Category Archives: Government & Politics
Last month the Media Ecology Association presented this year’s Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity to Morris Berman, whose work I have referenced so many times here at The Teeming Brain that he’s practically an honorary member of the Teem at this point.
Berman was invited to give an acceptance speech at the MEA’s annual convention on June 22, and he was told that he could speak on any topic of his choice. He ended up delivering a talk that effectively summarizes the overall present shape and tone of his well-known dire but, at root, deeply hopeful diagnosis of America’s malaise, decline, and death. (That’s “hopeful” in the very long view, mind you, not in any sense of holding out a hope that we might forestall or reverse America’s Spenglerian, Roman Empire-esque march into wholesale cultural collapse.)
The talk is titled “In Praise of Shadows,” and Berman’s delivery of it at the MEA convention was recorded. Here’s the video, which in addition to the speech itself includes a half-hour Q & A. It’s all wonderful stuff, and I highly recommend it. Below the video are a couple of choice excerpts that are well worth a few minutes’ quiet reading and meditation.
What American . . . doesn’t buy into the American Dream? Why do soup kitchens and tent cities across the United States fly the American flag above them, in a strange parody of patriotism? As John Steinbeck put it many years ago, in the U.S. the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And as I argue in Why America Failed, the goal of the settlers on the North American continent, as far back as the late sixteenth century, has been capital accumulation — “the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson subsequently called it. . . . Rich or poor, nearly every American wants to be rich, and in fact sees this as the purpose of life. In this sense, we have the purest democracy in the history of the world, because ideologically speaking, the American government and the American people are on the same page. To quote Calvin Coolidge, “The business of America is business.” Hustling is what America has always been about.
This is why our elected leaders have a vacant quality about them. After all, the American Dream is about a world without limits, about always having More. But More is not a spiritual path, nor is it a philosophy of life. It has no content at all, and this why, when you look into the eyes of an Obama or a Clinton or a Hillary Clinton — probably our next president — you see not merely nothing, but a kind of terrifying nothingness. Unfortunately, this vacant look characterizes a lot of the American population as well: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, as the medieval alchemists were fond of saying. Once again, this is evidence of a pure democracy: nobodies elect nobodies to office, and then everyone wonders “what went wrong.”
. . . As the consumer society, and the American Dream, continue to disintegrate, many will experience a severe crisis of meaning, inasmuch as prior to the crunch, meaning was to be found in the latest technological gadget or piece of software or brand of lip gloss. I see lots of nervous breakdowns on the horizon. But as one droll observer once put it, the trick is to convert a nervous breakdown into a nervous breakthrough. After all, twentieth-century life offered human beings in the West, at least, a set number of master narratives — communism, fascism, and consumerism, primarily — so that they might be able to avoid that most terrifying of all questions: Who am I? As the I Ching tells us, crisis means danger plus opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great to discover that one was more than one’s career, for example, or one’s car? That opportunity is going to present itself, sooner or later. For many, it already has.
FULL TEXT OF SPEECH: “In Praise of Shadows” by Morris Berman
Here in the midst of the still-building storm and scandal over the revelations about PRISM — referring (in case you’ve recently been living under a rock or sunk in a coma) to “the system the NSA uses to gain access to the private communications of users of nine popular Internet services” — journalist and social media specialist Jared Keller offers these sobering and, to my mind, utterly necessary reflections on the equally troubling revelation that many Americans are deeply complacent about the whole thing:
Despite days of headlines about the American surveillance state and government invasions of privacy (and a huge spike in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 on Amazon), Americans seem to have accepted the scope and reach of the post-9/11 surveillance state into their lives as necessary.
. . . Why are Americans so comfortable with the surveillance state? It’s likely that this acceptance goes hand-in-hand with an acceptance of the reality of modern terrorism.
. . . The threat of terror in our cities, immediately after 9/11, was paralyzing. Now, despite the horror of the bombings in Boston and the attacks that have been thwarted by counterterrorism efforts in the years since 9/11 (like Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to detonate explosives on the New York subway), terrorism seems to have become more accepted as a modern geopolitical phenomenon, a fixture in the background of our daily lives.
. . . . [I]f terrorism and the resulting surveillance state have become accepted features of American public life (which, according to the latest polls, they have), then the apparatus the government deploys to adjudicate and prosecute our war on terror should become normalized in our existing legal regime. The Patriot Act and National Emergencies Acts that provide the legal basis for the modern surveillance state were supposed to be temporary “emergencies,” but with their continued re-authorization by Presidents Bush and Obama, they have become the norm.
