Archive for the 'House Red: Politics & Current Affairs' Category

recommended reading on a cold, rainy day

Marcia Angell, The Women at the Top, review of Alison Wolf, The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World

A thought-provoking essay based on what looks to be an intriguing book. Angell and Wolf zero in on “roughly 15 to 20 percent of working women in advanced countries” who in the past few decades

in more than token numbers have taken their place alongside men at the upper levels of government, the professions, and business. While they still account for only a small minority of political and business leaders, that, too, is changing. The rapid ascension of women to the most influential sectors of society…is likely to have profound implications for public policy, and perhaps even more for the way families construct their lives and raise their children.”

That women now enjoy options and opportunities previously closed off to them is to the good, but as Angell persuasively argues, not necessarily all to the good. Among other observations, she notes that these women tend to marry men very much like themselves, “well educated and fully engaged in their own high-powered careers.” For these “power couples,” women no less nor more than men, “their sense of identity is tied to their professions. They are full participants in what James Surowiecki recently called ‘the cult of overwork.’”

Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity. (James Surowiecki, The Cult of Overwork )

Angell writes of her childhood, growing up in a middle-class family in the 1940s and 1950s, when her father, a civil engineer, “went off to work at 8:30 AM and came home at 5:30 PM. I had not idea what he was doing during that time. I don’t think my mother did either. Like every other women in the neighborhood, she was a housewife.”

Both essays touch on themes of interest to which I hope to return.

Angell is a Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. The full text of Angell’s article is available to subscribers of The New York Review of Books.

Surowiecki is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His piece can be read in full online.



a fickle beast

The conventional wisdom is a fickle beast. Seems only yesterday the cognoscenti were drafting obits for a Republican Party geared to alienate women, immigrants, and homosexuals, among others, while going out of their way to tick off self-styled moderates by shutting down the government. Things were looking up for Democrats. Then came the rollout debacle in tandem with the revelation that President Obama’s claim that under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) people would be able to keep their current health insurance if they desired to do so was not exactly 100 percent accurate. It has generally escaped mention that overblown and boneheaded promises of this sort, claims that are at most, and least, more or less accurate, are routinely made by politicians of all political stripes, on both wings of the political bird, including those silly-hatted loons of the Tea Party persuasion. Not that this lets the president off the hook.

Each party has its factions and blocs that endorse their own measure of delusional thinking. The propagandists of the right have to a large extent won the day in terms of framing the debate. Policies and programs once considered mainstream or at most moderately liberal are now branded extreme, radical, far left. Democrats generally and the president in particular have not only failed to offer an effective counter-narrative, they have to a large extent rolled over and bought into the right’s storyline. Barack Obama pushed through health care legislation that redounds to the benefit of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and under his administration “not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis, and given the fact that most of the relevant criminal provisions are governed by a five-year statute of limitations, it appears likely that none will be.” (Jed S. Rakoff, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?, The New York Review of Books, 9 January 2014, ). Yet his agenda is branded hard-left, socialist, communist, by all manner of right-wing politicos, commentators, think-tankers, and the usual blowhards, aided and abetted by the centrist bloc. Only a pinhead armed with a comic-book acquaintance with socialism could make such a claim. Ezra Klein got it right on his Washingon Post blog: Barack Obama: Worst. Socialist. Ever.

A lot will happen between now and November 2014. Only a greater fool than I would predict how the worm might turn in the days ahead. A few months ago we might have wishfully thought of a Democratic majority in the House for the concluding years of the Obama presidency. The key note for that kind of thinking is “wishful.” Democratic gains in the House joined by Republicans of a more moderate stripe, “moderate” as always an exceedingly relative term when speaking of Republicans, was a more reasonable hope. Now even that looks to be a reach, while the specter of a Republican takeover of the Senate casts a darkening shadow over the landscape.

Andrew Hacker nutshells the Democrats’ dilemma in an essay in the current issue of The New York Review of Books:

On the Democratic side, the problem is that the party itself has a relatively small core of voters who will always turn out when needed…. most [who voted for Obama] are not willing to make the effort to vote in off-year elections. Nationally, Republicans may be the minority party, but politics is a more important part of their lives, and not just for the Tea Party fringe. (2014: Another Democratic Debacle?)

