Archive for the ‘Civil Liberties’ Category

The USA is haunted by the specter of fascism

April 5, 2021

There are certain resemblances between the present-day USA and Germany in the last days of the Weimar Republic.

We have an ineffective government that’s unable to deal with major problems or rein in its military.

We have increasing numbers of Americans who’ve given up on trying to change things by means of politics.

Many see no point in voting or following politics. Others think the only hope for change is in street protests.

Along with this is a loss of confidence in all sources of authority—government, religion, science, academia and journalism—and a hunger for something new.

Ross Douthat wrote a column in the New York Times wondering whether the history of the Weimar Republic could repeat.  I think there are other, more likely ways that American democracy could break down, which I will get to.  But let me examine the Weimar script first.

While there are similarities, there also are big differences between Germany 90 years ago and the USA today. 

American political parties don’t have paramilitary auxiliaries.  Neo-Nazis and avowed racists are few.  Compare the turnout for the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 with the massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year.

But all this could change if there was a repeat of the Great Depression of the 1930s, particularly if it was accompanied by a humiliating military defeat.

Here’s how things could play out.  This isn’t a prediction, just a possibility.

In the wake of economic collapse, the streets of American citizens are filled with rioters, including extreme radicals and extreme nationalists.  A nationalist demagogue is elected President, and industrialists and the military look to him to restore order.  Congress votes him the power to impose martial law, which he does.  Martial law is never revoked.

The fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s arose from a breakdown of social order and a fear of Communist revolution.  The same conditions could arise in the United States, except that revolutionaries wouldn’t necessarily be Communists and the President who imposes permanent martial law wouldn’t necessarily be a nationalist or a right-winger.

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The conservative Christian blogger Rod Dreher sees another path to totalitarianism—a kind of low-level bloodless Stalinism in the name of what’s called identity politics or “anti-oppression” or “wokeness.”

Individuals have every right to define themselves on the basis of race, sex, gender or any other attribute, and band together with others to defend their rights and advance their interests.  I would never deny that people are held back by prejudice, and have a right to organize to overcome discrimination.

The problem is that believers in wokeness have embedded themselves in institutions, and demand not only that people subject to those institutions passively accept their ideas, but actively endorse them. 

They also demand a certain kind of way of saying things, so you can get in trouble by saying  “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.”

That’s how the new ideology resembles Stalinism and Maoism.  They, too, demanded not only passive acceptance, but enthusiastic support expressed in a prescribed vocabulary and a required show of penitence for not measuring up.

A recent public opinion poll showed that six in 10 Americans have political opinions they’re afraid to share and three in 10 fear that their political views could harm their job prospects.  Half of all strong liberals would fire a business executive known to have donated to the Trump campaign; three in 10 strong conservatives would do the same to a Biden donor. 

I don’t equate this to Stalin’s mass executions or the Gulag.  But I do think there’s a widespread and well-founded fear of getting into trouble by inadvertently saying the wrong thing or offending the wrong people, and I do see people afraid to speak their minds as I think free Americans ought.

Some people make a practice of searching social media to find things that people have said that could be considered objectionable, and then using this information to attack their reputations and careers.

Dreher fears the emergence of a social credit system like the one in China, where everyone’s every move is tracked through surveillance technology and social media, and people are rewarded or punished according to the acceptability of their behavior.

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The passing scene: March 26, 2021

March 25, 2021

Here are links to some articles I found interesting, and maybe you will, too.

The US Intelligence Community, Flouting Laws, Is Increasingly Involving Itself in Domestic Politics by Glenn Greenwald.

“A letter from House Intelligence Committee members demands answers from the DNI about illegal breaches of the wall guarding against CIA and NSA domestic activity.”

When the CIA was chartered in 1947, it was prohibited from spying on Americans, in part because President Truman was afraid it would get involved in politics.  In the 1960s, the CIA was caught spying on U.S. political activists.  Now it is happening again in the name of a “war on domestic terrorism.”

A Biden Appointee’s Troubling Views on the First Amendment by Matt Taibbi for TK News.

“Columbia law professor Timothy Wu wonders if the First Amendment is ‘obsolete’ and believes in ‘returning this country to the kind of media environment that prevailed in the 1950s’.”

There is a contradiction between the view of Timothy Wu, an appointee to the National Economic Council, that anti-trust enforcement should be a priority in the Biden administration, and his view that Facebook, Google and other social media companies have a responsibility to protect the pubic from false statements.  These companies need monopoly power in order to carry out that mission.

If you give a private corporation or government agency the power and mandate to monitor communication to separate truth from lies, what you’re doing is giving that corporation or that agency a monopoly on lying.

Biden Team Prepares $3 Trillion in New Spending for the Economy by Jim Tankersley for the New York Times.  (Hat tip to Steve from Texas.)

“A pair of proposals would invest in infrastructure, education, workforce development and fighting climate change, with the aim of making the economy more productive.”

The consensus in the Biden administration appears to be that President Obama was too cautious in fighting the 2008 recession, and that they will not repeat that mistake.

Good!  But can he overcome Republican opposition in the Senate?  What about monopoly power, financial fraud, international competitiveness and other problems that can’t be solved simply by flooding the economy with money?  Still, it’s early days and a good start.

Does Biden Really Want to End the Forever Wars? by Jack Goldsmith and Samuel Moyn for The New York Times.  (Hat tip to Steve from Texas) 

“If he does, he must work with Congress and go far beyond narrowing old permission slips for conflict.”

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: If a headline asks a question, the answer is “no.”

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Greenwald on the threat to freedom of speech

February 22, 2021

During the previous four years, Democratic leaders and pro-Democratic newspapers and broadcasters aligned with U.S. intelligence agencies to undermine the Trump administration. 

