No Worry Unless You Have Something To Hide

(I have nothing novel to say here; even allowing for the technology, no state in antiquity, even Egypt under their god-king, experienced this level of surveillance. I just need to vent on this subject.)

 

President Obama’s assault on the First and Fourth Amendments is in full swing. (The Second is completely safe.) It was bad enough to learn what our government was doing – in our name – under the Bush administration, but Obama’s security apparatus and his actions to protect it are staggering. We may no longer have renditions and blatant torture (force-feeding and prolonged periods of solitary confinement may qualify), but a Democratic and supposedly progressive President is actually laying the foundations of a police state, and Congress is helping, having found a bipartisan cause.

 
The public had long been aware, if unconcerned, of the constitutionally and morally questionable things the CIA has been doing, especially in conjunction with our seemingly endless wars, but inasmuch as the operations generally affect only other countries, the American public is mostly unconcerned. The recently revealed surveillance programs of the NSA, however, do affect Americans, and while most of our citizens have probably never heard of the Fourth Amendment, they do understand when they are being spied on. And so do our closest allies, even if their spooks and governments are enthusiastically cooperating with ours.

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

The situation has become even more threatening – and surreal – with the revelation of the Insider Threat Program, something right out of Stalinist Russia. By this directive federal employees and contractors are legally bound to watch for and report “high-risk persons or behavior” among their fellow workers, and failure to do so could result in penalties, including criminal charges. And any leaks concerning the program and its operation will be treated as espionage, even if the leak reveals illegal behavior. The only thing missing to complete the journey back to Moscow in the 1930s is any reference to “counterrevolutionaries, Trotskyites and wreckers.” Will this vigilance be rewarded with medals? Perhaps “Hero of America” or “Order of Washington”?

 
But wait, there’s more! In the name of security the government will also violate the First Amendment! That’s two Amendments for the price of one administration! No government has been friendly to leakers, not because of the typically stated reason of security but since the leak usually reveals the government has been doing something questionable, like monitoring all private communications. Under the Great Engineer of American Security, however, leakers are now being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, even though they are not passing information to a foreign government, which I mistakenly thought was part of the basic definition of espionage.
Unless of course the news media is considered a foreign entity, which is certainly the view of every autocrat, even the elected ones, like Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, who is close to setting records for jailing journalists. The traditional method for punishing journalists, like Judith Miller of Valeria Plame fame, is to demand the names of their sources and then jail them for contempt when they will not reveal them. In the case of John Risen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was threatened with contempt if he did not testify against a former CIA source, a federal appeals court has just ruled that he was not covered by the First Amendment. This means that potentially every reporter is facing jail if he does not reveal sources.

 
And now there is a new twist: the journalist receiving the leaked information can also be charged with committing a crime, the exact nature of which the administration has not made clear. Journalist Glenn Greenwald was recently threatened with such a charge. Does this mean if you find a pile of classified documents on the ground, read them and talk to your friends about them, you are eligible for criminal prosecution? On the other hand, the government can spy on you all it wants apparently. For years the government has been monitoring Risen’s phone calls and emails, not in pursuit of a terrorist but to discover his sources. So, the security agencies can acquire taps on innocent civilians for the fairly specious reason that someone is revealing things to them.

 
The public opposes the NSA PRISM program by a 2 to 1 margin, but a recent effort to halt it was defeated in Congress, the amendment to the Defense bill being the subject of intense lobbying by the President (the liberal guy), the spooks and the contractors who make stuff for the spooks. Those who support the NSA of course talk about damaging our security, suggesting they know better than the average American, which has some basis in truth since we can find out virtually nothing about the program – or that it even existed until Snowden popped up. “Trust us” is not very convincing, coming from people who have regularly lied to the public.

 
The biggest joke of all is the fact that Obama touts his administration as the most transparent ever, when in fact it is actually one of the most opaque in history. The secrecy mania is out of control. In fiscal year 2011 more than 92 million documents were classified at a cost of more than $11 billion; the full numbers are unknown because at some agencies classification and its cost are classified. Are these all secrets that could harm the country if revealed?  That is hard to believe.  Classification covers mistakes, malfeasance, outright criminality and violations of the Constitution and civil rights, and very important, it enhances the status of the bureaucrat doing the classification.

