Entrance Papers

December 1, 2006

via Tristero comes the following AP story:

Without their knowledge, millions of Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders in the past four years have been assigned scores generated by U.S. government computers rating the risk that the travelers are terrorists or criminals.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years.


Virtually every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is scored by the Homeland Security Department’s Automated Targeting System, or ATS. The scores are based on ATS’ analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

…to David Sobel, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group devoted to civil liberties in cyberspace: ”It’s probably the most invasive system the government has yet deployed in terms of the number of people affected.”

Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists. …

The government notice says some or all of the ATS data about an individual may be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring decisions and in granting licenses, security clearances, contracts or other benefits. In some cases, the data may be shared with courts, Congress and even private contractors.

”Everybody else can see it, but you can’t,” Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration lawyer who teaches at Cornell Law school, said in an interview.

…A post-9/11 law vastly expanded the program, he said. It required airline and cruise companies to begin in 2002 sending the government electronic data in advance on all passengers and crew bound into or out of the country. All these names are put through ATS analysis, Ahern said. In addition, at land border crossings, agents enter license plates and the names of vehicle drivers and passengers, and Amtrak voluntarily supplies passenger data on its trains to and from Canada, he said.In the Federal Register, the department exempted ATS from many provisions of the Privacy Act designed to protect people from secret, possibly inaccurate government dossiers. As a result, it said travelers cannot learn whether the system has assessed them. Nor can they see the records ”for the purpose of contesting the content.”

The Homeland Security privacy impact statement added that ”an individual might not be aware of the reason additional scrutiny is taking place, nor should he or she” because that might compromise the ATS’ methods.

Nevertheless, Ahern said any traveler who objected to additional searches or interviews could ask to speak to a supervisor to complain. Homeland Security’s privacy impact statement said that if asked, border agents would hand complaining passengers a one-page document that describes some, but not all, of the records that agents check and refers complaints to Custom and Border Protection’s Customer Satisfaction Unit.

Homeland Security’s statement said travelers can use this office to obtain corrections to the underlying data sources that the risk assessment is based on, but not to the risk assessment itself. The risk assessment changes automatically if the source data changes, the statement explained.

”I don’t buy that at all,” said Jim Malmberg, executive director of American Consumer Credit Education Support Services, a private credit education group. Malmberg said it has been hard for citizens, including members of Congress and even infants, to stop being misidentified as terrorists because their names match those on anti-terrorism watch lists. He noted that while the government plans to keep the risk assessments for 40 years, it doesn’t intend to keep all the underlying data they are based on for that long. [emphases added]

There’s something funny here. Not ha-ha funny, though. This is a very clear vision of DRM America: all travellers first are presumed to be criminals, and scored via a secret, proprietary method. In this vision the state, not the citizen, holds all of the rights: rights in terms of liberty, and in terms of access to information. The state gathers this information in order to decide when you – a citizen – can travel, and where; they then control access to the information – the “score” – and to the processes leading to the formulation of the score, and disseminate the information to those entities – other governmental agencies, private industry, but not you, citizen – which it deems ought to have the information.

There are many avenues for challenging these procedures – possible violations of the Fourth and Sixth Amendments, for starters, and the numerous statutes governing the duration that government agencies can retain information gathered on citizens which is not immediately relevant to criminal investigations – but the most troubling aspect of this program is its very existence. Somebody – many somebodies – thought this was a good idea. It’s possible that these were actions taken without sufficient thought given for their implications, but I feel the more likely explanation is that these actions and this program are perfectly consistent with the vision of the world and this country held by those who imagined and implemented them.

Just to be clear – that’s bad. It’s dangerous for its own sake – why create a police state unless you have intention of using it? – but also for the general attitude that it seeks to promote: that rights are not vested in the individual but in the state, which then grants its citizens “rights” on a contingent basis, to be revoked or renegotiated (by and for, the state) at any time which the state wishes.