Now that Democrats are in power, the alliance continues.  It’s highly improbable that the Biden administration will dial down any of the covert wars now being waged by the United States.

As usual, Glenn Greenwald, who got his start as a civil liberties lawyer, has the facts.

I’m not a supporter of Donald Trump.  As one who believes in historic American ideals of freedom and democracy, I’m concerned about the large fraction of the 74 million Trump voters who endorse mob violence or believe in the crazy Q-Anon conspiracy theory.

But trying to suppress people’s basic rights is not a good way to refute their belief that there is a conspiracy to suppress their basic rights.

Also, progressives and left-wingers are naive if they think the social media crackdown is going to be limited to their enemies. 

Donald Trump was a very bad President.  I’m glad he’s no longer in office.  But I don’t believe in attacking historic constitutional liberties in the name of preventing Trump supporters from destroying historic constitutional liberties.

LINKS

Congress Escalates Pressure on Tech Giants to Censor More, Threatening the First Amendment by Glenn Greenwald.  “In their zeal for control of on-line speech, House Democrats are getting closer to the constitutional line, if they have not already crossed it.”

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The freedom of speech dilemma

January 29, 2021

The new documentary movie, “The Social Dilemma,” is about social media companies whose business plan is addiction.   We discussed it in the drop-in discussion group of First Universalist Church of Rochester, N.Y., last Tuesday.

This is a real problem I’ve written about myself, and little of what was presented is new to me.

The Internet itself has inherent addictive aspects, to begin with.  Social media companies use artificial intelligence and behavioral psychology to make their offerings more addictive. 

They combine AI and psychological expertise with surveillance technology to target individuals who are susceptible to certain types of advertising and propaganda.

Since their aim is “engagement,” it is more profitable to generate fear and anger than contentment because the negative emotions have more impact.  For the same reason, it often is more profitable to steer people to sensational fake news than dull but accurate news.

All this is generally understood[Update 1/30/2021. Then again, the movie itself may be an example of what it complains of.]

So why are there so many calls for the social media companies to take on the role of Internet censors?  If Facebook and Google are the sources of the problem, what qualifies their employees to decide which news sites I should see and which I shouldn’t?

It is not as if they have given up on a business model in which profits are made by enabling propaganda by exploiting surveillance and addiction.

What the social media companies seem to be doing is cracking down on everybody—right, left or off the spectrum—who dissents from the official view.

Experts quoted in the film say that, because of the social media companies, there is no agreement on what is true and what isn’t, and they also say the very concept of objective truth is disappearing. 

But these are two very different things.  It is not only possible, but very common, to have agreement based on lies or false beliefs. 

There was an official consensus in 2002, supported by, among others, the New York Times, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. 

As a result of those lies, thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East lost their lives; millions became homeless refugees. 

Popular journalists who questioned the WMD lies, such as Phil Donahue, were canceled.  They have never been rehabilitated. 

Those who went along with the lies flourished.  They have paid no penalty, even in reputation.

The consequences of the WMD lie were many times greater than the Pizzagate conspiracy theory lie.  Spreading the Pizzagate story endangered innocent lives, I’m not trying to justify it, but, in fact, nobody died as a result.

More recently the so-called mainstream media spread baseless claims that Donald Trump is a secret agent of Vladimir Putin.  Trump is many bad things, but that charge was absurd.  The media also spread baseless claims to smear Julian Assange.

Maybe you doubt the Russiagate and Assange claims were fake news.  Fair enough.  But how can you be sure if you don’t have access to the arguments on the other side?

What most critics of the social media companies, including the producers of the movie, don’t get is that there is one thing worse than producing competing versions of reality that nobody can agree on.

The worse thing is the social media companies working hand-in-hand with government to produce a common propaganda version of reality based on official lies.  This is what is going on right now.

If liberals or progressives think a government and corporate crackdown on “fake news” is going to be limited to actual white supremacists or neo-Nazis, they are very naive.

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The storming of the Capitol

January 18, 2021

Nearly half of all registered Republicans and roughly one-fifth of registered U.S. voters think the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6 was justified.

Max Blumenthal, who was one of the few reporters to mingle with the protestors, found that they were disproportionately former military, former police or current police.

This is bad news.  Coups and revolutions succeed when police and troops turn against the government.

I do not predict or fear a coup or revolution anytime soon.  What I do fear is a low-intensity insurgency that will provide an excuse for a crackdown like that following the 9/11 attacks, except that hard-core MAGA Republicans rather than Muslims will be the targets.

The equal or possibly greater danger is the alliance of progressives and WOKE Democrats with the FBI, CIA and the rest of the national security establishment and with Facebook, Twitter, Google and other social media companies to set limits on freedom of expression.  Only the naive will think that the crackdown will be limited to the extreme right.

I confess that I underestimated the threat posed by Donald Trump.  I always thought he was too lazy and disorganized to become any kind of dictator.  I thought the danger of Trump was that he would be a kind of John the Baptist who would pave the way for a real dictator to come—someone with Trump’s demagogic talents, but without his self-destructiveness.

What I failed to see were his ability to stir up rage, both among his supporters and his enemies, and the strength of the Trump cult, which may well live on after Trump the man passes from the political scene.

All of this could have been averted if there had been sufficient security at the Capitol on Jan. 6.  The Capitol police were too few in number to block the invasion, and some of them were sympathetic to the invaders. 

I generally believe in Heinlein’s Rule, which is to never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity.  But if somebody did make a decision to allow the invasion to happen, what was their purpose?  Did they sympathize with MAGA Republicans?  Or did they want to create an excuse for a crackdown?

LINKS

The Storming of the Capitol by Peter Moskos for Cop in the Hood.  [Added 1/25/2021]

Breach of Capitol Was a Military Operation, an interview of Max Blumenthal, founder of the Grayzone, for Black Agenda Report.