 
And all this behavior for what? Because without such massive surveillance and secrecy one or two terrorists might blow up some people? Is this a sufficient reason to assault our own Constitution and freedom, especially when innocents are being killed in far greater numbers because of our love affair with the gun and inclination to solve problems with violence? Surveying the increased and constitutionally dubious powers of the government and its security apparatus and the concomitant free fall of America’s image in the world, I can only conclude that the 9/11 terrorist have won.

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Stuff from Way Back #18: Socrates, O.J., Casey and George

(If you enjoy the stuff on Socrates, try the whole picture: Dare to Struggle. The history and Society of the Greeks by Richard M. Berthold.)

George Zimmerman has just been acquitted of murder or manslaughter in his killing of Trayvon Martin, and an outraged public is demanding the federal government try him again on a civil rights charge. (This mechanism was certainly valuable in circumventing blatantly racist courts in the South, but it still smacks of double jeopardy.) The outrage results from the widespread feeling that despite the not guilty verdict Zimmerman committed some crime, inasmuch as a young man doing nothing wrong and minding his own business was shot, regardless of whether he started the fight. The assertion is that this outcome is wrong and unjust, a failure of our system of justice. The same was said regarding the acquittal of Casey Anthony, who many believe did in fact kill her child, and the grandest example is of course O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted despite being obviously guilty.

Dead guy

Dead guy

Vigilante

Vigilante

These outcomes may be considered wrong or unfair, but they are not at all unjust. In these instances the prosecution may be said to have failed, but the system did not. The reason is that justice has nothing to do with fairness, as most people believe. The simple fact is that justice is rooted in the law, not in any vague notions of what is right or fair. The law must be universal, applying to everyone in the society, and it must be relatively precise and well defined. It is produced and established by political mechanisms acceptable by all, at least in a free society, and being a citizen is an implicit acceptance of any law so produced, even if one disagrees with it.

 
Ideas of right and wrong, that is, one’s understanding of morality, are manifestly not universal, either in interpretation or circumstance. Most humans derive or at least associate their ethics with a deity, and the few that do not accept a god figure it out for themselves, influenced by the circumstances of their lives. Consequently, beyond the basic moral tenets seemingly hard-wired in the human brain (do not murder, do not sleep with your sister, etc.) ideas of right and wrong are going to vary greatly, even among adherents of the same religious tradition. The mechanisms here – god or individual conscience – are not accepted by everyone in the society, and moral conclusions are thus not valid for all and no basis for regulating society.

 
And so public behavior is regulated by an entirely – at least theoretically – secular and morally neutral apparatus, the justice system. You may feel free to believe that our civil rights come from god (they actually derive from the people; that is what constitutionalism is), but the protection and regulation of those rights has no more to do with deity than it does with magic. The law does not determine what is right or fair; it determines what is legal and acceptable behavior. We hope that our laws reflect our ideas about morality and fairness, but the bottom line is that what is just is not necessarily also what is fair.

 
The grandest expression of this fundamental aspect of constitutional society, an idea foreign to most people, is the trial and death of Socrates (469-399 BC). He was not executed, as many think, by an Athenian society suddenly become intolerant of free speech, but because of his commitment, even unto death, to justice as he (correctly) understood it. The charges brought against him in 399 were impiety and corruption of the youth, both valid under Athenian law, but the real reasons behind his indictment were political.

Wiseass

Wiseass

Athens’ defeat by Sparta in 404 led to a year and a half of despotic oligarchic rule, the Thirty Tyrants, and in the nervous climate of the restored democracy Socrates suffered from his negative public image – no one likes a wiseass gadfly – and earlier association with such notorious anti-democrats as Critias and Alcibiades. A general amnesty prevented Socrates’ enemies from leveling overt political charges, and instead they sought to drive him into exile by raising these other accusations, taking advantage of a growing popular irritation with criticism of traditional religious ideas. Already in the sixth century the new rationalists had begun assaulting the traditional religion, which because of its extreme anthropomorphism was an easy target; the all too human gods plainly did silly things, and many of the rituals of the civic religion were absurd when viewed objectively. In the fifth century the sophists, the first political/social scientists, continued the attack, and by the second half of the century they had discovered atheism, though it is nowhere directly expressed.

