious function of selecting behavior according to its foreseeable consequences. It responds to information from the senses, including the exhortations of other people. You cannot step outside it or let it go on without you because it is you. If the most ironclad form of determinism is real, you could not do anything about it anyway, because your anxiety about determinism, and how you would deal with it, would also be determined. It is the existential fear of determinism that is the real waste of time. (Boldface emphasis is mine.)

The lack of free will in the traditional sense need not mean we are diminished somehow, unless our sense of self is totally intertwined with a belief in the existence of a ghost in the machine. Who we are and what we do are the products of our personal and evolutionary histories, along with some randomness thrown in along the way, all completely subject to the laws of nature. All these combine to make us unique and react in individual ways to the situations we encounter. The unconscious brain is not some kind of alien despot making 'us' (i.e., the conscious brain) slaves to its bidding whether we want to or not. The unconscious brain is as much truly us as the conscious brain and to the extent that we use the locution of it 'making' us do things, those things are completely consistent with who we are.

When we 'choose' one option over another, our brain really does go through the process of weighing all the options and consequences before arriving at a verdict and issuing a command to our motor neurons to execute an action. The fact that all this processing of information takes place behind a screen that is opaque to us, and that our conscious brain becomes aware of it only after the decision has been made, does not alter the fact that 'we' made the decision.

Our bodies and our minds, our actions and our thoughts, are all part of one internally consistent biological system. The many parts of our brain are working all the time, performing all their functions in concert with one another. The fact that we are aware of only the conscious part of it, and that this part may not be the instigator or driver of our actions, should only be disconcerting to those who wish to assign pride of place to the conscious brain and give it qualities of uncaused autonomy that it does not have.

We should view ourselves as a stage play that is unfolding. The stage setting and the actors are like the conscious brain, the things that we see and are aware of, but the performance also requires the participation behind the scenes of many unseen groups like the lighting crew, the sound crew, and the stage hands, all obeying the instructions of the director and the playwright, the last two items in this metaphor representing the laws of science. In a successful production of a play, each component system behaves in concert with all the other systems of the production to create an integrated experience. It does not detract from our enjoyment that the actors are not truly 'free' to say and do what they wish, because the play is all of one piece and for them to act independently in that way would result in incoherence and confusion. During a good performance we forget that the actors are playing predetermined roles and view them as responding spontaneously to their surroundings, even though we know deep down that this is not the case.

We should enjoy our lives and ourselves in the same way.

Bibliography

In preparing and writing this series of posts on free will, in addition to the journal articles and news reports that were linked to, the following books were explicitly quoted or referred to.

  • Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin, 2002
  • Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little, Brown, & Co., 1991
  • Rene Descartes, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, Translated by Desmond M. Clarke, Penguin Classics, 1998

The following books, while not directly used, provided me with general background information about how the brain works.

  • Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Basic Books, 1980
  • Roger Penrose, The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics, Oxford University Press, 1989
  • Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, W. W. Norton, 1997
  • Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life, Simon & Schuster, 1995
  • Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon Books, 1994

December 01, 2010

The things kids will believe

(Thanks to Atheist Cartoons.)

The best thing about Christmas

As one who sang in a choir for the annual Christmas carol service during my college days, I think that the best thing about Christmas is the music. (I am talking about the carols only, not the cheesy Christmas 'songs', almost all of which I detest with a passion.) I do not agree with the theology implicit in the carols, but the music is great and the general sentiments of peace and goodwill are worthy.

Some people in a shopping mall food court get an unexpected treat, courtesy of a flash mob.

Paperback writer

My book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has now been released in paperback.

On free will-15: Acting as if there is free will

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Let's consider two scenarios. In one case, John carefully plans and executes a murder. In the other case, Susan kills an assailant who attacks her. With a belief in free will, we assume that John freely made a willful and conscious decision to commit that act and is thus more culpable than Susan who reacted on the spur of the moment out of the instinct for self-preservation and thus did not use her free will. We thus feel justified in punishing John more harshly than Susan.

If there is no free will, that means that both John's and Susan's actions were the result of unconscious neural activity, the only difference being that John's neural activity had sufficient lead time to create conscious thoughts. Shouldn't the planned murder be treated in the same way as the self-defense? Doesn't that imply that they should be punished the same? Is this fair?

No, we don't have to punish them equally because the idea of fairness is determined by the rules that society has set for itself in order to function in an orderly manner. We may concede that in the absence of free will, the murderer who carefully planned his actions is no worse morally than the person who killed in self-defense, because both actions were the product of unconscious neural activity, but that does not preclude us from punishing them differently in order to achieve society's purposes. Since the purpose of punishment is deterrence and deterrence is presumed to work whether we have free will or not, it makes sense for us to punish John more harshly in order to deter others from committing premeditated murder.

As a practical matter, the lack of free will may be buried so deep that we agree to run our lives and societies on the assumption that people are responsible for their actions, i.e., as if free will exists. As Steven Pinker says, (The Blank Slate, p. 180) "Most philosophers believe that unless a person was literally coerced (that is, someone held a gun to his head), we should consider his actions to have been freely chosen, even if they were caused by events inside his skull."

In fact, in terms of our everyday practical lives, a society that believes in the fiction of free will be almost indistinguishable from one that does not. The complexity and unpredictability of human behavior is sufficient for us to continue to treat free will as the proximate basis on which we make decisions, even if there is no free will at the ultimate neural level.

Deciding to organize society on the basis of treating people as if they have free will even if we know they haven't may sound odd but that kind of arrangement is not unusual. We do it all the time. For example, we manufacture all kinds of excuses for carefully planned murders to avoid punishing the killers. When the state executes prisoners, it is carrying out a carefully planned murder. No one would argue that it was done instinctively in self-defense or that we are not aware of what we are doing. But we excuse such murders. When countries go to war, they carefully plan and murder thousands of people, many of them totally innocent of any wrongdoing. Society has agreed to treat such murders as if they are not murders.

But there is a huge difference between truly believing in a fiction like free will and knowing that it is merely a convenient fiction. In the former case, it drives the way we think about things and can thus lead to erroneous policies, while in the latter case, the idea of free will does not form the basis for policymaking and the details of the fiction can be adjusted if necessary to conform to the needs of reality.

In fact the case can be made that the traditional notion of free will, that of an independently existing mind or soul that could truly act freely would, if true, be more dangerous to society because such an entity would not care what happened to the body and thus could command the body to do whatever it likes irrespective of the consequences. In fact, this is what drives religious fanatics who commit atrocities. They believe that their souls or spirits or whatever they call this independent entity that they consider their 'true' selves will not only survive their bodies' demise, it will even reap rewards for their suicidal actions. It is such people who can be so cavalier about taking personal risks in their quest to harm others. A person who believes that the body and mind are merely different aspects of a single biological entity, and that the death of the former will result in the simultaneous disappearance of the latter, is far more likely to want to preserve the body and so act more prudently.

So the concept of free will, in addition to being unsustainable scientifically, is also undesirable as a practical matter. It is time to give it up.

Next: The unwarranted fear of determinism