After the Capitol Riots, the Last Thing We Need Is Another War on Terror by Spencer Ackerman for The Daily Beast.

Julian Assange and journalistic hypocrisy

November 25, 2020

Rod Dreher on the coming soft totalitarianism

November 18, 2020

Communism and Naziism were different from plain old run-of-the-mill tyrannies.  They were totalitarian, not merely authoritarian.

An authoritarian ruler is content with passive obedience.  Silence is enough to buy safety under authoritarian rule.

A totalitarian regime demands active and sincere support, without mental reservations.  Totalitarianism aspires to control not only your outward actions, but your inner thoughts.

The rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s and 1940s was new and frightening.  But after the defeat of the Axis powers in World War Two and the breakup of the Soviet Union following the Cold War, totalitarianism was seemingly defeated for good.

But the conservative Christian writer Rod Dreher, in his new book, LIVE NOT BY LIES: a Manual for Christian Dissidents, warns of the danger of a new form of totalitarianism.

The danger, in his view, consists of two converging forces: (1) the rise of what’s called “cancel culture” or “political correctness,” which seeks to punish people for unorthodox words and thoughts, and (2) the rise of surveillance technology, which gives the powers that be new tools for tracking down what you’ve said and thought.

You might say both fears are exaggerated.  Where is the equivalent of the Soviet Gulag or the Nazi concentration camps?

Dreher interviewed Christian dissidents who suffered under Communist rule, and they in fact see the seeds of a new totalitarianism in the USA and other Western countries.

It would be a “soft” totalitarianism, enforced by economic pressure and the pressure of public opinion.

People really do fear for their careers if they go on record as saying something unacceptable, even with the best of intentions.  It’s not just Christians or conservatives who suffer.  So do liberals or progressives who make a misstep.

It’s customary nowadays to search social media for things people may have said in the past that’s unacceptable now. 

Meanwhile high-tech companies such as Amazon offer services based on connecting everything in your life to the Internet.  This of course creates a record of everything you do. 

This information is sold to advertisers, marketers, bill collectors, insurance companies, credit rating agencies and anybody else with an interest in knowing about you, and also used to manipulate your mind.

It would be naive to think that your political and religious opinions are excluded from this, or that police and intelligence agencies don’t have access to this information.  We see a preview of what might happen in China’s social credit system.

I recommend Dreher’s book.  His fears are not exaggerated.  In fact, it is even broader than he makes out.  It is not just religious people and conservatives who are targeted.  Anybody of influence who is anti-war or anti-corporate is a target for cancellation.

And this is against a background in which the federal government asserts new powers to start wars, imprison whistleblowers, order assassinations and pressure social media companies to censor all those who depart from the official view.

I do not argue that you should be concerned about these issues rather than Dreher’s issues.  All these things are forces converging on the same outcome.

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It’s the USA that’s on trial, not Julian Assange

October 1, 2020

If a government has the power to commit crimes and to punish those who reveal those crimes, there is no barrier to any form of tyranny.

In Wikileaks, Julian Assange created a means by which whistleblowers could reveal crimes and not be caught, and an example for others to follow.  He is one of the greatest heroes of our time.

By forgiving war criminals and prosecuting Assange, the U.S. government is acting like a dictatorship.  The governments of the U.K., Sweden, Ecuador and Australia are acting as if they are ruled by this dictatorship.

LINKS

The Idea Behind WikiLeaks: Julian Assange as a Physics Student by Niraj Lal on Consortium News.

The Stalinist Trial of Julian Assange: Which Side Are You On? by John Pilger.

CIA Torture Victim Backs Assange at Extradition Trial by Kevin Gosztola for Shadowproof.

Julian Assange US Extradition Show Trial of Journalism at the Old Bailey by John Kendall Hawkins for Antiwar.com.

Assange on Trial: Solitary Confinement and Parlous Health Care by Binoy Kampmark for Counterpunch.

The Guardian’s deceit-ridden new statement betrays both Julian Assange and journalism by Jonathan Cook.

Julian Assange is fighting for us all

September 3, 2020

Julian Assange is being abused and prosecuted and prosecuted for the crime of making the U.S. government’s crimes known.

If a government can commit crimes in secret and imprison or execute those who reveal its crimes, there is no limit to tyranny.

People like Assange stand between the public and absolute power.  That is why they are considered so dangerous.

LINKS

For Years, Journalists cheered Assange’s abuse | Now They’ve Paved His Way to a US Gulag by Jonathan Cook.  An important article.

The War on Journalism: The Case of Julian Assange.  An important video.

Democracy, the military and the para-military

July 21, 2020

The U.S. Army has been used many times in American history to intervene in strikes, disperse protestors and even enforce court orders to desegregate schools.

So it’s interesting that the top military brass was leery of supporting President Trump’s plan to intervene in the Black Lives Matter protests.

I can understand why they might not have wanted to be identified with one of American history’s most divisive figures.  But there is another possible reason why they hesitated.

Roughly 21 percent of American soldiers are African-American, compared to just under 14 percent of the total population.

If I were an Army general, I would not want to test whether black American troops, and their white and Hispanic barrack-mates, would be willing to put down a movement whose goal is to end police abuse of black people.

But, as it turned out, Donald Trump didn’t need the career military.  The federal government has 132,000 personnel with military-grade weapons.

Since they lack rigorous military discipline, codes of conduct or a tradition of staying out of partisan politics, they serve his purposes better than the career military would.

In Portland, Oregon, unidentified men are grabbing people off the streets, throwing them into unmarked cars and taking them off to unknown locations.

They are not protecting government property or private property.  They are not restoring order.  They are putting down a rebellion.