I may not be atypical on this one. I am not and have never been a member of the Democratic Party. There are few Democrats for whom I have any enthusiasm—Elizabeth Warren an obvious exception—and any number of them make me wince, Anthony Weiner the equally obvious example here. I vote for Democratic candidates not because I have any illusion about them or their party but because the Republican alternative is beyond awful. The doctrinaire left’s analysis holds that it does not matter which party is in power because when push comes to shove business and moneyed interests call the shots for both; or as Bill Moyers, I believe it was, put it, we have one political party in this country, the business party, with the Democrats making up the moderate faction and the Republicans the right wing. There is something to this in a broad, ideological sense. In terms of concrete policies that affect individuals in their daily lives, however, the differences between the two parties are stark. Torn, tattered, and inadequate as the social safety net is, Democrats believe there should be one. The same holds for government’s role in protecting the environment, education, and so on pretty much across the board. Democratic officeholders believe they have been elected to govern. Some may even hope to govern well and wisely. That they will fall short is a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless it is a standard to which they may be held. Too many Republicans believe they have been elected to dismantle the government. One need not be a Nostradamus to predict the outcome.

The prospect of Republican majorities in House and Senate is sufficient to consider reaching for the rat poison, though it is hard to see how it could be much worse than the status quo. There is little prospect for good government either way; even that qualifier “little” may be wishful thinking.

* * * * *

Mark Shields made an interesting observation recently on the PBS Newshour, 20 December 2013:

There were 196 million Americans in 1966…at that time, there were 2,721,000 Americans working for the federal government. Today, with 316 million Americans, there are 2,000 more  [federal employees]…

… Rand Paul…when he found this out was just rather amazed…because he had bought into the idea that this was—they were hiring and hiring and hiring and spending and spending.

recommended reading

Former GOPer: How Republicans Went Crazy, Dems Lost Their Mojo, and the Middle Class Got Shafted

Bill Moyers interviews Mike Lofgren, life-long Republican, former senior staff member of House and Senate budget committees, and author of The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middleclass Got Shafted

Lofgren tells Moyers he left the Republican Party “because it was becoming an apocalyptic cult. Because you cannot govern a country of 310 million people that is the greatest economic power on earth and the greatest military power on earth as if it’s a banana republic. You can’t govern it with people who think that Obama was born overseas or who believe in all manner of nonsense about climate change….”

He thinks the Republicans went crazy “when they started identifying Obama as the Antichrist…. Meaning, ‘He’s not a legitimate president. We must do everything we can to obstruct him.’”

As for the Democrats,

…they got complacent during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And then finally after that period, they woke up, found they had lost three straight presidential elections. So they had to retool and make themselves more corporate friendly…. And it certainly helped Bill Clinton get elected. And while he did some good things like balancing the budget, he also unleashed Wall Street by repealing Glass-Steagall, and he signed bills that would end regulation on derivatives. So he is at least to some degree responsible for the Wall Street debacle.

This is good stuff.


Comparing the US health system with others: recommended reading

recommended reading

Bruce Bartlett, How America’s Health System Stacks Up Against Other Developed Countries, Fiscal Times, 15 November 2013

Cathy Schoen, Robin Osborn, David Squires, and Michelle M. Doty, Access, Affordability, and Insurance Complexity Are Often Worse in the United States Compared to 10 Other Countries, The Commonwealth Fund, 13 November 2013


Stirring up the wacko birds; or, speechless and in despair

An old college pal recently shared an email string that erupted when he stirred up a nest of wacko birds with the statement “You don’t realize what a good job this guy [Barack Obama] is doing for working stiffs like you and me.” Now there are those on both wings of the political bird, among whom some I respect and count as friends, who would take issue with this proposition. Fair enough. As a general principle it is fitting for such matters to be subject to examination, debate, and reasoned argument. How though is debate and reasoned argument possible when the most basic facts are bones of bitter contention and accepted opinion is a vaporous will-o’-the-wisp? Fuses are lit. Blood boils. Such is the temper of our time.

I thought it might be interesting to reflect on the exchange, which ran to customary gibberish about a plot to make self-sufficient Americans dependent on the government and circumvention of the constitution. The project soon grew tedious, its futility beyond question. This kind of thing leaves me speechless and in despair. I can think of no argument or line of thought that might bridge the divide between my friend’s respondents and those of us who see things quite differently, a divide between those who view the nation as in some sense a community and those who see only a loose aggregation of self-sufficient individuals, each out for his own, obliged to or dependent on the others in only the most minimal fashion, little more than a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Aristotle gives an expression of the former view in the opening of his Politics:

Every state is a community of some kind, and every community is established with a view to some good; for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good. But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.

The founders of our nation put it this way:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

It seems that for those guys the blessings of liberty are secured not in isolation but in conjunction with union, justice, and the general welfare, if you were of the white and male persuasion at any rate, maybe not so much otherwise.

memo from the editorial desk

Several minor revisions were made to this piece in the hours after it was initially posted.