Rupert Murdoch’s Kingdom of Kitsch

November 23, 2006

In a column that takes the latest lowpoint in American life and letters – O.J. Simpson’s now not-to-be-published “hypothetical” confessional, “If I Did It” – as its jumping-off point, Sidney Blumenthal offers the following observation on Rupert Murdoch:

Murdoch’s media empire is a kingdom of kitsch. Whether as entertainment or news, talk shows or song contests, the aesthetic is consistent. (The ironic social commentary of “The Simpsons,” not to be confused with O.J. Simpson, is the exception that proves that rule.) Murdoch’s programming almost invariably traffics in faux-populist identities of the privileged and powerful battling phantom (liberal) elites. Murdoch-ism aims to unmask the great and the good as charlatans, frauds and crooks, proving that even as they masquerade as worthy they are really as cynical as he is. The programs delight in bullying and humiliating little people to provide vicarious drama for viewers similar in social background to those being embarrassed but who feel bigger and stronger and identify with the cranks posing as domineering father figures. This sadomasochistic exchange appeals to the authoritarian conservative personality. The hip Simon Cowell, host of “American Idol,” is just a variation on the theme of Bill O’Reilly, with the notable difference that he has an actual talent as a music producer. [emphasis added]

This is a key aspect of any authoritarian political project – the recruitment and inclusion of a segment of those to be ruled over as being “in on it.” Murdoch, as usual, is a few steps ahead of the game here – his media empire promotes all the attitudes necessary for an authoritarian culture: deference to authority above all else; mockery of outsiders/minorities; creation and fuelling of moral panics, real and imagined (see the endless coverage of “Amber Alerts,” missing white women and the “War on Christmas”).

What’s both most depressing and most hopeful about the column and a study of Murdoch’s career is just how quickly he has effected many of these changes, especially in American media culture – Fox News is only a decade old. There’s no silver bullet to create a more responsible discourse, but Murdoch’s success shows that a determined effort (and, yes, lots and lots of money) can move the ball pretty far, very quickly.


Climate Change and Authority

November 22, 2006

At some point I’m going to get back to writing about Facebook and crap like that. But these things just keep popping up, or maybe my radar’s tuned into a particular frequency right now. Andrew Leonard writes in “How the World Works” at Salon about the accident that is human civilization:

Some 6,000 years ago, vast streteches of the globe where large numbers of humans lived entered a period of increasing aridity. Around the same time, the first great civilizations of the world — in North Africa, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley and Northern China — began to emerge.

The two developments are not coincidental, argues Nick Brooks, a professor at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research and School of Environmental Sciences in the U.K., in a paper published in 2005 that is considerably more fascinating than its title: “Cultural Responses to Aridity in the Middle Holocene and Increased Social Complexity.” His thesis is that this great desiccation forced then existing societies to change drastically in order to survive, setting in motion processes of social stratification and urbanization.


Biopact reports:

[Brooks] stressed that for many, if not most people, the development of civilization meant a harder life, less freedom, and more inequality. The transition to urban living meant that most people had to work harder in order to survive, and suffered increased exposure to communicable diseases. Health and nutrition are likely to have deteriorated rather than improved for many.

“Having been forced into civilized communities as a last resort, people found themselves faced with increased social inequality, greater violence in the form of organised conflict, and at the mercy of self-appointed elites who used religious authority and political ideology to bolster their position. These models of government are still with us today, and we may understand them better by understanding how civilization arose by accident as a result of the last great global climatic upheaval.”

Civilization: a horrible accident forced upon us by climate change. We can only shudder at the prospects of further accidents, waiting to happen.

The implications here are fairly obvious – if the (not actually existential, at least for residents of the global North) threat of terrorism isn’t entirely successful as a device for ushering in a new authoritarian politics, then you can be sure that the actually existential threat of global climate change will be used in that capacity. Most mainstream politicians in the United States – save for the ones currently occupying the White House and Naval Observatory – are more or less convinced that climate change is a serious problem requiring serious action. That’s good, but it’s also worth noting what, exactly, will come to fall under the rubric of “serious” action.