Presumably we in the United States are not at the point where we can expect people in unmarked cars to dump bullet-riddled bodies into the street and speed away, as in the Dirty Wars in Argentina and  other Latin American countries.  I wish I could say I was confident that we would never get to this point in the USA.

Portland is just the beginning.  The Department of Homeland Security reportedly plans to send its para-militaries into Chicago and other U.S. cities.

The likely result will be to broaden and intensify the conflict.  Revolutionaries and fascists have a common objective—to widen conflicts so that everyone will have to choose one side or the other.

LINKS

Who Are These Guys? by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.

Trump’s police state attack in Portland, Oregon by Patrick Martin for the World Socialist Web Site.

President Trump sending federal police agents into major American cities by Kevin Reed for the World Socialist Web Site.

Border Patrol’s Dream of Becoming a National Police Force Is Becoming a Reality by Jenn Budd for Southern Border Communities Coalition.  [Added 7/22/2020]

TRUMP’S SECRET POLICE: A HISTORY LESSON by Peter Daou [Added 7/22/2020]  Trump is building on precedents set by Bush and Obama.

Civil liberties and “cancel culture”

July 15, 2020

One might expect the liberal-left to be among the strongest defenders of free speech at work, and of the right of workers to say what they wish, but too many have enthusiastically called upon employers to fire workers for alleged reactionary speech outside of the workplace, in effect cheering on at-will termination of employment, and embraced the multibillion-dollar human resources department–organized and employer-supervised “sensitivity training” industry, imposing top-down workshops, where workers are petrified they might say the wrong thing.

How this enhancement of the semifeudal powers of bosses to deliver 24/7 monitoring of workers’ speech is going to advance the trade union movement is a mystery.

The Threat to Civil Liberties Goes Way Beyond “Cancel Culture” by Leigh Phillips for Jacobin magazine.

The rising tide of censorship

June 10, 2020

Michael Moore was interviewed on Rolling Stone’s Useful Idiots podcast about the campaign to suppress the film, “Planet of the Humans,” a critique of the environmental movement.

It actually was taken down from YouTube for a few days because of a bogus concern about copyright.  Moore is a successful celebrity and was in a position to fight back.  As he pointed out, a younger filmmaker, in the same position as Moore when he made “Roger and Me,” wouldn’t have been able to do so.

Taibbi pointed out on his web log that this is part of a growing pattern of censorship.

The significance of the Moore incident is that it shows that a long-developing pattern of deletions and removals is expanding. The early purges were mainly of small/fringe voices on either the far right or far left, or infamously fact-challenged personalities like Alex Jones.

The removal of a film by Moore – a heavily-credentialed figure long revered by the liberal mainstream – takes place amid a dramatic acceleration of such speech-suppression incidents, many connected to the coronavirus disaster.

A pair of California doctors were taken off YouTube for declaring stay-at-home measures unnecessary; right-wing British broadcaster and trumpeter of shape-shifting reptile theories David Icke was taken off YouTube; a video by Rockefeller University epidemiologist Knut Wittknowski was taken down, apparently for advocating a “herd immunity” approach to combating the virus.

These moves all came after the popular libertarian site Zero Hedge was banned from Twitter, ostensibly for suggesting a Chinese scientist in Wuhan was responsible for coronavirus.

In late April, the World Socialist Web Site – which has been one of the few consistent critics of Internet censorship and algorithmic manipulation – was removed by Reddit from the r/coronavirus subreddit on the grounds that it was not “reliable.” The site was also removed from the whitelist for r/politics, the primary driver of traffic from Reddit to the site.

Then in early May, at least 52 Palestinian activists and journalists were removed from Facebook for “not following community standards,” part of a years-long pattern of removals made in cooperation with the Israeli government.

On May 13, human rights activist Jennifer Zeng noted that YouTube was automatically deleting Chinese-language references to terms insulting to the Chinese government, like gongfei, or “communist bandit.” Congressional candidate Shahid Buttar complained an interview with Walker Bragman about Democrats supporting surveillance powers was removed by YouTube.

Evan Greer of the speech advocacy group Fight for the Future had a post flagged by Facebook’s “independent fact checkers”—in this case, that noted pillar of factuality, USA Today – dinging him for a “partly false” claim that the Senate had voted to allow warrantless searches of browsing history.

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The new Chinese surveillance state

January 29, 2020

Shoshana Zuboff warned us of the perils of American surveillance capitalism, and Edward Snowden of the American surveillance state.  But China’s ruler, Xi Jinping, is creating a surveillance system that leaves anything else far behind.

I recently read WE HAVE BEEN HARMONIZED: Life in China’s Surveillance State, by a German journalist named Kai Strittmatter, about how the components of the new system are now being put into place in different parts of China.

The components are:

A unified Internet service that combines the functions of a smart phone and a credit card, and allows for tracking of all electronic communication and all financial transactions.

A video surveillance system using facial recognition software that allows for tracking of all public behavior.

An artificial intelligence system capable of integrating all this information.

Algorithms that give people a “credit score” based on the government’s approval or disapproval of their behavior.

This is something like the two-way television sets in George Orwell’s 1984 and something like the East German Stasi’s real-life eavesdropping and surveillance system.

Both the fictional and the real system were limited by the human inability to keep track of everything all of the time.  The Chinese government’s hope is that advanced computer technology can overcome these limits.

At the same time, China is still an old-fashioned Soviet-style police state.  Dissidents are treated the same as in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.  The new controls do not replace the old.  Instead they are layered on top of them.

China, according to Strittmatter, is a virtually cashless society.  Payments are made through the WeChat app on the TenCent smartphone service or the Alipay app on the Alibaba service.  All transactions and all calls are monitored.

Certain words and phrases are forbidden in electronic communication. including “I do not agree,” “my emperor,” “Animal Farm” and “Winnie the Pooh”—the latter a nickname for the tall, stout, benign-looking  General Secretary Xi.