White House Reeling

The kindest of critics must acknowledge that the Obama presidency is floundering if not on the verge of unraveling altogether. The flawed rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website is today’s poster child for a whole slew of crises bedeviling an administration that exhibits a lamentable knack for stepping smack in the middle of every pile of fresh manure it comes across, among them the surveillance state, drones and targeted assassination, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel and Palestine, not to the mention the economy. Directionless and under attack from every side, the Obamites seem able only to react ineffectually to the blows that rain down upon them.

The media and punditocracy mob somberly report every misstep with casual disregard for context and reasoned analysis. Zealots on both wings of the political bird are relentless. Obama is either a socialist, Islamist, jihadi Maxist or a toady to Wall Street bent on the same neoliberal agenda as George Bush and guilty of crimes against humanity to boot. Republicans in Congress seize each opportunity to further the scorched-earth campaign to make this a failed presidency, which has been pretty much the sum of their legislative agenda the past five years. Meantime, Democrats, feckless as ever, scurry for cover by endorsing faux populist legislation that will further undermine the ACA and the president.

Obama and his folks have bungled aplenty and gone along with all manner of policy that is dubious at best. Failure to anticipate and prepare for problems with rollout of the health care website and the insurance policy cancellations that followed on its heels is baffling. The mind boggles considering how they could not have seen at least some of this coming and recognize that they would be hammered mercilessly by political foes and by the press across the board. Nor should they have been blindsided by the desertion of more than a few on the Democratic side of the aisle, though I must say I expected better from some of them.

All of this garbage notwithstanding, I confess to a residual sympathy for Barack Obama, a decent and intelligent man whom I can imagine in other circumstances pursuing desirable social, environmental, and other ends, albeit without going far enough to my way of thinking, while reaching some accommodation with Republicans on issues surrounding the federal budget, taxation, and size of government, here likely going too far to my way of thinking. The technical term for that kind of thing is governing. Alas, circumstances are not other than they are. I am not sure that Obama can be much blamed for failing to find an effective way to deal with an opposition that shows no interest in governing.

One need not be a man of the left, and Obama clearly is not of the left, to hold that our government is in principle we the people acting together to secure the blessings of liberty and prosperity for each of us insofar as that is possible in an uncertain world subject to chance and contingency. Now we all know that things seldom, maybe hardly ever, work out exactly in accordance with this ideal. The ideal nonetheless matters, not least in that it serves as a counterweight to the opposing view that government is in essence an agent of oppression that stifles individual liberty and opportunity, primarily the opportunity to get filthy rich. Obama inclines to the former view, his idealism tempered by a strong pragmatic streak and a willingness to accept that people of good will can hold different views even on the most fundamental issues.

I spoke earlier of context. The supposition that public debt is the greatest challenge and threat our nation faces has been effectively propagandized into self-evident wisdom by those who use it as a rationale to dismantle government programs — Medicare and social security, environmental and workplace regulations, the ACA — that they oppose for philosophical and other, less noble reasons that boil down in considerable measure to naked greed. The case for health care reform rested only in part on the moral imperative that in a civilized country every citizen should have some minimum access to health care. That was if anything the lesser argument. The emphasis was on the spiraling cost of health care under the existing system, or rather absence of any system, and its effect on public debt. That had to be addressed if the president was to make a case for spending in other areas, including badly needed infrastructure, highways, airports, public transportation, along with education, social programs, and so on.

The ACA took the form that it did — complicated, cumbersome, flawed in so many ways— because that was what Congress, which is to say, the Democrats in Congress, could pass. The option was never then, and is not now, a system preserving private-sector insurance but with a robust public option, much less a single-payer system. Nevertheless, the ACA establishes the principle that all citizens should have access to affordable health care. Preexisting conditions are no longer grounds for denial of coverage. Young people can remain covered on their parents’ insurance until age 26. These things make a difference in people’s lives. This is no small matter.

If the ACA collapses, a very real possibility but not yet a foregone conclusion, it cannot be entirely attributed to the act’s flaws and administration bungling. The ACA has been opposed, hampered, hamstrung, and sabotaged from the get-go by an opposition determined to prevent implementation of a successful new federal program. There is a minor irony here in that the Republicans are not rushing to take credit for their part in waylaying the ACA. Everything is Obama’s fault. If the ACA goes forward, we must roll up our collective, commie sleeves and battle to address the flaws. If the act is laid low, it will not be replaced by something better. Those who believe we can do better will take up the Sisyphean task yet again.

memo from the editorial desk

Minor revisions were made to this essay in the hours after it was first posted.


our somewhat functioning/nonfunctioning government…something of a screed…

Does it go too far to assert that the United States does not have a functioning government? The proposition is on its face extreme.  Yet to claim that US does have a functioning government is borderline absurd when we may be witnessing, and perhaps by our acts and our inaction party to, the dissolution of the nation.