Identity of Authority

November 16, 2006

This story has made its way around the Internet quickly:

UCLA cops tasered a student who refused to show ID in Powell Library. They threatened nearby students with tasering if they interfered. A student captured video of the assault with a cameraphone.

The video is here, and the main point is ably addressed by a commentor:

This is the problem with tazers. Since they’re ‘non-lethal’ cops will use them when violence isn’t necessary.

And this is far from the first time there’ve been problems with overenthusiastic use of tazers. But the comment thread is nearly as startling as the incident itself, with many, many of the comments expressing enthusiasm for the student’s being tazered:

 

iwatkins

Camera work by Michael J. Fox

The kid was being a dick no doubt. That said, hey should have just drug him out, not taze him. I usually enjoy seeing a good tazing on a jackass, but this we excessive.

 

jonhagop

What a LOSER! ahahha. Why did he just not do what the cops asked. He keeps whining like a little baby, OMG! What a toolbox. Shut up and do what they say.

 

julesenheimer

This is possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen all week. That’s not police brutality, it’s brutality against the police. They shouldn’t have to put up with dumbshits like that. It seemed like a pretty simple request, “stand up”.Hell I’m in a wheelchair half the time and if a cop says to me “stand up” repeatedly, I’m gonna stand the fuck up. Not scream like a girl. After six minutes he still didn’t stand up. He didn’t seem deaf? Maybe just stupid?

 

 

symonwill

“I have a medical condition!” Hahaha, so good. Damn that was funny. If you don’t wanna get tasered, then don’t a dick to the police. They’re just doing their job.

 

 

trappednAZ

if you don’t cooperate you get tazed. it’s very simple to understand.

 

Then there’s this:

 

deeds1 (1 hour ago)

Just shut the hell up and stand up you fool. Dumbass..Just think if Rodney would have listened.

 

 

 

plusbryan (35 minutes ago)

yeah man, great analogy. did it look to you like Rodney had a chance to listen?

 

 

 

ddeeds1 (8 minutes ago)

Yeah man…Just think if Rodney would have not been doing illegal acts of crime and just stayed in his car like most people do when being pulled over by the cops and keeping you stupid mouth shut and just listen unlike that UCLA dumbass student…

And this:

 

 

aquanutz (5 hours ago)

While I don’t see it right for him to be shocked like that, why didn’t he leave when he could not prove that he was a student of the Univ? He had to sit their and be a smartass. I believe he was techincally trespassing for not showing proper ID and being asked to leave and refusing to do so and I can see myself (If I were a police office) shocking him once if he did not follow orders to leave.

 

 

 

eustatic (4 hours ago)

you would encourage violence and humiliation solely for the sake of “efficient” bureaucratic functioning?

you are a fool to think that sitting in a library is a tazerable offense. There are so many other ways to reprimand a student who refuses to show ID.

The officers are both cruel and are cowards for not calling him in, or picking him up and taking him away. take these barbarous toys away from them.

 

 

 

aquanutz (4 hours ago)

Right. Sometimes people need to learn the hard way that they need to grow up and they can not do what they want when they feel like it. The kid was being a jackass and got punished for it.

I do agree that they should have just carried him out and like I said above, I don’t think it was right for them to do so, still, that doesn’t mean the little shit didn’t deserve it.

 

 

You are the fool if you think every situation needs to be handled with kid-gloves.

 

zorak8me (25 minutes ago)

He was on his way out. He was doing what they told him to do, just not quickly enough. Typical police bullshit.

 

 

aquanutz (11 minutes ago)

Even so, he should have left before the police got there. It’s a policy they have for the safety of the students and obviously this kid is unstable and can’t handle authority very well at all. [emphasis added]

This is a problem, even beyond the specific problem of severe over-use of tazers. An identity has emerged in this country – nurtured by many mainstream political leaders and commentators – that values, seemingly above all else, obeisance of everyone else to authority. It assumes that in any situation where authority is being questioned, the guilt of the questioning party; assumes, as a first principle, the impossibility of abuse of authority.

if you don’t cooperate you get tazed. it’s very simple to understand.

