Monday, November 29, 2010


Is Wikileaks an embarrassment for the U.S. government and nothing more? Well...

Look at this article, for example. It uncritically lists two of the things we've learned from the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables as "North Korea supplied Iran with long-range missiles" and "Iran used the auspices of the Red Crescent to smuggle spies and weapons into war zones." True, the text of the article uses more accurate "the U.S. government believes that" language. But that subtlety appears to have slipped the minds of many of the commenters, who are now musing that here is new information that they didn't know.

If only Wikileaks had been around before the Iraq War. Then it could have been leaked that the U.S. government believed that Iraq was stockpiling biological weapons, and funding the 9/11 terrorists. And it would have been a leak, something that they didn't want people to know -- so of course it's correct, right?

Lest people think that I'm positing some conspiracy theory, I'm not. But diplomats and other spies routinely write back things that they confidently believe that are in fact not true. Diplomats and other spies who want to rise through the ranks also develop a talent for writing back things that they know that the politicians in charge want to hear. These leaks are pretty much worthless from the point of view of determining whether the events in question actually took place.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Doctorow's Little Brother

Shorter Little Brother: Whatever you do, don't torture the white kid.

This is a deeply irksome YA book by Cory Doctorow -- irksome in the sense that it's one of those books where the author sees perfectly well what he's writing and then writes it anyway. Markus is a 17 year old white kid. The friends who we see him interacting with are all properly multicultural in various ways, but he's their leader. Marcus engages in some adolescent rebelliousness around a Department of Homeland Security squad that's been amped up by a nearby major terrorist attack and Marcus gets put through all of the by now familiar to us minor tortures: stress positions, isolation, threats that he will be disappeared, etc. Marcus then is released and swears that he'll get the DHS, especially since they disappeared one of his friends. Marcus ends up in "Gitmo-by-the-Bay" -- this happens in San Francisco -- but just as he's being waterboarded, local cops informed by a muckraking reporter burst in, arrest the DHS agents, and save him. Then the DHS is effectively kicked out of California due to the public scandal of local teens disappearing into the gulag.

They had me chained to five other prisoners, all of whom had been in for a lot longer than me. One only spoke Arabic -- he was an old man, and he trembled. The others were all young. I was the only white one. Once we had been gathered on the deck of the ferry, I saw that nearly everyone on Treasure Island had been one shade of brown or another. (pg. 352)

Let's consider that for a moment. Everyone immediately calls the prison on Treasure Island Gitmo by the Bay. Why? Because they are all familiar with the real Gitmo, of course. The book is set is a post-9/11 imaginary America that is supposed to be ours. Was Gitmo a scandal for these people in the book? No, no more than Gitmo has been a scandal in real life. I mean, it's been a scandal, but it's still holding prisoners. No one bothered to do anything about it, really. So why was Marcus' story so scandalous?

Well, because he's a local teenager. Teenagers were, of course, routinely tortured by our forces in Iraq, but he's a local kid. Local kids in California are routinely sent to prison on minor drug charges, or shipped off to somewhere if they are illegal and brown, but hey -- this is a middle-class, white teenager. We aren't supposed to do bad things to them. The reaction of the people in the book makes sense if you tacitly assume that people in California couldn't care less about torture as something happening to Others, but do care if it's a kid who looks like one of the kids of the important people.

That seems fairly realistic, actually. Good for Doctorow, for writing a grittily truthful, unpleasant book -- but wait. It's not gritty, or truthful, or unpleasant other than a few well-done torture scenes. No one really confronts this at all, not authorially and not within the world of the book. Marcus is just the natural leader of his group of non-white friends, most of whom spent significant parts of their screen time embarrassing him by telling him how awesome he is, and when his captivity and that of his white friend who got taken at the start of the book is discovered and publicized, it's just instant scandal and DHS stopped and that's a wrap.