— Jared Keller, “Why Don’t Americans Seems to Care about Government Surveillance?” Pacific Standard, June 12, 2013
Keller goes on to point out the really deep impact of these things on our collective circumstance here in the U.S.A.:
We are lurching from emergency to emergency, living in a permanent state of exception. Margot Kaminski, executive director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, puts it nicely in The Atlantic: “Foreign intelligence is the exception that has swallowed the Fourth Amendment whole.” This, I think, is the most significant impact of Snowden’s leak: not necessarily to expose wrongdoing in the legal sense (since the sweeping dragnet of Prism and the NSA’s monitoring of Verizon’s phone records are technically legal) but to take the abstract legal concepts outlined under our emergency constitution and translate them into a political reality in the minds of the American populace.
“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” Snowden told The Guardian. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” The Pew/Washington Post poll may indicate that people are comfortable with swapping liberty for security, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with an unaccountable, totally opaque, Kafka-esque security apparatus that falls in the legal gray area of our ongoing state of exception.
By way of context, I ask you to recall what our old Teeming Brain friend James Howard Kunstler said, and said very loudly, in his best-selling book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, which was published way back in the prehistoric mists of 2005. Writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and witnessing the craziness all around him, Kunstler prophesied thus:
It has been very hard for Americans — lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring — to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency. . . . [W]e are entering a historical period of potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship.
Or actually that particular passage comes from a 2005 article by Kunstler in Rolling Stone, likewise titled “The Long Emergency.” Kunstler’s main focus in that article and his book was not terrorism or surveillance but the seismic shaking of industrial civilization’s foundations by the dawning of the age of scarcity for cheap and easy fossil fuels (a development that isn’t belied but confirmed by all of the recent talk about the “new oil bonanza,” which is the result of massive investments in the kind of galactically complex and far out alternative oil extraction maneuvers that were formerly inconceivable because they were unnecessary). But his “Long Emergency” characterization still clearly encompassed terrorism and the growth of a massive surveillance state in America and elsewhere to complement the massive geopolitical conflicts and at-home unpleasantness stemming from oil-fueled imperial ambitions.
Again, Kunstler said those things eight years ago. And he was hardly alone. In other words, it’s as our transformation here in America into an Orwellian and Kafka-esque surveillance state where the all-consuming desire to snoop and fully crucify the notion of privacy is driven by the reality of our “lurching from emergency to emergency, living in a permanent state of exception” — it’s as if this transformation is unfolding according to a well-foreseen plan. Just like, say, the financial and economic collapse of 2008, which was foreseen by Kunstler and others but pshawed by the talking heads who were supposed to represent authoritative and trustworthy mainstream wisdom. These authorities, we were told, offered a bulwark of sanity and sensibleness against the kooks who said the entire economy of not just America but Europe and elsewhere was all a big, crazy, scary, evanescent hallucination that was primed to pop like a soap bubble.
But pop it did. And living in the Long Emergency we are. All bets are still off, just as they were several years ago when the meaning of common sense shifted to something we’re still trying to figure out. Only now we’re doing it while being tracked, recorded, and analyzed every step of the way.
From an essay published on May 21 at The New Inquiry and bearing the teaser line “Just because we can hear the black helicopters doesn’t mean they don’t exist”:
The modern conspiracy theory is a mythologization of capitalism. That humanity writhes in the grip of a power alien to itself is so palpable that the expression of this reality assumes countless forms in the popular imagination, permeating pop culture, politics, and the persecution anxieties of our booming psychiatric industry. Films like The Adjustment Bureau and television programs like Burn Notice capture the zeitgeist with the laughable simplicity of its most trite tropes, trench coats and all. The novels of Dan Brown append cheap noir to rich cultural pseudo-histories in order to make them more entertaining. The wildly popular television program Ancient Aliens became a cash cow for the History (!) Channel by attributing the greatest historical achievements of scientific discovery and collective activity to little green neo-Calvinist deities from outer space. And never mind the “9/11 Truth Movement” and the shocking contention by some of its leading ideologues that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could organize a poker game, let alone a secret network of underground internment camps in which Art Bell and Alex Jones will soon argue over the top bunk.