A law imposes three years in prison for anyone who posts a harmful rumor on the Internet, if it is shared 500 times or viewed 5,000 times.  There was a wave of arrests in 2013 for spreading false rumors.

Strittmatter saw a video surveillance system at an intersection that showed the faces of jaywalks on a huge screen, together with their names, home addresses and ID numbers.  These systems do not exist everywhere in China, but they are examples of what might be.

He saw a video surveillance system in a collage classroom that monitored whether students were paying attention.  It also recorded their facial expressions, which were fed into a system that supposedly could evaluate their feelings and emotions.

Robin Li, CEO of Baidu, a leading Chinese search engine company, told Strittmatter that his goal was to insert artificial intelligence into every aspect of human life.

The Chinese government plans to use this data to set up a “social credit” system which will give each Chinese person a score for “social truthworthiness.”  Strittmatter saw such a system being tested in the small city of Rongcheng.

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Update of the famous ‘they came for’ quote

October 31, 2019

There’s a famous quote attributed to a German pastor about the failure of respectable people to resist the Nazis.

  • First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a socialist.
  • Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
  • Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew.
  • Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me.

Caitlin Johnstone, noting the silence of the mainstream press about the arrest of left-wing reporter Max Blumenthal, updated the quote for our time.

  • First they came for Assange, and I did not speak out, because I was a mainstream western journalist with no intention of ever upsetting the powerful.
  • Then they came for Blumenthal, and I did not speak out, because I was a mainstream western journalist with no intention of ever upsetting the powerful.
  • Then they came for all the other dissident journalists, and I did not speak out, because I will never be a dissident journalist.
  • They never came for me, because I have chosen to serve power.

LINK

Mainstream Journalists Who Refuse To Defend Dissident Journalists Are Worshippers Of Power by Caitlin Johnstone.

Max Blumenthal Arrest Exposes Hypocrisy of Western Media and Human Rights NGOs by Joe Emensberger for Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR)  [Added 11/1/2019]

Reporter shackled, caged, denied a phone call

October 30, 2019

This is disturbing.

Max Blumenthal, the editor of the news site The Gray Zone, was arrested on the morning of October 25 on a fabricated charge related to the siege of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC that took place between April and May.

A team of DC police officers appeared at Blumenthal’s door at just after 9 AM, demanding entry and threatening to break his door down.  A number of officers had taken positions on the side of his home as though they were prepared for a SWAT-style raid.

Max Blumenthal

Blumenthal was hauled into a police van and ultimately taken to DC central jail, where he was held for two days in various cells and cages.  He was shackled by his hands and ankles for over five hours in one such cage along with other inmates.  His request for a phone call was denied by DC police and corrections officers, effectively denying him access to the outside world.

Blumenthal was informed that he was accused of simple assault by a Venezuelan opposition member. He declared the charge completely baseless.

“This charge is a 100 percent false, fabricated, bogus, untrue, and malicious lie,” Blumenthal declared. “It is clearly part of a campaign of political persecution designed to silence me and the The Gray Zone for our factual journalism exposing the deceptions, corruption and violence of the far-right Venezuelan opposition.”

The arrest warrant was five months old.  According to an individual familiar with the case, the warrant for Blumenthal’s arrest was initially rejected.  Strangely, this false charge was revived months later without the defendant’s knowledge.

“If the government had at least told me I had a warrant I could have voluntarily surrendered and appeared at my own arraignment. I have nothing to fear because I’m completely innocent of this bogus charge,” Blumenthal stated. “Instead, the federal government essentially enlisted the DC police to SWAT me, ensuring that I would be subjected to an early morning raid and then languish in prison for days without even the ability to call an attorney.”

Source: The Gray Zone

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The deeper problem concerning Julian Assange

October 25, 2019

Julian Assange, who faces extradition from the UK to the USA on charges based on his publication of American government secrets, is being denied the right to a fair hearing.  He is being abused and tormented.

But the deeper problem is that even if his legal rights were respected, he might well be convicted under existing U.S. law.

And this would establish the precedent that the U.S. government can commit crimes, classify those crimes as secret and imprison anyone who makes these crimes known.

This would break the uneasy truce between the government and the U.S. press, in which whistleblowers reveal secrets at their peril, but the press is allowed to publish them with impunity.

Such a distinction does not make logical or legal sense.  In the law of libel, for example, the writer and the publisher are both liable for damages.  But in practice, it has allowed some abuses of power to come to light that otherwise would have been hidden.

The U.S. government has already claimed the legal right to wage undeclared wars, to commit assassinations, to engage in warrantless arrests and warrantless surveillance and to torture people to get information—all in the name of national security.

The most important remaining restriction on abuse of these powers is the force of public opinion.  But the public can’t have an opinion on what it isn’t allowed to know.

Among the Presidential candidates, the prosecution of Assange is opposed by Democrats Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard,, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Marianne Williamson and Republican Joe Walsh.

Sanders said that, if elected President, he would not prosecute whistleblowers.  I believe Sanders, but I remember President Obama also promised that, and Obama prosecuted more whistleblowers than any previous President.

Even if Sanders or one of the other candidates is elected, and even if they follow through on their promises, this would be just a matter of policy that could be reversed  by the next administration.

What’s needed is a law that allows people charged with revealing classified information to rebut the charge by showing they acted in the public interest by revealing crimes, wrongdoing or mismanagement and that the national interest was not harmed.

The same purpose could be achieved by judicial decision—that the use of the Espionage Act to protect the guilty or the incompetent is unconstitutional.

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U.S. treats Assange as Soviets treated dissidents

October 23, 2019

Americans and Britons have historically prided ourselves on the rule of law—the no-one is above being subject to the law and no-one is below being protected by the law.