A handful of Republicans in the Senate — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio foremost among them — and a horde in the House consider themselves sent to Congress to bring down the federal government. From the debt limit nonsense to the orchestrated effort to undermine the Affordable Care Act, amounting to nothing less than subversion of the law of the land, these crack-brained zealots are blithely oblivious to the consequences of actions undertaken in the spirit of 19th-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin’s maxim that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge, not to mention the sheer mean-spiritedness of much of their agenda. They would by dismantling the government have “we the people” cede authority for decisions affecting the general welfare and common good to the wealthiest among us, whose accountability extends only as far as their continued self-enrichment and their consciences, such as they are. Now not everyone who is wealthy is a bastard, nor is everyone who is middle class, a worker, poor, or homeless a saint. Decent people going about their lives as best they are able, wanting to do the right thing as best they can determine what the right thing is and how to do it, are to be found in all walks and strata of society, as are joltheads, boobs, and scoundrels.

Not a few editorial-page scribblers lament the lack of public confidence in government’s capacity to address the issues of the day, indeed going beyond want of confidence to active distrust of government in pretty much every respect, and to be fair some it earned. In a pious spirit of evenhandedness, our scribblers lay blame for this on both major political parties, when of the two there is only one that has for some thirty years held as a central tenet the Reagan principle that government is the problem, period. The Democratic Party has its fair share of knaves, dolts, windbags, and clowns who are prone to inflict greater damage on their own causes than the opposition ever could. It is, however, the Republican Party that has within its ranks a substantial alliance of partially overlapping constituencies wedded to an incoherent ideological grab bag of naïve individualism, religious absolutism, laissez-faire extremism, and general intolerance of differing views and cultures, at its nadir degenerating into cults of vigilantism, gun fetishism, and patriotism derived from fairy-tale versions of the nation’s founding and sanctification of the founding fathers and documents. In state capitols and in Congress they are dedicated to gumming up the machinery of government, then putting forward programs sabotaged by their efforts as evidence of government inefficiency and failure. Good government is not their intent.

What is to be done? We can refuse to engage in the political process, whether through substantive activism or the symbolic gesture of voting, on grounds that participation only legitimizes a system that is at best farcical and otherwise hokum. Or we can acknowledge that this deeply flawed system is what we have and to abandon it is to leave the playing field to those whose interests and values are antithetical to our own. We can in the spirit of the late Molly Ivins fight the good fight in whatever ways we are able, however small or large, day in and day out, with no assurance or even genuine hope that our efforts will come to anything in an ongoing struggle to win small gains and hold off attempts to roll them back, as we see now in the fields of voting rights, abortion, health care, and environmental protection, among others. We can resist the frustration that comes with seemingly always having to choose between evils when we wish so much for opportunity to choose the good. We can choose the lesser evil knowing that the greater evil really is greater and its consequences for concrete, individual women, men, and children more malign. Other options might be to take up arms and use them, engage in symbolic gestures such the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam in the 1960s, or step away from the public fray and sit it all out in a spirit of quietism and resignation. The choice is yours and mine to make, whether explicitly or by virtue of what we do and what we do not do, with no assurance that we will change the world or even have much effect in the neighborhood, only hope and attempt to live with decency and integrity, perhaps touching the lives of others, if only a few, even one, for the better along the way.

recommended reading

Elizabeth Drew, The Stranglehold on Our Politics, The New York Review of Books, 26 September 2013

Norm Ornstein, The Unprecedented—and Contemptible—Attempts to Sabotage Obamacare, National Journal, 24 July 2013

peace, war, Syria…

While I am sympathetic to the argument that use of chemical weapons marks a red line, poor choice of words that this was, whose crossing obliges a response by the international community, I do not see prospect for any good that might come from a military strike against Syria, whether by the United States acting alone or some ragtag coalition cobbled together to provide faux legitimacy for US engagement. A person who stands idly by, watching, while a boy is abused or a woman beaten surely bears some responsibility to act. But what if the foul deed is being done by a gang of well-armed brutes against whom physical intervention is bound to be ineffectual? And if the bystander is a boy himself, with a club foot, unable even to dial 9-1-1 because he left his cell phone at home? Does inaction render him culpable in these circumstances? Of course the US is hardly the nation-state equivalent of a boy with club foot. Nonetheless the dilemma remains. There is a sense of moral imperative to act with no likelihood that anything good will come of it, and in the matter of Syria the specter of unintended consequences that would further destabilize a volatile region.

