Category Archives: Essays

Reasonable Expectations of Privacy

Civil LibertiesSuffice it to say that it has been interesting to witness the different reactions to the recent leaks that the NSA is acting in conjunction with private companies to monitor our private conversations. These reactions have been more than predictable. Besides the obvious game of mirrors where Democrats (including Obama himself) who used to loath Bush and were tearing their hair out over the Patriot Act are now blindly defending the Obama administration’s expansion of the Surveillance State, you also have the mainstream, establishment media in a love affair with government secrecy, their arguments being that:

  • when we weigh the risk of a terrorist attack with our privacy rights, our privacy rights should lose,
  • the journalists who leaked the story (and are not real journalists) don’t know what they are talking about
  • we shouldn’t have any expectation of privacy in our online interactions
  • if we have done nothing wrong then we should have nothing to worry about, and
  • there is no proof that the government has actually bee abusive (ie, no harm, no foul).

It all makes you wonder which side of the fence the David Brooks, David Frum, Tom Friedman, Andrew Sullivan and others like them would have been on back between 1776 and 1791 when the American people were fighting for, amongst other freedoms, the freedom against government intrusion into their homes and personal lives. Their full defense of surveillance and secrecy is tantamount to siding with both King George and Big Government. Why is it that the guys who most hate our values are not the terrorists but the chicken hawks who are willing and eager to sacrifice our values as soon as a buffoon plants a faulty bomb in his underpants.

Now, I know that I repeatedly promise to steer clear from these American political issues and focus more on life in Europe, but I think that as an American living abroad, I am particularly affected by the Surveillance. So here are my two cents: Continue reading

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Democracy, Backwardness and Tribalism

This week Bill Maher had Glenn Greenwald on his show to discuss amongst other things, U.S. foreign policy, Benghazi and how backward Muslims are. On this last point – what I consider the most interesting discussion from the segment shown above – Greenwald makes three very good points: First, that violence in the name of religion is not unique, second, even if they are acting violently, our responsibility as Americans is not to focus on their backwards but to assume our share of the blame.  I think that last point is crucial and is the one I try to live by, at least on this blog. My goal is to critique the societies and cultures to which I belong, not the ones for which I am either ignorant or simply have no ability to influence.

In this vein, I particularly agree with Greenwald’s when he writes in an older piece,

Beyond all that, I find extremely suspect the behavior of westerners like Harris (and Hitchens and Dawkins) who spend the bulk of their time condemning the sins of other, distant peoples rather than the bulk of their time working against the sins of their own country. That’s particularly true of Americans, whose government has brought more violence, aggression, suffering, misery, and degradation to the world over the last decade than any other. Even if that weren’t true – and it is – spending one’s time as an American fixated on the sins of others is a morally dubious act, to put that generously, for reasons Noam Chomsky explained so perfectly:

“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it.

“So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.

I, too, have written before about the hordes of American commentators whose favorite past-time is to lounge around pointing fingers at other nations, other governments, other populations, other religions, while spending relatively little time on their own. The reason this is particularly suspect and shoddy behavior from American commentators is that there are enormous amounts of violence and extremism and suffering which their government has unleashed and continues to unleash on the world. Indeed, much of that US violence is grounded in if not expressly justified by religion, including the aggressive attack on Iraq and steadfast support for Israeli aggression (to say nothing of the role Judaism plays in the decades-long oppression by the Israelis of Palestinians and all sorts of attacks on neighboring Arab and Muslim countries). Given the legion human rights violations from their own government, I find that Americans and westerners who spend the bulk of their energy on the crimes of others are usually cynically exploiting human rights concerns in service of a much different agenda.

Now with regards to Maher’s convenient assertion that Islam and its followers are uniquely backwards and inherently violent and thus incapable of living under democracy, citing the Arab Spring as his example, I would like to add the following: Continue reading

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Why Don’t We Treat Guns Owners Like Potential Terrorists?