Why do I find this irksome? Doctorow is a competent writer. His heart is clearly in the right place. I find it irksome for the same basic cluelessness that's in too much of techno-libertarian agitprop. Because that's a large part of this book: bits about crypto, and Linux, and trust networks, and all the rest. And faith that if the truth comes out, it will mean something. Will it?

What really happens in this book is that the security forces made the mistake of victimizing a child of privilege. All the rest of the book could have pretty much been short-cut if Marcus had told his parents about what happened to him when he got home, they'd told the reporter they contacted, and on from there. But instead we get lots of bits about hacking game machines, as if that would have made a difference if Marcus had instead been his Latino friend.

What's the current real-life equivalent to this book? Let's take Wikileaks as an example. Of course I support Wikileaks. They're doing good things. Historians will have a much better picture of what happened in our era because of the material they archived. But have their revelations changed anything? No. People in America really already knew that our armed forces murdered civilians in Iraq with impunity. They didn't care, and they still don't care. No anonymizer or encoding scheme or clever hack is going to get them to care. No revelation of the truth is going to matter to people who already know the truth. Evasion of our security systems will not let you evade what's in people's hearts.

Let's leave Marcus' whiteness aside for the moment. Would people really care about Gitmo by the Bay? The families of the people imprisoned would, of course. Would anyone else? Our society already has little Gitmos all over. It's quite normal for people to suddenly be sent to prison. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, and the highest documented prison population in the world. Yes, this is a method of controlling the underclass, but sometimes a middle-class white kid has to be put away as an example. I think that Gitmo-by-the-Bay might have ended up as just as much of a nonscandal as Gitmo has been, really. Could it happen that it's a politics-changing scandal as presented in the book? Sure. But it wouldn't happen so overwhelmingly, so easily. The lesson of the Bush years, and now the Obama years, is that the truth will not set you free.

So this a book with its heart in the right place, and it's also thoroughly, although unintentionally, dishonest, or at least misleading. Irksome.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Legality theater

"Security theater" has become a more and more popular phrase, especially in connection with airport security -- measures visibly taken to make people feel secure, not because doing them actually makes people more secure.

I should resist too much blogging that is simply re-citing Greenwald, but we just had an example of legality theater. An accused terrorist was put on trial in a civilian court amid much administrative self-congratulation. To quote Greenwald:

Most news accounts are emphasizing that trying Ghailani in a civilian court was intended by the Obama DOJ to be a "showcase" for how effective trials can be in punishing Terrorists. That's a commendable goal, and Holder's decision to try Ghailani in a real court should be defended by anyone who believes in the rule of law and the Constitution. But given these realities, this was more "show trial" than "showcase" since the Government would simply have imprisoned him, likely forever, even if he had been acquitted on all counts.

Yes, the Obama administration claims "post-acquittal detention power", which means that this person was going to be sent to jail indefinitely no matter what. The trial was meaningless.

Or was it? Here's where I disagree with Greenwald: the goal of showcasing how effective show trials can be is not commendable. The trial did have a purpose: to convince the public that we still live under rule of law when we do not. It was legality theater, the replacement of actual rule of law with a formal show intended to represent it.

That is the sorry pass that advocates of Constitutional protections have been brought to. "Please have the show trial, because showing the brutal reality would let the dream of justice die." Some dreams are better off disposed of. Or rather, when the reality behind them is dead, they begin to stink.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Netroots memory hole

"Markos Moulitsas ZĂșniga, founder of the influential Daily Kos blog, said the netroots played a major role in the special election victories of Reps. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) and Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.) in 2004 and were also prominent (and early) backers of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) during his 2004 campaign." -- Crying Foul, Netroots Note Some Big Wins, March 30, 2006

"I went through and compared his predicted Democratic losses to the membership of the Blue Dogs, and got the following list: [...] Herseth-Sandlin [...] If the worst-case scenario comes to happen, we can enjoy this silver lining -- the brunt of the losses will be felt by the very same people who helped obstruct the Democratic agenda, who fought middle class tax cuts and the Public Option, and who fueled the "Dems are divided" narrative. We'll get rid of the hypcorites who, like their Republican BFF's, scream about "fiscal responsibility" while fighting desperately to cut taxes on the wealthiest." --Dem Blue Dogs obstructionists set to bear brunt of losses, October 28, 2010

I have a good deal of respect for what the netroots tried to do. They were really the only sign of life in the Democratic Party for some time.