I spotted at least one bit of news coverage where demonstrators calling on the US to refrain from military action carried signs calling for peace and banners with photographs of Bashar Assad. It is fine to stand against US military action in Syria, whether limited strikes aimed at deterring the Assad regime from continued use of chemical weapons or active intervention to effect regime change, but what, really, does peace have to do with anything here? Peace is not in the cards for Syria for the foreseeable future, no matter what the US does or does not do. As for this seeming support for Assad, one supposes it derives from the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the enemy for the Tea Party right and not a few on the left being the US government. This conjures up images of the cold war when the US toadied up to any tin-pot dictator who proclaimed himself anticommunist while critics of capitalism found ways to overlook horrendous things happening in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

There are those who question the fuss about chemical weapons in the first place. Are chemical weapons really worse than other means of killing at our disposal? Why should these weapons be singled out for special prohibition? However any of us might answer these questions, the proscription against use of certain weapons, chemical, bacteriological, atomic, establishes the standard that some things, too few but some, are at least in principle beyond the pale. I do not see how this is a bad thing.

Some critics charge that the administration is wrong when it asserts that the only alternative to a military response is to do nothing. There are, it is claimed, a number of tools other than the military option, among them international diplomacy, international condemnation, sanctions, and international tribunals. It would be wonderful to think that these options offer greater promise of a desirable outcome than the military one. I do not see it. By all means treat the military option with the utmost skepticism. At the same time do not be deceived that this cause is well served by blowing smoke about alternative courses of action that amount to little more than wishful thinking.

This is a mess. Where does the lesser evil lie?


Does the messenger matter? Why do I find Messrs. Greenwald and Snowden less than impressive?


I have been all over the map on the NSA stuff since the story broke. From the outset the affair struck me as somewhat overblown, not so much revelation as confirmation of things the reasonably well informed should have known or at least suspected. Surely anyone of a terrorist bent would take it granted that the Great Satan is monitoring any and everything it possibly can. Are comrades on the left really surprised to learn that the Evil Empire is warehousing every scrap of data it can lay its virtual hands on? Do patriots of the right expect anything less from jack-booted government thugs? It is unfortunate that the spotlight shines far too brightly on paranoid conjectures of a categorically different order from legitimate concern about a ravenous state security apparatus operating under dubious congressional oversight and FISA courts shrouded in secrecy. One can concede the need for military and security operations, and the case that these must sometimes be conducted in secrecy, deriving from the state’s responsibility to provide a degree of safety and security for its citizens. But how much security? And of that, what is genuine and what illusory? What is to be sacrificed for it?

That l’affaire Snowden turned into a media circus at the get-go is business as usual. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald complain that the media and government have sought to distract from the state’s misdeeds by making the story about them. This is a surprise? To whom? Tabloid blather that only distracts attention from important issues is awful, terrible, horrible, not good. It is also far from new. To be fair, the saga of Snowden holed up in a Hong Kong hotel and Moscow airport desperately seeking asylum lends itself to this sort of thing. The story’s principals seem blithely oblivious to their own contributions to personalization of the story. Lest anyone forget or be unaware of his crucial role, Greenwald routinely peppers articles and interviews with references to “our stories, “our front-page revelations,” and the like (e.g., James Clapper, EU play-acting, and political priorities, The Guardian, 3 July 2013). There are repeated hints and insinuations that Snowden is or might be or could be targeted for assassination. Greenwald’s fondness for taunting the authorities along with his zest for dismissing those whose take on the affair differs from his as members of a media and political elite or Obama worshippers is not conducive to the gravitas warranted by the story (Noah Rothman, Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher And Glenn Greenwald In Tense Twitter Brawl Over Snowden, Mediaite, 2 July 2013). As for the government’s response, we should expect officials to take anything but a dim view of what they sincerely perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be a serious security breach? Obama should perhaps award Snowden the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Jay Carny should promote Greenwald’s nomination for a Pulitzer?

Does the messenger, or the character of the messenger, matter? Well, yes, somewhat at least, for evaluation of the messenger’s trustworthiness and agenda. Snowden does not help his case with a rationale that is a few syllogisms shy of intellectual rigor. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these (surveillance) sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.” (Bonnie Greer, Edward Snowden: there will be more ‘Libertarian Millennials’ like him, The Telegraph, 3 July 2013). I am not unsympathetic with this sentiment. However, I am aware that many Americans will not be swayed by it. A longtime friend for whom I have the highest regard and respect, a man of the liberal persuasion, put it this way:

You have to come down on one side or the other, and I have to come down on the side of government having enough leeway to take care of my interests, that being to keep the USA in the driver’s seat to the extent possible.