[Updated Below]

On an April 26th edition of Bill Moyers with Glenn Greenwald about the “High Cost of Government Secrecy”, Moyers opens the segment with the following:

On Fox News the other day, New York congressman Peter King said: “If you know a threat is coming from a certain community, that’s where you have to look.” Proceed with caution here, Mr. King. And first take a look at that “Council on Foreign Relations” analysis of an FBI study showing that from 1980 to 2001, around two-thirds of domestic terrorism was carried out by American extremists who were not Muslims. That number actually skyrocketed to 95 percent in the years immediately after 9/11. And the magazine “Mother Jones” found that of the 62 mass shootings in America since 1982 – mass killings defined as four deaths or more – 44 of the killers were white males.

While Greenwald takes a different approach, what I want to get at – which is something that I just recently wrote about — is that first quote that Moyers cites, because it says so much about how our political and social discourse on violence is centered in American life:

“If you know a threat is coming from a certain community, that’s where you have to look.”

And yet the vast majority of mass murders comes from white Americans with guns. So why aren’t Peter King and other tough guys like him who to act all tough as nails against terrorism doing more to address the community of people who buy, own, possess and sell guns?

In the meantime we have two tales of government: Big Government throws trillions of dollars at foreign wars and domestic surveillance to protect us from a relatively minor domestic threat, and Small Government that refuses to take any measures, no matter how sensible to limit the access of guns to those who may use them to kill innocent people, by far the larger of the two threats. And you guessed, the tough guys are both Big and Small Government advocates, whichever and whenever it best meets their political interests.

Could you imagine one these tough guys actually prescribing an anti-terrorism remedy to the sale and/or possession of firm arms: background checks, obligatory registrations, online surveillance? Of course not, we are a bunch of phonies selling snake oil. Continue reading

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On Boston

Boston StrongWithout much time to write in depth on various matters that interest me in relation to the recent Boston Marathon bombings, I am summarizing my thoughts here, many of which were previously expressed in 140 characters or less:

America is a Uniquely Violent Society

The Tsarnaev brothers’ violent rampage last week not only had a terrible human toll, it also revived the tough guys’  “the sky is falling” narrative. And the tough guys always react in the same way: they demand we be very scared, especially about foreign jihadists in our midst. We need to immediately stop immigration reform, suspend Miranda rights, and probably even impose a moratorium on all cookware.

Once the boys were identified and the press was drawing the Chechnya connection, I kept thinking that these brothers had finally become uniquely American, though something was missing. Come on, what is more American than a psychologically deranged person – disgruntled for any number of reasons – lashing out at innocent bystanders, resulting in a blood bath?

The only thing that kept the Tsarnaevs from earning true citizenship was that they hadn’t gone on a shooting spree (at least not until confronted by the police). And that was the good news for Massachusetts because had they used the Red, White and Blue weapon of choice, we would have seen death tolls in the high double digits, as we saw in Aurora, Sandy Hook, Tucson and Columbine.

But Massachusetts wasn’t the only one to benefit from the fact that these boys were not American enough to inflict real carnage. The NRA also must have let out a huge sigh of relief. Everyone was so focused on their makeshift bombs, that no one was asking how they got their hands on a sizable stockpile of guns. Moreover, we were able to focus on Islam as being inherently violent and not on how guns and the violence they cause are are unique to American society.

As I wrote after the Sandy Hook shootings, where 20 children and 6 adults were slaughtered by a deranged gun owner,

So, for example, when a crazy Muslim American shoots up an American military base – something oh so uniquely American – we immediately call it terrorism and blame Islam. But if that American man had not been Muslim, as in the other 61 mass shootings during the last 30 years (seven this year alone), we’d all be talking about mental illness, how we’d be safer if everyone were armed, and generally treating the senseless murders as an unavoidable natural disaster that lasts a two day news cycle.