For adherents to this line of thinking, it is indeed very simple to understand. For the rest of us, it gets rather more complicated – “fuck the police” is not a coherent political philosophy, and doesn’t do much to advance a non-authoritarian line of thinking. It’s a sad state that we’ve arrived at that it’s necessary to re-formulate new ways of saying that citizens ought not be publicly tortured for refusal to show a photo ID in a library, but there you have it.


More on DRM America

November 13, 2006

The hits just keep on coming. Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing finds a classic example of the kind of thinking that contributes to an authoritarian/DRM view of the world and this country:

Universal Music CEO: iPod owners are thieves
The CEO of Universal Music has called iPod owners thieves. In explaining that Universal required Microsoft to pay it vig on the sale of each Zune, Doug Morris said, “These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it.”

Yesterday, Microsoft agreed to share revenue from Zune sales with record labels and artists. Forcing the issue was Universal Music Group, which at deadline is the only label named in the program. UMG refused to license its music to the Zune unless it could receive a percentage of each device sold, in addition to standard music licensing fees for downloads and subscriptions. “These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they all know it,” UMG chairman/CEO Doug Morris says. “So it’s time to get paid for it.”

Link

That’s right – everyone who has an iPod is a criminal. Given the universality of iPods in many communities (e.g., high schools), the meaning is clear enough – everyone is a criminal. Unless they get the permission of the authority (in this case, Universal Music Group) not to be a criminal, which is pretty much the textbook definition of authoritarianism enacted.


More on Authoritarianism

November 13, 2006

Charlie Pierce at TAPPED gets it:

Nobody runs for president without feeling deeply in their ambitious little souls that they’re going to need a dollop of authoritarian juice to get things done….
However, for six years, we have been afflicted with an Executive branch run amok, asserting privileges rejected 700 years ago, flaunting its disdain for the Constitution, and ignoring any limits whatsoever. In doing so, it has habituated the country to accept the habits of authoritarian government. Deep in the weeds of this Newsweek poll is this interesting passage:

Another 69 percent said they were concerned that the new Congress would keep the administration “from doing what is necessary to combat terrorism,” and two-thirds said they were concerned it would spend too much time investigating the administration and Republican scandals.

If you don’t think that, say, the Clinton people — that’s you, Rahm, and you, too, JamesPaul, and probably you, Senator Schumer — aren’t already fastening on those numbers to tell “serious” Democratic candidates to take a dive on killing the unitary executive dead, I have some vacation property in Arkansas I can get for you cheap. There’s no more important question on which to inquire of people who want to be the next president than what they believe the legitimate parameters — or, more important, the legitimate limits — on their power should be. Here’s a hint — anyone who prefaces their answer with the phrase, “We have to understand that the world is different…” isn’t worth your time. [emphasis added]

It’s not just about killing it dead, though. It’s about putting forward a better, more hopeful vision for what our politics ought to look like. As he says, there are and will be many on what amounts to the current political “left” for whom authoritarianism is a great temptation and, truth be told, I do not have great faith that the next president will be particularly committed to the abandonment of many aspects of the Unitary Executive, regardless of the letter following their name. Regardless, Pierce is right – there’s little more important than making these distinctions clear, even if it’s not immediately a political “winner.” There are some things far more important than short-term political victory.


A New Day

November 10, 2006

What happened on Tuesday was very big and very hopeful. It was an end in and of itself, but it was also just the first step on a path towards creating a new, more responsible and responsive discourse and politics in the United States. And it’s no secret which team I was rooting for.

Perhaps the only thing that pundits and political junkies like more than prognosticating outcomes (a task which many actually excelled at this year) is interpreting results. It’s not for nuthin’, neither – often, the interpretations of results will impact future political realities dramatically.