There is not a doubt in my military mind that many Americans come down, uneasily in some cases but nonetheless, far more with my friend than with the Snowden-Greenwald camp. Was it legitimate for Snowden to take it on himself to bring down “these sort of things” of which he personally does not approve? Might he have been more effective, and might I be more kindly disposed toward him, if he had taken his information not to a zealous journalist with a demonstrated passion for this issue but to, say, Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who have long expressed concern about surveillance programs and pressed for greater accountability, oversight, and openness? Might Snowden’s moral stature, and with it the power of his message, have been enhanced had he remained in the country to stand with the angels and speak truth to power even at risk of imprisonment?

Recently I attended a workshop on the topic of ethical internet research. The speaker observed in passing that we live in a surveillance state. This is a simply a fact of life in the 21st century, though it might be better and more broadly put that we live in a state of surveillance, for it goes well beyond NSA data gathering, security cameras in public spaces, and an annoying array of airport scrutiny. The gathering of data by actors in the private sphere is every bit as eagerly pursued and every bit as troubling as what is done by the state, which after all at least in principle has a mandate to promote the general welfare and common good and is accountable to the people. Yes, it falls short on every count for a variety of reasons ranging from influence of powerful actors pursuing private interests at the expense of the commonweal to a fractious, contentious populace desirous of wildly inconsistent, conflicting, and not infrequently mutually exclusive ends. Nonetheless there is at least in principle accountability to something other than the next quarter’s financial report.

President Obama was right when he said we need a public debate about the tension between privacy and security. He has been remiss in not fostering that debate, to which convenience might be added to the mix. Generally speaking we want privacy, we want security, and we do not want to be inconvenienced by any of it. We are also quite taken with the convenience, not to mention opportunity for narcissistic indulgence, that goes with social media, mobile phones, the blogosphere, and all the rest.

Seldom do we wish to consider that, as Emerson put it, nothing is got for nothing. We might do well to ask how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice to save one American life? two? ten? five hundred? five thousand? How many lives in other parts of the world, as innocent as our own loved ones, are we willing to sacrifice in the vain effort to ensure that not five thousand, not five hundred, not ten or two or even a single American will ever be victim of whoever might wish to do them harm? Conversely, how many lives are we willing to risk to ensure that not one iota of privacy is violated? To what degree are we willing to put American lives at risk to ensure that not one innocent life elsewhere in the world suffers harm in pursuit of those who would willingly do harm to Americans, Europeans, and others, even their own countrymen, if not deterred? For some the answers are all too easy: not one iota of privacy is to be given up, ever, not one life in some other place is to be put at risk. For others, anything and everything is justified for the sake of safety and security of American lives and interests. Such people are fortunate to dwell in a world where moral dilemma and ambiguity do not exist, where absolute security can be vouchsafed, and where the problematic and contingent can be whitewashed out of existence. Nothing is got for nothing.

further reading

David Bromwich, Diary, London Review of Books, 4 July 2013

Jonathan Chait, Remember the Obama Scandals? That Used to Be a Thing, New York, 27 June 2013

Greenwald, About the Reuters article, The Guardian, 13 July 2013

Glenn Greenwald, James Clapper, EU play-acting, and political priorities, The Guardian, 3 July 2013

Bonnie Greer, Edward Snowden: there will be more ‘Libertarian Millennials’ like him, The Telegraph, 3 July 2013

Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

Lana Lam, Snowden sought Booz Allen job to gather evidence on NSA surveillance, South China Morning Post, 25 June 2013

Ruth Marcus, Edward Snowden is no hero, Washington Post, 18 July 2013

secret stuff

The so-called revelation that the U.S. government is mining private data on a vast scale elicited astounding declarations of surprise and confessions of ignorance, accompanied by righteous outrage, from all stripes, shades, and wings of the political class and the punditocracy, suggesting a staggering naïveté among some whom we might reasonably expect to be more knowledgeable and sophisticated about the ways of the world. “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” I mean, I am shocked to find that the national security apparatus is doing pretty much what Congress authorized it to do.