But I haven't seen any explanation from Kos or any other prominent netrooter of why they should be happy to get rid of the same people that the netroots struggled to elect only one cycle earlier. Or, rather, I can understand why people would be happy to get rid of Blue Dogs -- I can't understand how that also means that in the next cycle people should go out and again try to elect "more and better Democrats", as the saying is. The netroots make a point of their loyalty to the Democratic Party. This is a good thing, in the U.S., since U.S. electoral rules mean that really only two parties can exist. But the Democratic Party is not loyal to them. How many cycles can this continue -- jubilantly electing Democrats in places where there hadn't been Democrats before, and then finding out that they are actually harmful?

I don't think the Herseth-in-2004 and Herseth-in-2010 kinds of comparisons can stay in the memory hole forever. I don't expect what worked for the netroots before to really work again. I expect that they'll start to focus more and more on primaries. If they're successful, they'll be just as successful as the Tea Parties have been for the GOP -- in other words, a net loss of seats. Places like North Dakota will never elect a Democrat who is better than the Blue Dogs.

This problem could have been finessed with old-fashioned party loyalty, enforced from the top. It can't be done from the bottom. Obama and the Democrats generally really screwed over a lot of their supporters, but the netroots, I think that they've done a real job on.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why I'm no longer a liberal

I was born in 1964. Therefore, my first political memories are of the aftermath of Nixon. By the time I got to vote, the U.S. was into the Reagan years. Since then it's been what I understood at the time as a long period of reaction. I didn't feel betrayed by Clinton, as many on the left did: it was too clear that he really was restricted in what he could do.

What was the political ideal of liberals in those years? Well, obviously there were many different ideas. But I don't think that many people really were waiting for a charismatic leader. At least in the circles in which I moved, it was a combination of community organizing and technocracy. One day the dam of reaction would break, and we'd be able to implement policies that actually made people's lives better. Then they'd see that which politics they supported really did make a difference.

That dam broke with Obama's election. Oh, it wasn't because of anything we did, or anything he did, it was because Bush screwed up so badly. Still, we had the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Yes, Obama is really a centrist, not a liberal, but he was as liberal as we were ever likely to get.

That's the last I want to mention Obama in this post, because what happened next really, I think, wasn't just his individual failure. What did we get? Well, let's just look at one really important fact. We got coverups of and immunity for torture. We got, in fact, continuing torture of people in the custody of the state, justified with the full Bush era legal justifications that amounted to anything that the President said was legal, was legal.

Don't believe me? Try here. It's the Kafkaesque news of torture victims who could not pursue torturers in court, because the fact that they had been tortured was a state secret, because it made the U.S. look bad. Or want more on Executive power more generally? Try this, about our official assassination program.

Why did this happen? Let me dismiss a few of the arguments I've heard. It wasn't because of GOP pressure. The GOP was already calling the President a traitor and soft on terror and, for that matter, a Kenyan, so they had already reached maximum rhetorical saturation and clearly weren't going to back down no matter what he did. It wasn't because of Congress. These were executive decisions, ratified by our judiciary. It certainly wasn't because no one understood that the issues were important.

And it wasn't really an individual failure either, I think. It was too widely supported. It was one of those moments that reveal the truth about political systems, via an inexplicable failure for something to occur. Somehow, despite everyone in power saying that they were against torture, we got torture. This is one of the moments when you have to realize that the system is running into a constraint that people don't want to talk about but that nevertheless exists.