 
It was difficult, if not impossible, to refute these criticisms, especially with regard to the anthropomorphism, and the frustration of the traditionalists led to growing aggravation and public trials for asebeia, impiety. Traditionally, asebeia had involved overt acts of sacrilege, such as violating sanctuaries or profaning the mysteries, but in fifth century Athens the definition expanded to include less demonstrable offences, such as introducing new gods and not believing in the gods of the city, the charges leveled against Socrates. These accusations do not appear to be true, but Socrates was in many ways a very annoying person, and many were more than ready to accept these distortions of his real beliefs.

 
To the apparent surprise of his enemies, Socrates did not flee, but stood trial and was convicted by a only a narrow margin of votes (out of 501), demonstrating that in this instance at least the Athenians were not given to a lynch mob mentality. The Athenian court did not have judges, and in a broad category of cases the prosecution, which consisted of the citizens who brought the charges, was entitled to propose a penalty, to which the defense would reply with a counter-penalty, leaving it to the jury to choose in a sort of post-conviction plea bargaining. The prosecution asked for death, expecting the defense to propose a stiff fine (the Greeks did not normally imprison people), which the jury would select as the punishment. But ever the wiseass, Socrates proposed that he pay a ridiculously small fine and receive free board from the state for the rest of his life in order that he could continue enlightening and annoying his fellow Athenians. The jury was not amused with the suggestion of making a mockery of the system and chose death (still by a close margin), but every opportunity was given Socrates to escape into exile, since death was clearly an inappropriately drastic punishment for the crimes for which he was convicted. He insisted, however, that the execution be carried out and drank the poison.

 
Why? Because unfair though the condemnation might be, Socrates had been tried and convicted justly, that is, according to the laws of Athens, and such was his commitment to the law that he refused to violate it even under such extreme circumstances. Socrates was making, about as dramatically as one can, this essential point about the nature of justice: it is rooted in the law, not the public’s notions of right and wrong. Socrates might be generally accused of a certain intellectual dishonesty in that he used his considerable powers of argument to demonstrate only conclusions compatible with his view of things, but his death is surely one of the noblest examples in history of dying for ones principles.

 
The acquittals of loathsome characters like Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson are of course unfair and disgusting, but they are just. They were accused, tried and judged according to the law, and their trials involved no illegalities or misbehavior. It is sad that no one legally bears the responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin, and it is disturbing that George Zimmerman’s vigilantism has been validated in the eyes of many. But his acquittal was manifestly not a travesty of justice. It in fact demonstrated that the justice system works, determining guilt or innocence of the basis of the law, not public opinion or someone’s definition of right and wrong.

The real criminals

The real criminals

The real criminals

The real criminals

Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land

Egypt used to be a much happier place, even while under an authoritarian government that makes Mubarak and Morsi look like progressive leaders.  This was of course when the world was young, very young.  Egyptian civilization formally begins c. 3100 BC with the 1st Dynasty and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, which means Egypt came in second to Sumer (far southern Iraq) in the “Birth of Civilization” sweep stakes.  Ironically, though both were river valley civilizations that had emerged because of generally similar factors, because of their very different local environments they were completely different in their attitudes and understanding of the universe.

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

The Nile valley, which essentially defined ancient Egypt, was a grand place to live.  The river, with its incredibly regular ebb and flood that rejuvenated the soil every year, produced a large and extremely dependable food supply.  The security of the land was for thirteen hundred years guaranteed by physical barriers – the Mediterranean to the north, Sinai and deserts to the east, the river cataracts and difficult terrain to the south and desert wastes to the west.  There was virtually no weather, and excepting the rhythms of day and night, the rotating stars and the rise and fall of the Nile, the land was unchanging.  It was the Beloved Land.

The result of this environment was perhaps the most positive view of the world ever entertained by a society.  The universe was inherently good and just, a status guaranteed by the gods of the Two Lands.  Indeed, the harmony and order of the land was further secured by the presence of heaven on earth in the form of the Pharaoh, the continually reincarnated Horus.  The head of state was quite literally a god, and the state itself was a part of nature.  Life was so good that except for the god-king the afterlife was seen simply as a continuation of the one on earth.  Heaven and earth were so tightly bound that they were seen as a whole, and the peasant working his fields shared an essence common to both his animals and the gods.