The reach of the security state, trade-offs between security and privacy, what exactly we think of when we think of privacy in the age of the internet and big data, these are topics that merit, indeed demand, public examination. That the debate is contentious and often heated is part of the deal. That it took an act of dubious legitimacy, the Snowden affair, to initiate the discussion is something of a civic disgrace. That it is getting off the ground in an atmosphere of blowtorch rhetoric and borderline hysteria, charges of treason ringing from one angle, Stasi state from another, is a shame. Not least the affair has given rise to a crop of improbable bedfellows, with the likes of Glenn Greenwald, the Pauls père et fils, and Peggy Noonan cuddled in one bunk, Dianne Feinstein, Al Franken, and Lindsey Graham perhaps somewhat less cozy in another. This alone is sufficient to give one pause before weighing in. Nonetheless.

I am far from sanguine about the NSA surveillance stuff. Professionals in that sphere seem to instinctively take it as principle that it is best to err on the side of secrecy and overreach, better to do too much than too little. This is not inherently a matter of foul intent to silence dissent and stifle legitimate political opposition. It derives in part from the citizenry’s yearning for security and the general illusion that if we only do the right things, from screening airline passengers to mounting security cameras in public places to eating our vegetables, limiting the alcohol intake, exercising, and taking our medications, we can stay forever young, exempt from the ravages of time and terror, immune to contingency and fate. Yes, I indulge in a bit of hyperbole for effect, and because it is fun. Even so, there does seem to be something of this ingrained in the America psyche, or more or less permanently tattooed onto its surface, at any rate.

Presidents and ranking members of congressional committees that oversee this stuff tend to take on the same instinct that it is better to do too much by way of surveillance, collecting data, security in general, than to do too little. The instinct is sound, it is argued, because the consequence of doing too little or getting what is done wrong can be awful. Hard to argue this, except that nothing can ever be enough to guarantee all plots in any and all circumstances will be foiled. The voices howling most fiercely about government overreach will be yowling for heads to roll the next time two misfits bomb a marathon or a self-styled patriot thinks he is Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry, except that it is not enough to be a screeching cretin, he has to find a government building to blow up.

One might cast a hard and discerning eye on all sorts of government actions and programs deriving from the attacks of 11 September 2001 and associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq, yet not conclude that Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are exactly heroes. Josh Marshall notes that many of the readers of his news website Talking Points Memo take exception to his take on the Snowden story, which is in the same ballpark as mine, noting that “there is no question that a lot of readers are surprised and in many cases angry about what I’ve written on the subject.” This has led him to reflect on the different assumptions that make people generally on the liberal and even progressive wing of the bird come down on different sides. Here are a few cogent points (quoting Marshall):

  • ..the key issue is how different people understand their relationship with the state (in this case the US government) and the national political community as a whole and the relationship between the two.
  • If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. Same if you think the conduct of US foreign policy is fundamentally a bad thing.
  • On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive.
  • Now, in practice, there are a million shades of grey. You can support your government but see its various shortcomings and even evil things it does. And as I said at the outset, this is where leaks play a critical, though ambiguous role, as a safety valve. But it comes down to this essential thing: is the aim and/or effect of the leak to correct an abuse or simply to blow the whole thing up? (The Snowden Prism, TPM, 11 June 2013, )

My sympathy tends to be with Marshall’s point of view. It is an uneasy sympathy. The issues around harvesting data are many, complex, and not infrequently convoluted. The infatuation with big data, the current buzzword in marketing and health care research, among other circles, rests on an assumption that because all this data can be gathered, it should be gathered, and what is gathered will prove useful for business and health care and those whose mandate is to prevent attacks by misfits and troubled loners and fanatics of whatever stripe. The question of efficacy, along with issues of rightness and wrongness, how if at all data dragnets might be done in accordance with fundamental principles on which the country was founded and within the rule of law calls for considerably more critical examination that it has gotten to date.

recommended reading

Anne Applebaum, Edward Snowden, the impulsive ‘martyr’Washington Post, 14 June 2013

Richard Cohen, The NSA is doing what Google does, Washington Post, 10 June 2013:

Everything about Edward Snowden is ridiculously cinematic. He is not paranoiac; he is merely narcissistic. He jettisoned a girlfriend, a career and, undoubtedly, his personal freedom to expose programs that were known to our elected officials and could have been deduced by anyone who has ever Googled anything.

Bob Dreyfuss, Spying by the NSA: Calm Down, It’s Not Nixon’s Plumbers, The Nation, 11 June 2013:

The news about the National Security Agency isn’t a molehill, but it’s not a mountain either.