Consider that we have since learned that the Tsarnaevs did not receive any help from foreign terrorist organizations. They were, like in the case of Columbine, nothing more than very disturbed young men, intent on inflicting harm and getting attention; what Juan Cole has called “a tale of adolescent rebellion“. Continue reading

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Zero Dark Thirty or the Day Nothing Changed

ZeroDarkThirty2012PosterFor the first time in a least a decade, I actually got around to seeing most of this year’s Oscar nominated movies: Lincoln, Argo, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty. Most of them (with the exception of Life of Pie which was not American and Silver Linings which was not per se about being American) were all formulaic, almost delusional homages to American Exceptionalism. Lincoln was probably the most boring of the lot, with all of Spielberg’s trademark dramatic finishing touches (roll call included), saved only by Daniel Day Lewis’ remarkable acting. Django had moments of brilliance from Christoph Waltz and the beautiful Kerry Washington to look forward to, but as a friend told me, it wasn’t like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which you could watch the next night all over again. Once Waltz was off the screen, it was just a lot of blood. Tarantino is fun, but surely no Sergio Leone.  Meanwhile, Silver Linings doesn’t even merit special mention. Two nice people with mental illnesses solve their mental illnesses by finding each other? Are we supposed to believe crazy times two doesn’t beget even more craziness? What, was mental illness the only prop missing from the RomCom wardrobe?

Now the two most entertaining films were actually the two most unabashedly Red White and Blue pro-CIA propaganda pieces, both with dubious (and arguably dangerous historical re-scripting): Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Argo despite its unashamedly fictionalized account of almost all of the historical events depicted in the film, was fun, suspenseful and kept me interested up until the end. But at no point in watching the movie did it ever cross my mind that Argo was going to or even should win the Oscar. It just didn’t feel like that good of a flick. It was, like Ben Affleck himself, completely mediocre and completely acceptable. Then again, mediocrity and acceptability are what it takes to make it in Hollywood.

Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, had more elements that were closer to the real historical events and was an all around much better film. And if taken as pure fiction, at least from my own humble perspective, was the most entertaining and engaging of the movies nominated for Best Picture. Having said that, Zero Dark Thirty was also plagued with a series of gross flaws which are the crutch of what I want to be writing about here. Continue reading

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David Frum on Guns in America

F1

Our national delusion seems to know no limits. Mainly I am talking about the likes of Wayne Pierre and his NRA cronies. But they’re not really the problem are they? The problem is the heads-in-the-sand tribal partisanship where people faced with every piece of evidence stacked against their “team’s” position will actually believe something as ridiculous as “guns don’t kill” or “guns aren’t the problem” or “we need more guns” to protect us all.  Or one side will be vehemently anti-war and pro-due process until their president is in power.

What kills me about this is that there are really smart people out there who buy into the partisan rhetoric and will accept utter nonsense as fact.

Let me give you a perfect example: yesterday while on the phone with a family member to say “Merry Christmas” I happened to express one major barrier to to moving back to the U.S., out of this world health care costs. The response I got was, yeah, but when a European gets really sick they come to the U.S. for treatment. Well, first of all that isn’t true. When a European gets sick, they get good, affordable medical care at home. When a super rich European gets really sick they sometimes go to an American hospital for really expensive treatment. When an American, a normal American who is not really rich (in other words, one who could be me) gets really sick, they die and they die broke. They cannot afford elite American health care. To say we have the best medical care would be like saying that America has the best food in the world because it has the most expensive restaurant in New York City. We do not have the best health care system in the world, and we definitely do not have the best health care results. To say or believe otherwise is completely delusional, and when push comes to shove, the only reason to argue that we do is for purely partisan gain (ie, to root for the home team).

Back to guns: conservative writer, David Frum, has taken particular aim at the pro-gun wing of his party, and has done a very effective job at highlighting the correlation between the prevalence of fire arms in the U.S. and the outrageous number of gun-related deaths, injuries and crime, and how all that guns do is turn normal quarrels into violence clashes.  Following Wayne Pierre’s call for federal agents at schools, Frum tweeted a series of news posts on gun violence in America to very effectively demonstrate the extremity of the gun-apologists’ blindness:

From Frum’s December 21st Twitter feed: Continue reading

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Note to the NRA

Note the NRA

If the Republican alternative universe wasn’t bad enough, if the basic numbers of how much worse gun violence is in U.S. than the rest of the world wasn’t enough, the NRA comes back to the American people with a serious look on its face to call for more armed people at school to protect our children. I’m sure it will be easy enough to vet them all.

After the Columbine massacre, the solution proposed by the NRA was for schools to post the Ten Commandments in the hallways, so you know, the kids would know that killing is wrong. You see, everyone else it to blame for guns deaths. Guns have nothing to do with it.