Col. Rudolph Abel, the Soviet master spy who was apprehended in 1957, was defended in his trial by a top lawyer, James Donovan.  The accused Nazi war criminals tried at Nuremberg were given the opportunity to defend themselves and some actually got off.  All of them were treated humanely while awaiting trial.

The dissident publisher Julian Assange, who is accused of publishing secret information about U.S. war crimes, is being treated worse than any accused Nazi.  He has been kept in solitary confinement, denied needed medical care and restricted in the ability to conduct his own defense.

He appeared in Westminster Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday in a proceeding to schedule the hearing on whether he should be extradited from Britain to the United States on charges of spying.

Spectators saw that his physical and mental health is broken.  Of course it will be highly convenient to the U.S. national security establishment if he is unable to speak in his own defense and better still if he dies in prison.

He was barely able to understand what was going on.  He was like some Soviet dissident of the 1970s and 1980s who’d been subjected to psychiatric, or rather anti-psychiatric, drugs.

Here is what his friend Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, saw:

I was badly shocked by just how much weight my friend has lost, by the speed his hair has receded and by the appearance of premature and vastly accelerated ageing. He has a pronounced limp I have never seen before. Since his arrest he has lost over 15 kg in weight.

But his physical appearance was not as shocking as his mental deterioration. When asked to give his name and date of birth, he struggled visibly over several seconds to recall both.  [snip]

[H]aving attended the trials in Uzbekistan of several victims of extreme torture, and having worked with survivors from Sierra Leone and elsewhere, I can tell you that … … Julian exhibited exactly the symptoms of a torture victim brought blinking into the light, particularly in terms of disorientation, confusion, and the real struggle to assert free will through the fog of learned helplessness. [snip]

Everybody in that court yesterday saw that one of the greatest journalists and most important dissidents of our times is being tortured to death by the state, before our eyes. To see my friend, the most articulate man, the fastest thinker, I have ever known, reduced to that shambling and incoherent wreck, was unbearable.

Yet the agents of the state, particularly the callous magistrate Vanessa Baraitser, were not just prepared but eager to be a part of this bloodsport. She actually told him that if he were incapable of following proceedings, then his lawyers could explain what had happened to him later.

The question of why a man who, by the very charges against him, was acknowledged to be highly intelligent and competent, had been reduced by the state to somebody incapable of following court proceedings, gave her not a millisecond of concern.  [snip]

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Algorithms, democracy and political correctness

June 3, 2019

Matthew B. Crawford, author of The World Beyond Your Head, wrote an about why using computer algorithms to detect hate speech is in conflict with the idea of democracy and self-government

Decisions made by algorithm are often not explainable, even by those who wrote the algorithm, and for that reason cannot win rational assent.  This is the more fundamental problem posed by mechanized decision-making, as it touches on the basis of political legitimacy in any liberal regime.  [snip]

Among those ensconced in powerful institutions, the view seems to be that the breakdown of trust in establishment voices is caused by the proliferation of unauthorized voices on the Internet.

But the causal arrow surely goes the other way as well: our highly fragmented casting-about for alternative narratives that can make better sense of the world as we experience it is a response to the felt lack of fit between experience and what we are offered by the official organs, and a corollary lack of trust in them.

For progressives to now seek to police discourse from behind an algorithm is to double down on the political epistemology that has gotten us to this point. The algorithm’s role is to preserve the appearance of liberal proceduralism, that austerely fair-minded ideal, the spirit of which is long dead.

Such a project reveals a lack of confidence in one’s arguments—or a conviction about the impotence of argument in politics, due to the irrationality of one’s opponents.  In that case we have a simple contest for power, to be won and held onto by whatever means necessary.

LINK

Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy by Matthew B. Crawford for American Affairs Journal.  The article is a little abstract, but well worth reading.

Julian Assange arrested, taken from embassy

April 11, 2019

Julian Assange removed from Ecuadorian embassy. Source: Ruptly

British police have arrested Julian Assange and taken him from the Ecuadorian embassy, where he was given political asylum nearly seven years ago.

He’ll stand trial on charges of breaking the agreement that allowed him to be released on bail while he was fighting extradition to Sweden to answer questions in regard to alleged rape.  That case was dropped several years ago.

But his case was never treated as a routine extradition case.  The U.S. government regards him as a one-man hostile foreign power because his WikiLeaks organization published secret documents and videos documenting U.S. crimes, notably in the Collateral Murder video.

The issue is not whether he is guilty of jumping bail.  The issue is whether someone can be sentenced to prison for publishing information that a government wants to keep secret.

The practice until now is that whistleblowers are charged as criminals, just like spies, but newspapers and broadcasters have not been charged for publishing the information they get from whistleblowers.

Admittedly this is not logical, but it has made possible a rough balance between government’s need to keep certain information confidential and the public’s right to know what government is doing behind its back.

If Assange is extradited to the United States and convicted of espionage, it will create a precedent by which the editors of the New York Times can be prosecuted for publishing leaked information.  In fact, in theory, the editors of The Guardian in London could be prosecuted by the U.S. government.

Assange is an Australian citizen and has never been based in the United States.   If he falls within U.S. jurisdiction, so does anyone on the planet.

He has a reputation for being a difficult person.  I wouldn’t know about that.  I don’t think anybody’s disposition would be improved by being cooped up in a couple of rooms and never going outside for nearly seven years.

He is a hero.  He has defied the world’s biggest superpower to make known the truth.  It will be a sad day if he goes to prison for revealing the truth.

LINKS

WIKILEAKS DEFENSE FUND

“Assange Is Not a Journalist”: Yes, He Is, Idiot by Caitlin Johnstone.

Julian Assange Has Been Arrested for U.S. Extradition | The Time to Act Is Now by Caitlin Johnstone.