James Fallows, Edward Snowden in Hong Kong, The Atlantic, 9 June 2013

James Fallows, ‘I Cannot Figure Out Why This Was Classified to Begin With,’ The Atlantic, 7 June 2013

Glenn Greenwald, NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily, The Guardian, 5 June 2013

Glen Greenwald and Ewen McAskill, NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others, The Guardian, 6 June 2013

Matt Miller, Edward Snowden’s grandiosity, Washington Post, 11 June 2013:

Thinking about “big data” is a little like imagining how things look to God (assuming God exists). God may love you personally, but she’s a little too busy to worry about whether you get that raise you deserve. The National Security Agency (NSA) may have access to every bit and byte in the land, but the unfathomable river of information their algorithms must mine means no one’s focusing on the text you sent to that guy in accounting. … Is there potential for abuse? Of course. An Internet-era J. Edgar Hoover is frightening to conjure. But what Snowden exposed was not some rogue government-inside-the-government conspiracy. It’s a program that’s legal, reviewed by Congress and subject to court oversight.

Marcy Wheeler, How the US Congress lost the plot on secrecy, surveillance and accountability, The Guardian, 7 June 2013

memo from the editorial desk

Minor, nonsubstantive editorial revisions were made to this essay shortly after it was originally posted.

The Hibbert and Gee Affairs

Last weekend Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert uttered a forbidden word, in public, speaking into a microphone, with reporters and pundits present to record, disseminate, and pontificate about it. For this and for use of another forbidden word, a common expletive, he was fined $75,000 by the league and widely excoriated in the press. The excoriation, it might be noted, was not generally on account of the common expletive.

It is all to the good that slurs drawing on sexual preference are now considered as inappropriate as those of the racial, ethnic, and religious varieties. Hibbert spoke a taboo word spontaneously, without evident forethought, in a context where it was not directed at anyone, not as insult, not as invective. This was pretty innocuous stuff, though without question inappropriate, as Hibbert readily acknowledged. The apology issued in the immediate aftermath was to all appearances heartfelt and sincere. It is fitting that he was called to account. His response was honorable and dignified.

Reactions in the media ranged from Kurt Helin’s relatively mild “Like I said, you’re a smart player and a seemingly good guy. I just expected more. I’m disappointed” to Dave Zirin’s call for Hibbert to be suspended from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. (Note for readers who do not follow sports: Hibbert played in the seventh and deciding game of the series, which the Pacers lost to the Miami Heat.) Zirin takes a preemptive shot at criticism of this proposal: “If this took place, some would inevitably call it ‘political correctness run amok.’ Nothing energizes some people quite like when their right to dehumanize others is under assault.” The cause is not furthered by heated, overblown rhetoric that elevates a minor faux pas into an egregious outrage. The incident can usefully be viewed as—and can serve as—a learning experience for Roy Hibbert and a reminder for the rest of us of the ethical imperative to treat others with dignity and respect.

As for the NBA’s stance, we should no have illusion. Commissioner David Stern and team owners, whatever their personal views, have one dog in this hunt: television revenue. They would have been no more pleased had Hibbert adopted Rasheed Wallace’s standard response to any and every question, which could have offended no one: “Both teams played hard.”

A few days after the Hibbert incident, Ohio State University president Gordon Gee resigned amid revelations that he made some ill-considered and, worse yet, not especially clever cracks about Catholics, in the context of negotiations with Notre Dame about its possible membership in the Big 10 athletic conference, and jibes at the academic achievement, or lack thereof, of Southeastern Conference athletes. A university president at a big-time athletic powerhouse such as Ohio State commands a hefty salary in part to be one of the faces of the university, along with the football and basketball coaches. Being uncontroversial is part of the job description. Fair enough. I gather that these gaffes were only one among several factors that led to Gee’s resignation. It is not as if he were shown the door for this single misstep. Nonetheless, the remarks themselves are pretty tame stuff.

In each case the response was overblown, the proverbial tempest in a teapot, much ado about not very much. The incidents illustrate an unfortunate readiness to rise up in high dudgeon and call for the head of any public figure who makes the slightest misstatement or misstep. Often this only dilutes the impact of points that the critic wishes to make, trivializes the issue, and distracts from transgressions of greater consequence. We might do well to try for some perspective and a measured response. We might find our causes better served.

further reading and other points of view

Kurt Helin, Roy Hibbert curses, slips in “no homo” comment in post game interviews, NBC Sports ProBasketballTalk, 2 June 2013

Matt Norlander, Rick Pitino calls Gordon Gee a ‘pompous ass,’ CBS Sports, 3 June 2013

Encarnacion Pyle, Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee to retire, The Columbus Dispatch, 4 June 2013

Dave Zirin, No Homo? No Way: Suspend Roy Hibbert for Game 7*, The Nation, 2 June 2013


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