So it is no surprise that we get another sham response. But, as the above image that I just found posted on facebook clearly reminds us, you could put the school on a military base (where they have tanks and bazookas), and you are still not making anyone safe.

But, hey NRA, keep making these arguments. You’re only digging your own grave. Your days are numbered.

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Does America have an Exceptionally Violent DNA?

Guns

Almost every time we have a shooting spree – as American as apple pie – I react with the same observations: how (i) the U.S. is unique in the world in both the prevalence of firearms and the number of deaths by firearms, (ii) nothing serious has been done to address this, and (iii) when violence is perpetrated by someone foreign, we say it is due to the inherent violence and evilness of his culture and religion, whereas our All American shooting spree is never taken as a poor reflection on our values, even though the levels of violence in our society are overwhelmingly greater. Continue reading

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2012: The Year Republicans Lost their Alternative Universe

Guns courage

The big political news story of 2012 was not that Obama won the presidential election or that the Republicans lost. That was fairly predictable.

Think about, if you were a strong Republican contender for the highest office of the U.S. would you rather run in 2012 against Obama and inherit a weak economy or would you wait it out until 2016 when you were facing Joe Biden? And even if Hillary had the energy to run, Americans will be too tired of eight years of a Democratic White House to vote her into office.

It’s a no-brainer:  strong contenders sit this one out. So who did we get? We go the Republican psychos Santorum and Gingrich and the unelectable Mitt Romney. Unelectable? Come on, did you ever really think that Americans would elect an elitist millionaire Mormon candidate who pays less than 14% income tax when he’s been transparent about, makes $20 million a year without having a job, hides his wealth in offshore tax havens, and has taken every position imaginable on each and every issue at some point in the last 10 years.

No. Romney’s loss was not newsworthy. What was news worthy was that the GOP’s alternative universe – the one brought to you courtesy of Fox News with the support of the mainstream media insistence on giving equal weight to each side’s viewpoint no matter how absurd – finally unraveled.

So if it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone when Romney lost, then why was Romney so “shell shocked” at his defeat?

Why was it that Republicans so vehemently attacked Nate Silver (including calling him too effeminate) who was incredibly successful in 2008? I thought it was the Democrats who hated success and merit based praise?

But in the GOP alternative universe, modern science must never trump the GOP worldview on taxes, the economy, healthcare, Climate Change, marriage equality, marijuana, immigration, or even statistics.

And as Paul Krugman has described,

. . . the modern G.O.P.’s attitude, not just toward biology, but toward everything: If evidence seems to contradict faith, suppress the evidence.

The most obvious example other than evolution is man-made climate change. As the evidence for a warming planet becomes ever stronger — and ever scarier — the G.O.P. has buried deeper into denial, into assertions that the whole thing is a hoax concocted by a vast conspiracy of scientists. And this denial has been accompanied by frantic efforts to silence and punish anyone reporting the inconvenient facts.

The GOP’s insularity has led them to such an isolated place that even the numbers guy Mitt was clueless of his own loss. The fact that most Americans are either living in the same isolated place is the biggest tragedy in our modern politics. We are no longer able to honestly and scientifically address the real issues that face our nation in any constructive and effective manner.

Nevertheless, the results of the elections not only validated science as practiced by little Nate Silver, they also showed that Americans were less and less susceptible to the right-wing information bubble. Same-sex marriage swept every ballot it was on as did Marijuana, and Americans didn’t buy the GOP’s argument on taxes. With Hurricane Sandy, Americans started to question the logic of digging your head in the sand on Climate Change. And everyone who bet big on Romney: Grover Norquist, Sheldon Adelson, the NRA, and even Benyamin Netanyahu all have lost big.

The jury is still out on Netanyahu – who spit in the face of comity and very publicly campaigned against the sitting President of the United States – as to whether he will pay a political price. And it appears that he has already.

So while it now seems that the GOP’s fictional tale of taxes, climate change and being in the moral majority is coming to an end, it also looks like the other shoe — guns — is also about to drop.

It’s hard to make the argument to the American people that nothing can or should be done when our kids are slaughtered in the schools when we are so quick to react to a single failed shoe bomber or in how we regulate cough medicine stronger than guns, but refuse to react after 62 mass shootings during the last 30 years with seven alone this year.