In all these expressions, which blur entertainment and information in a manner consistent with the present cultural imaginary, human or extraterrestrial agents are depicted as consciously directing world events behind the backs of those who live them. Though countless colorful theories fall under the umbrella of “New World Order,” and this canon has enjoyed a febrile explosion since the election of the suspiciously other Barack Obama, their basic structure is largely universal. Most importantly, any good conspiracy theory proceeds from empirical premises which are manifestly true. In the vein of Dan Brown, stray facts are woven into vast interconnected webs by tenuous strings of causality and barbaric modus ponens proofs. Historical and social phenomena which are in fact intimately intertwined by the total social relation of capital are instead linked superficially by cheap literary devices.
. . . The irony of the increasing rationalization of society toward some mythic equilibrium is the intensification of paroxysm, of violent crisis, of catastrophe on a heightening scale which it has ensured. The crises inherent in the capitalist cycle now grip the entire planet, leaving destitution in the wake of periodic booms, leaving entire regions to starve, evacuating capital from entire cities and letting them rot while the local ruling class throws up their hands. In the major developed countries, the transition from hulking welfare state apparatuses to militarized police forces maintaining order indicates the increasingly reactionary tendency of states, faced with simply containing the results of a disordered market by brute force, rather than even pretending to curb the causes of destitution and hopelessness among the poor.
When market “experts” discussing the flow of capital sound like meteorologists groping to account for the weather, this is not a coincidence, nor are they’re being disingenuous. Chaos rules the day, though it is backed by the forces of “law and order,” a “hybrid monster” as the bald man remarked, the former referring to legal statutes aimed at responding to crime, and the latter aimed at extra-legal (and often illegal) intervention preventing hypothetical crimes and generally molding the social terrain. The chaos underlying modern life and the scrupulous social order which protects and enforces it appears as a vast global intrigue against those who reproduce it with their daily work. And in a way, it is.
In short, somebody would have to be bat shit crazy not to develop a conspiracy theory about the centralized interconnectivity of these conditions.
More: “I Want to Believe“
Original “All-Seeing Eye” image by de:Benutzer:Verwüstung [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Is it just me, or is this profoundly disturbing?
No, it’s not just me.
From the Long Island Press, May 14:
The manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects offered the nation a window into the stunning military-style capabilities of our local law enforcement agencies. For the past 30 years, police departments throughout the United States have benefitted from the government’s largesse in the form of military weaponry and training, incentives offered in the ongoing “War on Drugs.” For the average citizen watching events such as the intense pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers on television, it would be difficult to discern between fully outfitted police SWAT teams and the military.
The lines blurred even further Monday as a new dynamic was introduced to the militarization of domestic law enforcement. By making a few subtle changes to a regulation in the U.S. Code titled “Defense Support of Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies” the military has quietly granted itself the ability to police the streets without obtaining prior local or state consent, upending a precedent that has been in place for more than two centuries.
The most objectionable aspect of the regulatory change is the inclusion of vague language that permits military intervention in the event of “civil disturbances.” According to the rule:
Federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the President is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances.
Bruce Afran, a civil liberties attorney and constitutional law professor at Rutgers University, calls the rule, “a wanton power grab by the military,” and says, “It’s quite shocking actually because it violates the long-standing presumption that the military is under civilian control.”
. . . [T]he relatively few instances that federal troops have been deployed for domestic support have produced a wide range of results. Situations have included responding to natural disasters and protecting demonstrators during the Civil Rights era to, disastrously, the Kent State student massacre and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. Michael German, senior policy counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), noted in a 2009 Daily Kos article that, “there is no doubt that the military is very good at many things. But recent history shows that restraint in their new-found domestic role is not one of them.”
. . . [A] DoD official even referred to the Boston bombing suspects manhunt saying, “Like most major police departments, if you didn’t know they were a police department you would think they were the military.” According to this official there has purposely been a “large transfer of technology so that the military doesn’t have to get involved.” Moreover, he says the military has learned from past events, such as the siege at Waco, where ATF officials mishandled military equipment. “We have transferred the technology so we don’t have to loan it,” he states.
But if the transfer of military training and technology has been so thorough, it boggles the imagination as to what kind of disturbance would be so overwhelming that it would require the suspension of centuries-old law and precedent to grant military complete authority on the ground. The DoD official admits not being able to “envision that happening,” adding, “but I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter.”
. . . As we witnessed during the Boston bombing manhunt, it’s already difficult to discern between military and police. In the future it might be impossible, because there may be no difference.