Julian Assange Dragged Out of Ecuadorian Embassy and Arrested by British Police by Matt Novak for Gizmodo.

Julian Assange Arrested in London After Ecuador Withdraws Asylum; U.S. Requests Extradition by Robert Mackey for The Intercept.

Yes, You Should Fear the Arrest of Julian Assange by Kelley Beauchar Vlahos for The American Conservative.

Julian Assange Will Die Along With Your First Amendment Rights by Peter Van Buren on We Meant Well.

Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks and the Deepwater Horizon by Greg Palast.

Why the Assange Arrest Should Scare Reporters by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Truth-teller Chelsea Manning faces prison again

March 9, 2019

Chelsea Manning went to prison for seven years for leaking true information about U.S. atrocities in Iraq to WikiLeaks.  Now she has been imprisoned again for refusing to testify before a Grand Jury that is considering indictment WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange for publishing that information.

She is a hero.  Julian Assange is a hero.  Caitlin Johnstone sums up the situation well.

The United States government has just re-imprisoned one of the nation’s greatest whistleblowers to coerce her into helping to destroy the world’s greatest leak publisher, both of whom exposed undeniably true facts about war crimes committed by that same United States government. Truth tellers are being actively persecuted by this same power structure which claims it has the moral authority to topple governments and interfere in international affairs around the world, exactly because they told the truth.

Please take a moment to make sure you’re really appreciating this. Assange started a leak outlet on the premise that corrupt power can be fought with the light of truth, and corrupt power has responded by smearing, silencing, and persecuting him and doing everything it can to stomp out the light of truth, up to and including re-imprisoning an already viciously brutalized American hero like Chelsea Manning.

Source: Caitlin Johnstone

Self-described liberals such as Rachel Maddow have turned on Julian Assange because he published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election campaign.  They say he was in cahoots with Donald Trump.  Then why is the Trump administration going all-out to put Assange in prison?

LINKS

US Re-Imprisons Chelsea Manning To Coerce Her to Testify Against WikiLeaks by Caitlin Johnstone.

Rachel Maddow Deceives Audience About Assange by Caitlin Johnstone.

Democratic Presidential Candidate Tulsi Gabbard Takes a Strong Stand for WikiLeaks and Freedom of the Press by Cassandra Fairbanks for Gateway Pundit.  [Added 3/11/2019}

Chelsea Manning’s Refusal to Testify Against Wikileaks Will Help Save Press Freedom, an interview of Glenn Greenwood on Democracy Now! [Added 3/13/2019]

Chelsea Manning Defies Secret Grand Jury, Julian Assange Scoops Michael Cohen by Ann Garrison for Black Agenda Report [Added 3/14/2019]

Airports, security culture and the new normal

November 1, 2018

Source: Philosophy Tube.  Hat tip to Alex Page.

At the dawning of the “war on terror”, the new airport security rules seemed shocking and unnatural.  Conservatives as well as liberals objected to them.  The “no-fly” lists—the idea that the government could ban people from traveling by air and not give a reason—seemed outrageous.

But I’ve ceased to think about this.   The video above—about the thoughts and experiences of a young Englishman flying from London to New York—reminds me of how abnormal our security state really is.

The other thing I get from the video is how the United States is spreading police-state thinking to other countries.  I was brought up to think of my country as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and I think that, in some ways and to some extent, it was.

But nowadays cruel and ruthless dictators can point to the U.S. example to justify torture, warrantless arrests, extrajudicial killings and military intervention.

The question asked by the video is, “When will security ever go back to normal?”  The present security culture has been in existence for 15 years.  It now seems normal to many of us, maybe most of us.   Until and unless we stop thinking of it as normal, it won’t change.

Witch hunting then and now

June 14, 2018

Puritans in 17th century New England believed that Satan was real and ever present.  To doubt that the devil was a clear and present danger was an indication that you yourself were under the influence of the devil.

In 1692, in and around Salem, Massachusetts, many people, mostly women, were accused of being witches.  Nineteen were executed and six more died awaiting trial.

If you were accused of being a witch, the way to save your life was to confess your sin and accuse other people of being witches.

The great playwright, Arthur Miller, saw a parallel with the search for hidden Communists in his own time, and wrote The Curcible, which was staged in 1953, in order to bring this out.   I read this play as part of a monthly play-reading group hosted by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The events of the play did not follow the exact historical record, but Miller did a good job of depicting the Puritan culture and attitudes, especially its pervasive sense of sin and guilt.

Possibly the central character, John Procter, like the Thomas More character in A Man for All Seasons, was more concerned with his individual integrity, like a 20th century person, and less with salvation a 17th century Puritan would have been.

Miller did not explicitly draw a parallel with events of his own time, but the parallel was there to see.  Intellectuals and other public figures accused of being Communists or former Communists were blacklisted if they refused to confess or name others, just like accused witches in 1692 Salem.

His play drew the ire of the government.  He was denied a passport to view the opening of the play in London in 1954.  When he applied for a passport renewal in 1956, he was subpoened to testify before the House un-American Activities Committee.  He readily told about his own past political activities, but refused to testify about anybody else.

He was charged with contempt of Congress, and a federal judge sentenced him to a fine and prison term, but his conviction was overturned on appeal in 1958.

The same syndrome of accusation, confession and new accusations, but on a larger and more lethal scale, operated in the Soviet purge trials in the 1930s and in the Spanish Inquisition.  There were many witch trials.  An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft from the 14th through the 18th centuries.

In the 1990s, many Americans were caught up in a literal witch hunt.  Satanic cults were thought to be a real menace, and innocent people went to prison on false charges of abusing children in Satanic rituals.

Today the threat to basic civil liberties in the United States is greater than it was in the 1950s, although it doesn’t involve rituals of confession and naming names as in the Salem witch trials or the Congressional investigations of the 1950s.  In that sense, The Crucible is yesterday’s news.