And this never changed.  There were only three inescapable, non-periodic changes in the Egyptian universe: creation and the birth and death of an individual; all other non-reoccurring change was either so trivial or so slow that it could be ignored.  The exact Egyptian understanding of birth is unclear, but it could be minimized as a natural extension of the mother.  Death was tougher since there was a quite obvious change when the individual died, but this was explained as a sort of shift rather than an absolute change.  The essence of the person simply shifted to the afterlife, where in a world identical to the one he had left he would carry on with his business, be it farming, trading, building, administering or whatever.  That bodies buried in the desert fringe naturally mummified instead of rotting helped support this belief.

Creation was thus left as the one non-periodic change of any significance.  Consequently, as the universe was at the moment of creation, so it would be for all time.  And unlike the creation myths of the Asian and Aegean societies the Egyptian account involved no struggle.  It began, as in the Sumero-Babylonia system, with a watery chaos (these are hydraulic societies, after all), but the world was created peacefully, Ptah (or Atum) spitting out or ejaculating the first gods, who then continued the process through sexual reproduction.  In the universal mythic thought of the pre-Greek world these deities, though envisioned in human form, were actually manifestations of the natural phenomena with which they were associated, and thus the world was created.

By way of contrast, the Sumero-Babylonian account of creation involved struggle, as Enlil (or Marduk) battled and defeated Tiamat, the personification of chaos, and thus established the ordered world.  But unlike the permanent Egyptian cosmos the Sumero-Babylonian world required constant attention, lest it collapse back into chaos.  The difference was the environment.  The Tigris and Euphrates were wild rivers, which could flood or dry up the fields, and there were violent storms and periodic droughts.  The Sumerian city-states were constantly at war with one another, and barbarians from the Syrian deserts and Zagros mountains plundered the land.  Life was very uncertain, and disaster, natural and human, constantly threatened.  The afterlife consisted of a grim underworld, to which everyone went.  Pessimism reigned in the lands of the two rivers.

The negative result of the secure and unchanging life of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 3100-1800 BC) was an unchanging culture.  Because of the focus on the eternal, the canons of Egyptian art and to a lesser degree literature were frozen at the beginning of her history, and a statue of the Pharaoh from the early second millennium is virtually identical to one from the late first millennium.  From the 1st Dynasty to the 18th Egypt essentially produced nothing new.  Creativity and progress require a certain level of struggle and tension, and Egypt was simply too content.

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

When her splendid isolation came to end with the Hyksos invasion and domination of the delta c. 1800 BC, Egypt was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden intrusion and rule of non-Egyptians and the arrival of new ideas.  The collapse and troubles of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2050 BC) were an internal affair and could be accommodated by the traditional culture, while the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1800-1550 BC), initiated by the arrival of the Hyksos could not.  The kings of the 18th Dynasty drove out the invaders and restored a united Egypt, but it would never be the same.  The experience of the Hyksos seriously injured the self-confidence and optimism of the older days.

And Egypt was allowed no rest, as the impulse that drove out the Hyksos carried her into Syria-Palestine, where she stayed (New Kingdom or Empire c. 1550-1085 BC) and began a long struggle with the Hittite Empire in Anatolia.  New ideas and peoples poured into the Two Lands, preventing any return to the old ways and attitudes.  Tending to its Asian empire, the New Kingdom was too involved in the world, too nervous for eternity.  The god-king, leading the armies north, was no longer the distant majestic figure of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but more human – and ephemeral.  The increasingly weak kings of the 20th Dynasty fell more and more under the growing power of the Temple of Amon-Re, as Egypt began the slide into impotence and ultimately foreign domination.  In the wisdom literature of the New Kingdom: silence and submission emerge as the leading virtues of the wise man.  Insecurity and outright fear enter Egyptian religion, and the once virtually automatic passage into the next world becomes a trial.  A good heart is no longer enough; the deceased must be armed with special prayers and magic, like the Book of the Dead, to overcome the new obstacles.

Ramses today

Ramses today

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

By the beginning of the first millennium Egypt had disintegrated into a collection of independent principalities, and in the seventh century the Assyrians, the “wolf in the fold,” captured the Beloved Land.  The ancient culture of the society lived on, but under a succession of imperial rulers: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.  The three thousand year old religious beliefs could survive in the polytheist societies of Egypt’s conquerors, but in late antiquity Christianity began to seriously erode them, at least in the urban areas.  The final extinction of ancient Egypt, however, did not come until the seventh century AD, when the Arabs arrived with their particularly nasty version of the No Fun God and created modern Egypt.