ADDENDUM (posted one hour after the above):
Be sure to pay attention to the part of the article, which I didn’t quote above, where a U.S. defense official who “declined to be named” said, “The authorization has been around over 100 years; it’s not a new authority. It’s been there but it hasn’t been exercised. This is a carryover of domestic policy.” And indeed, you can poke around and find the same wording going back quite some time in the same regulation. But the current situation represents a rewording with “subtle changes,” as the Long Island Press journalist notes. The effort to make these changes goes back several months, at least to February; see the note about it published last month by the FAS Project on Government Secrecy.
And, you know, one might be inclined to regard it as an overreaction to think/feel that this is really disturbing, and one might be inclined to accept the soothing reassurance of that unnamed defense official, IF it weren’t for the fact that last year’s flap over the revised NDAA and its authorization of the federal government to imprison anybody, including American citizens, indefinitely without trial hadn’t emerged as really and truly a crisis, with a lawsuit over it being brought against the government by a group of journalists led by Chris Hedges, whose fairly legendary reputation precedes him.
We seem to be smack-dab in the middle of an “all bets are off” stage of American history, where fears and concerns formerly framed as the province of fringe-dwellers and conspiracy-nuts are repeatedly shown to be really and truly justified, as in — to name just one prominent example — the flat-out demolition of the U.S. economy while all of the talking heads representing the mainstream financial and economic ideology continued to talk soothing nonsense.
Neil M. Richards, law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education:
We were living in an age of surveillance before the Boston Marathon bombing, but the event and its investigation produced calls for much greater monitoring of our cities and our lives. The media narrative of the investigation, manhunt, and lockdown that followed the bombing was like something out of an action movie, with car chases, shootouts, and a dramatic televised ending. But it was like a science-fiction movie, too, featuring surveillance cameras, smartphones, GPS trackers, facial-recognition technology, thermal imagers, and even a robot. Hovering in the background, ready for the inevitable sequel, are the specters of police surveillance drones.
These technologies, especially the use of surveillance cameras to identify the suspects, seem to have helped the investigation. They have certainly intensified the debate over how much surveillance we should have as a society. Our cities were filling with surveillance cameras before the bombing, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York and the legal theorist Richard Posner, among others, have called for even more monitoring. If we have nothing to hide, goes the argument, we have nothing to fear. After all, don’t we want to be safe?
Also see Richards’ recent (March 25) article about the same subject in The Harvard Law Review:
From the Fourth Amendment to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and from the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to films like Minority Report and The Lives of Others, our law and literature are full of warnings about state scrutiny of our lives. These warnings are commonplace, but they are rarely very specific. Other than the vague threat of an Orwellian dystopia, as a society we don’t really know why surveillance is bad and why we should be wary of it. To the extent that the answer has something to do with “privacy,” we lack an understanding of what “privacy” means in this context and why it matters. We’ve been able to live with this state of affairs largely because the threat of constant surveillance has been relegated to the realms of science fiction and failed totalitarian states.
But these warnings are no longer science fiction. The digital technologies that have revolutionized our daily lives have also created minutely detailed records of those lives. In an age of terror, our government has shown a keen willingness to acquire this data and use it for unknown purposes. We know that governments have been buying and borrowing private-sector databases,1 and we recently learned that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been building a massive data and supercomputing center in Utah, apparently with the goal of intercepting and storing much of the world’s Internet communications for decryption and analysis.
Although we have laws that protect us against government surveillance, secret government programs cannot be challenged until they are discovered. And even when they are, our law of surveillance provides only minimal protections. Courts frequently dismiss challenges to such programs for lack of standing, under the theory that mere surveillance creates no harms.
. . . [O]ur society lacks an understanding of why (and when) government surveillance is harmful. Existing attempts to identify the dangers of surveillance are often unconvincing, and they generally fail to speak in terms that are likely to influence the law.
. . . The challenge to our law posed by the Age of Surveillance is immense. The justifications for surveillance by public and private actors are significant, but so too are the costs that the rising tide of unfettered surveillance is creating. Surveillance can sometimes be necessary, even helpful. But unconstrained surveillance, especially of our intellectual activities, threatens a cognitive revolution that cuts at the core of the freedom of the mind that our political institutions presuppose. Surveillance may often be necessary, but it must be constrained by legal and social rules. The technological, economic, and geopolitical changes of the past twenty years have whittled away at those rules, both formally on their substance (for example, the Patriot Act and the expansion of National Security Letter jurisdiction) and in practice (for example, the pressure that the technological social practices of the Internet have exerted on privacy).
More: “The Dangers of Surveillance“