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Democrats allow Trump a dictator’s power

March 6, 2018

Lee Camp, writing for Truthdig, pointed out that Democrats in Congress have no qualms about giving President Donald Trump the powers of a dictator.  Instead of standing up for the American people, he said, corporate-owned Democrats have strengthened the president.

The Democrats have helped, voted for, and often argued in favor of all of the following:

  1. Giving Trump unlimited war powers.
  2. Giving Trump unlimited trade negotiation powers.
  3. Giving Trump unlimited surveillance powers.
  4. Giving Trump the power to lock someone up indefinitely without a trial or charges under the National Defense Authorization Act.
  5. Giving Trump the power to assassinate American citizens without a trial or charges.
  6. Giving Trump’s administration full control of our election system infrastructure.

If this is considered “resistance,” then I don’t want to be a part of it. I’d rather spend my time resisting the “Resistance” and thereby taking this dictator’s toolkit away from Donald Trump.

Source: Truthdig

Most of my Democratic friends are obsessed with Trump.  Every discussion of politics veers to the most recent foolish thing Trump has said or done.

They hope and expect that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller will prove that Trump is in league with the Russian government and provide grounds for impeachment.

Even if that works out, which I doubt, they’re then faced with President Mike Pence, who from a liberal Democratic standpoint is just as bad as Trump on matters of policy, but more effective.

On matters of policy, there’s little difference between Trump and the dominant faction in the Republican Party.

On fundamental questions of war and peace, Constitutional rights and economic policy, there is no fundamental difference between Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress.

That’s why some Democrats in Congress would rather allow Trump the powers of a dictator than to set limits on the power of a future Democratic President.

It’s true that, out of the six items, only the war powers and the surveillance powers were voted on during the Trump administration.

That doesn’t matter.  When you vote to remove restraints on Presidential power, you have empowered all Presidents, present and future—not just to the one you happen to like.

LINKS

Six Ways the ‘Resistance’ Gave Trump a Dictator’s Toolkit by Lee Camp for TruthDig.

Russiagate, Trump, Putin, Mueller and Targeting Dissent by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Sexual abuse and trial by denunciation

December 19, 2017

I don’t feel that, as a citizen, I can take on the responsibility of judging the innocence or degree of guilt of every public figure accused of sexual misconduct.

Even though the Court of Public Opinion is at present the basic venue for trying such cases.

To make informed judgments, I would have the time, inclination and ability to judge in each case whether the person was guilty of (1) a felony, (2) a misdemeanor, (3) gross bad manners or (4) nothing at all that matters.   I’d also have to weigh whether it was a one-time event in the fairly distant past or a continuing pattern over a long period of time.

Most people are too busy to do this.   They judge on the basis of whether there is just one accusation or a lot of them, and on whether the accused admits guilt or stands their ground..

The problem is that there are two kinds of people without guilty consciences—the innocent and the shameless.  If you can manage to act innocent, many people will assume you are innocent.

∞∞∞

As I wrote in a previous post, I’ve been blind to how pervasive sexual harassment is.   Evidently there is a world of rich, powerful celebrities who think, often rightly, that they can get away with anything.  I recall the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the powerful French politician and financial official, who thought it was his prerogative to have sex with a random hotel maid.

But sexual abuse does not occur just on the upper levels of society.  One thing I’ve known about for years, but always put out of my mind, is the rape of young boys in the American prison system.

It’s a good thing, not a bad thing, that we Americans are waking up to the situation.   What we need are procedures for dealing with sexual abuse so that guilty are treated as they deserve and the relatively innocent also are treated as they deserve.

Greater union representation would help.  Union grievance procedures would give employees a way to seek justice.   Federal laws should be enacted to establish that no employee could be fired for complaining about sexual harassment, just as, under law, no employee can be fired for acting in concert with others to demand improvement in working conditions.

Arbitration could help, if the arbiters were truly impartial.   This would require panels in which employees had as much representation as employers.  Simple enforcement of the law, without fear or favor, is important.  Putting women in positions of authority would make a big difference.

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Am I being unpatriotic when I link to RT News?

November 30, 2017

RT News and Sputnik International are news services funded by the Russian government.   They are said to be waging “information warfare” against the United States.

RT America and Sputnik International have been ordered to register as foreign agents, the only foreign news services that have been ordered to do so.  What this means is that they will be required to disclose their sources of funds and other details of their operations.

The FBI is investigating Sputnik.  Google has changed its algorithm to “de-rank” RT and Sputnik in Google searches.  Twitter has banned advertising by RT and Google.

None of these things prevent RT or Sputnik from reporting their version of the news or making their reports available to Americans.   We’re not like the old Soviet Union, where you could be arrested for listening to the Voice of America.

And, in one respect, the United States is more liberal than the Russian federation.  Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America lost their Russian broadcast licenses in 2012 and 2014, but Sputnik still has a radio station in Washington, D.C.

The anti-Russia campaign is intended to brand Americans as unpatriotic if they work for RT or Sputnik, appear on their programs or even watch their programs.

I’ve linked to RT News videos in previous posts.  What does that make me?  Am I unpatriotic?

I think an American who listens to or watches RT or Sputnik is like a Russian who watches or listens to the Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.   The U.S. government has an ulterior motive in funding these two news services.   At the same time, they provide Russians with information and ideas they wouldn’t get from their domestic broadcasters.

Established U.S. broadcasters have a limited range of viewpoints they regard as acceptable.   I never noticed this until my own thinking moved outside the range of the acceptable.   So if there’s something on RT News I think is interesting or worthwhile, even though it might not be acceptable to PBS or CNN, I’ll link to it..    That’s my right as a free American.

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