Simon Rosenberg has an excellent analysis at DailyKos, wherein he posts 2006 11 08 as the death of conservatism. I think it may sputter along a while longer, but what I’m more interested in is his talking about what comes next:

This next American era will not be one dominated by these two exhausted ideologies of the past, but will be a battle for the mastery of a new, as yet unarticulated 21st century governing approach suited to the challenges we face today and built around the media and people of our time. The core direction of this battle is not the left-right one fought at the end of the last century, but will be more about forward and backward. Meaning that the way we will have to measure progress from now on is to look at how a party or ideological movement captures the three main dimensions of this emergent, post-liberal/conservative politics of our day – a new governing agenda capable of tackling the challenges of our time, and new political arrangements built around the emergent media and people of the 21st century.

Digby puts it even more succinctly:

People of sense are beginning to see that liberal-hating, low taxes, guns and Jesus aren’t enough to sustain the country they want to live in.

Rosenberg has his own extensive thoughts on the subject, and I don’t necessarily disagree with many of his conclusions, but let me try to define it in much simpler terms:

The emergent political binary in this country (and most of the global North) will be between a politics of authoritarianism and a politics of individual liberty.

Broadly speaking, it’s pretty obvious which currently existent parties will correspond to those visions, but there are exceptions. Those pushing the “moral panic” narratives – who traffic in fear and view government primarily as a bulwark against a dangerous and threatening world – are, ultimately, authoritarians, and in little time their place in the political binary of this country will reflect that fact. Many of those currently in positions of power (of many different political persuasions) do not quite understand the realities of the world as it now is, and the world as it is emerging, and will thus succumb to their authoritarian tendencies reflexively in an attempt to protect their own power. But ultimately, theirs is a vision of Police State America; of walled borders and permanent surveillance of its citizens; of exit and entry visas.

To wit, the recently-nominated replacement for Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, is on record saying that cyberterrorism is the greatest threat to the United States. Wired responds incredulously, but misses the larger point. Framing cyberterrorism as the country’s greatest threat – even absent any evidence or history of purposefully malicious anti-U.S. attacks – necessitates that the military establishment take the “fight” to the Internet. Militarizing the flow of information necessitates monitoring of citizens, any and all of whom could be a potential “cyberterrorist.” It is a future of DRM America, where users/citizens are assumed from the first to be criminals; a world where permissions must be granted for the exercise of “rights.”

Atrios has a post that neatly summarizes this view of the world:

I Don’t Understand

I’m watching local news and they’re covering an exciting system which lets you install webcams in every room in your house which you can easily dial up on your cell phone and monitor what’s going on all the time.

I really don’t understand.

And that’s the point – it’s not a vision of a world that he’d like to live in. But it is a world that authoritarians find appealing.

The alternative to this fearful vision will be of individual autonomy and of a world where government exists to set and enforce the rules for the free exercise of liberty. Key to this vision is an acknowledgment that there is a proper-but-limited role for government in society – that left unchecked, private institutions will seize power and agency from citizens. Government in this view is the method and tools by which citizens guard against tyranny, both public and private. It is explicitly not what one would recognize as present-day libertarianism – the lessons of late-20th Century governance in advanced nations are far too clear on the limitations of the “free market” in regulating many, many aspects of society. Government is the way we assure our most basic of rights – to health and hearth; to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – rights that may otherwise be tramped by the imperatives of others to profit and power.

But the expression of these ideas has not yet taken a single clear shape. There is not yet any agreed-upon formulation for how we will protect – nay, affirmatively assert – our rights in opposition to the latest re-formulation of the police state. And this is a necessary step. We must not play defense, not wait for the walls to go up so we can tear them down but must rather assure that those walls are not erected in the first place, this time. We must together agree how the project of democracy and human dignity will progress in times to come.

To my mind, the greatest advances in technology are not those that cause greater explosions but those that have allowed us to better connect with and understand each other – those that have brought us closer together. We should not allow those who are primarily fearful of other people – and especially of the power of people acting together – to take those things away from us.

It is, in the end, not quite as Rosenberg suggests. Conservatism and progressivism will still be the underlying motivations of the politics of the future. The authoritarian vision of the future is at base a conservative one; it still “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” And the vision of the future focused on individual liberty remains a progressive one.

The future will not belong to those who sit on the sidelines. The future will not belong to the cynics. The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.