Until the arrival of serious tourism Muslim Egypt has had very little regard for its glorious past, stripping away the finer stone of the ancient monuments to build mosques, as the Christians were doing in Europe.  The last two centuries have seen a rebirth of interest in the Beloved Land, but even now extremists want to destroy the remaining art in the name of their primitive aniconic god.  All things considered, better to live under the Temple of Amon-Re than the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian Demos Speaks (and Louder Than Ours)

Is it or is it not a military coup in Egypt?  This semantic game is, predictably, being played out among the talking heads, and hardly surprising, the answer depends a great deal upon the political convictions of the speaker.  Yes, the military has entered the political arena and ousted the sitting government, which is certainly coup-like.  On the other hand, although the military is looking after its own interest, it is nevertheless responding to an unprecedented demonstration of discontent with an increasingly unresponsive and autocratic government.  So, call it a military coup, but one with incredibly broad popular support.

Of course, governments, even those that could not stomach Morsi and his Muslem Brotherhood, are bemoaning the fact that the Egyptian army has removed a legitimate, freely elected, if obnoxious, administration.  Naturally, this has less to do with any deep commitment to constitutional process than with the simple fact that governments like other governments far better than people in the streets.  Recall the consternation in Washington when the Wall came down: we understood the behavior of that nasty DDR government and could deal with it, but people pouring in to the streets demanding freedom?  Where will that end?  And military dictatorships are the best, because they tend to be more stable and consistent in their policies.

The “deep concern” over dumping the legitimately elected government of Morsi rings a bit hollow, especially where the US is concerned.  We refuse to recognize Hamas in Gaza, and they were legitimately elected.  When the Algerian military suspended elections in 1992 because the Islamic Front was winning in the early rounds, we had no problem supporting the new dictatorship.  In 1973 we actually aided in the overthrow of the freely elected President, Salvador Allende.  How about the legitimately elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh?  We engineered a coup against him in 1953 and installed the not so freely elected Shah.  Certainly the US would like to see military rule in Egypt, so long as they provide stability and do not mess with Israel.

Distrust of the common people protesting in the streets inevitably evokes the label of “mob rule,” which suggests violence and illegality and behavior distasteful to civilized democratic folk.  But one might suggest that democracy is simply polite and orderly mob rule.  Aristotle in fact distinguished between “democracy,” rule of the demos or people, and “ochlocracy,” rule of the ochlos or mob, yet the distinction was not based on the venue – the streets or the assembly hall – or the political mechanism – throwing rocks or voting – but on the aim of the group.  If the citizens in the sovereign assembly carried on in the best long term interests of the society, they constituted a democracy; if they sought only short term benefit for themselves, they were instead an ochlocracy.  According to Aristotle, then, what we have in Washington is mob rule.

Allowing Morsi to finish out his term and then be turned out of office by the voters strikes me as risky business.  Like his colleague in Turkey, Prime Minster Recep Erdoğan, Morsi betrayed his deep lack of understanding of democratic rule by assuming that once elected by a majority one can do anything one wants and ignore and punish opposition forces.  His increasingly autocratic behavior and blatant favoring of one minority group does not immediately suggest a peaceful and democratic change of power when his term ended.  More likely would be elections rigged by a Muslem Brotherhood now in secure control of the mechanisms of government.

In a state such as Egypt with virtually no practice in democratic rule deposing a plainly incompetent and nefarious ruler by mass demonstrations and the help of the military might be considered a democratic act of a  more rough and ready nature.  After all, how free are our elections?  We have two entrenched parties, who enjoy almost complete control over who runs for office, and given that elections are essentially an exercise in mass marketing rather than political debate, these contests are easily manipulated by the economic powers in the society.  Absent term limits, an elected official can pretty much hold his office for life because of the incumbent’s access to the big money and the results of two centuries of gerrymandering of districts.  And let us not forget the ignorance and passivity of the American electorate.  What has happened in Egypt appears in many ways far more democratic than what goes on here according to the rules.

I praise the Egyptian people for not putting up with the governmental crap that we routinely do.

Incidentally, Hitler was legitimately elected.