Americans may have had enough, and no matter how the GOP or the NRA want to spin it (the NRA has just called for armed guards at all schools), their days are numbered. As Timothy Egon explains:

When the Berlin Wall fell 23 years ago, what started with a couple of hammer swings against an irrational barrier quickly became an irresistible force. At such moments in history, the impossible is self-evident.

So it is in the first cracks in the two most formidable obstacles to progress on guns and taxes. Every valid poll shows that a majority of Americans favor bans on high-capacity ammunition clips and military-style assault weapons. A huge majority — 74 percent in a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey — also say it is “acceptable” to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year. Yet the will of the people has been consistently thwarted. Why? Because, for a representative democracy, we’ve ceded an inordinate amount of power to a pair of unelected lobbies.

By threat and force, the gun and anti-tax extremists have been able to stop every sensible plea for reform. And by sensible, I mean a tax increase that is still less than the one Bill Clinton put through to great prosperity, and gun restrictions favored by presidents like Ronald Reagan.

Bullying is the favorite tactic of these political thugs in K Street suits, but as the last week has shown, they are also cowards. Wayne LaPierre of the N.R.A. was quick to rush to the airwaves a few weeks ago after a pro football player shot his girlfriend and himself.

“The American public is disgusted,” he said. “The American public has had their fill of what happened last night.” The violence? No. He was condemning the sportscaster Bob Costas for daring to suggest that we have a conversation about what it means to live and die in the most armed society in history.

If only, he said, gun victims had weapons of their own. Sadly, Nancy Lanza was armed to the teeth, but it couldn’t save her from her own son. The Greek tragedy of Ms. Lanza’s supplying the weapon for her murder proved once again what all the empirical evidence shows: that if you have a gun at home it’s most likely to be used on a family member or someone you know.

The N.R.A. went dark in the week after the school massacre not out of some respect for the dead children, but because it could not make, with a straight face, the absurd argument that if only little kids had been armed they could have saved themselves.

It was left to the politicians owned by the gun lobby to have us view the carnage as the price of freedom. “There’s nothing you’re going to do to prevent evil from occurring,” said Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican of North Carolina.

So the first things to go in the crumbling of these two special-interest titans are their core arguments. Newtown is wretched proof of the utter vacuity of the gun lobby’s excuses, but every comparison to other industrial nations makes the case as well.

So 2012 may go down in the history books as the year the GOP lost more than an election: they lost taxes, moral values, climate change, statistics, and even guns. Good riddance!

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Senate Sends Letter Calling ZD30 on Torture

As you may have already read about, the new film Zero Dark Thirty, which alleges to be the fact-based re-telling of the capture and execution of Bin Laden strongly suggests — regardless of all evidence to the contrary — that information obtained through torture was central to tracking down Bin Laden. The film has also been criticized because of the questionable access that its directors and writer have received from the CIA and White House.

Just yesterday, Senators Levin, Feinstein, and McCain have written a scathing letter directed to Sony Picture’s CEO and Chairman criticizing the film’s depiction of torture and stating in definitive terms that the evidence that led to the Bin Laden operation was not procured through torture, but through other unrelated means.

Senate Letter

They followed with a strong recommendation that that falsehood be corrected:

. . . but the fundamental problem is that people who see Zero Dark Thirty will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.

The use of torture should be banished from serious discourse for these reasons alone, but more importantly, because it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, because it is an affront to America’s national honor, and because it is wrong. The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers and your production are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts rights.

Please consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Usama Bin Laden. It did not.

Now, I think Senator McCain is one of the most hypocritical, cynical politicians in recent American memory — for example, he met with and reopened the doors to Gaddafi (including selling him US military technology) along with Condalezza Rice, not to mention  Sarah Palin, yet he can claim with a straight face that Ambassador Rice is unfit for the job of Secretary of State because of her statements on Libya — you do have to give him credit for singing this letter. I would like to know how he squares this with his objection to closing Guantanamo.

As a side note, it is nice to see someone correctly transcribe the name as “Usama” and not Osama, not just because Usama doesn’t rhyme with Obama, but because that is how it is pronounce, with a “U”.

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