America needs to torture people. Our system literally can not function without it. There can be no crackdown on it by elites, because our security apparatus is thoroughly implicated in it, our military is thoroughly implicated in it, and, to tell the truth, a near majority of ordinary people really want other people to be tortured. It's been a method of social control in America right from the start, with slavery, and continued through Indian genocides, lynchings, the Philippines, the Cold War, and the way we treat criminals in our prisons. Reagan had people tortured, mostly in Central America, so did Bush I, so did Clinton (the beginning of "renditions", if I remember rightly). Bush II made it official policy. Obama -- I suppose that I have to mention him again after all -- continued and reinforced it as official policy, making it thoroughly bipartisan.

What's been the liberal response to this? Well, take it away, Brad Delong:

Social Studies 50th Anniversary Symposium: Is There Hope for the Rule of Law in America?

That was the question asked by Denver University Professor Alan Gilbert during the morning panel.

Here is the answer I gave, as best as I can reconstruct it:

The question is: "Is there hope for the rule of law in America?" My answer is: No.


By 2001 with a Republican as president John Yoo had reversed field 180 degrees. He was making a very different set of false claims about what the law of America had been. He was then claiming that the president's commander-in-chief powers contained within them prerogative powers to torture and kill outside of legal procedure that would have astonished George III Hanover, and even exceeded those of William I Conqueror. When William I Conqueror tortured or killed, he agreed owed his barons at least an after-the-fact accounting of why if not any before-the-fact procedural checks.

Backed by John Yoo and company, George W. Bush claimed that he did not owe even an after-the-fact accounting. And Barack Obama holds to the same line.

So I see no hope.

Now, one of DeLong's often repeated phrases is "The Cossacks work for the Czar", meaning that you can't blame political decisions on underlings. Given that, I don't see why anyone should care about Yoo. He's been a convenience for two administrations, that's all. If not him, someone else would have been found. But pass on. Is there hope for the rule of law? No. That's the opinion of a middle-aged, middle class, respectable economics professor.

So, why liberalism? Everyone knows that it's failed. But they hold to it ... why? Without rule of law, really, why bother?

I don't think that there's anything to be gained by holding on to liberalism after it's failed in such a way that reveals that it never could have succeeded. I don't see anything in our remnant of a Constitutional order that is worth defending. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life working for liberal ideals that are fruitless.

Has conservatism won, then? No, of course not. No variant of conservatism is going to get anything that conservatives want. Not a smaller government, not the establishment of religion, not the suppression of non-white people. All of that is impossible for various economic and demographic reasons. Effectively, what happened is that everyone in my generation failed, all of us together. The only people who won were a tiny sliver of the super-rich -- but although they certainly have a political ideology that supports them, they don't have a political philosophy as such. Only an economic interest, one that their own success is going to subvert.

Leftism lost, for a variety of reasons, in the generations before.

What's left? Personally, I suspect that I'm going to end up as some variety of anarchist. I see no point in going into what exact type: politics is meaningless for me unless it involves practice, and I don't know of any group of anarchists I can work with locally, yet. Of course anarchism is quixotic. It has no chance, and even if it did succeed in America, the immediate effect would be to let a thousand death squads bloom. No matter. My being a liberal quite clearly had no practical effect either. The actual events are at this point turned over to the next generation. If I'm not going to affect them, I might as well not bother to be respectable, or pretend to believe in something that I no longer believe in. I always had an attraction to a form of (oh, all right) anarcho-socialism, but I figured that if it happened, it was probably going to happen a long time from now, after productivity had gone so high that it was really too much trouble to exclude people from the necessities of life. Better to be a liberal now, I had thought, and be involved in politics that had a chance of making some difference in the short term. But it doesn't have that chance to make any difference.

It's annoying, becoming a 46-year-old anarchist. I could deal with it better if I'd been one from my youth, but now, face it, it's both silly and annoying, having to start over with basic political books... I mean, these are the days in which I'm supposed to comfortably live off the seed corn I'd planted and settle into being a pillar of the community.

So much for that.