Rethinking My Purpose

Say what you will about the last month and a half (you know, that post-electoral period of time where liberals suddenly woke up to the fact that fascism exists, then predictably made it all about them), but one thing it’s done for me personally is forced me to take a hard look at what my purpose as a leftist is.

I’ve spent most of my time in the last decade hung up on propaganda – here, on twitter, in real life political conversations, you name it. And ultimately, I can’t help but see it as 90% useless.

Now, before you jump down my throat, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be aware of propaganda – of course we should keep track of it.  Tactically it makes sense to try to understand empire’s motives, and it makes sense to try to use awareness of propaganda as a tool to wake people up.  But in the grand scheme of things, cataloguing propaganda is just a tool – it’s not the *purpose* of the left.

I can’t help but feel like much of the activism I used to see in real life has slowly seeped onto the internet; and in-turn has become a chorus of people shouting ineffectively into the social media wind about how horribly hypocritical the empire is, while doing (it seems) much less to actually combat empire.  Facebook has taken over more and more what used to be in-person contact and planning; twitter has become our soapbox; and the services that can’t be replicated online?  I’ve seen so many of them dwindle that I can’t help but feel like there’s a connection.  FnB chapters shutting down.  Showing support materially to the homeless gets replaced by ribbons on online profile pic. Just in general, community solidarity getting sucked into online presences that provide a tightly-controlled-and-advertised-to-facsimile of actual connections.

In short, the internet has made activism a brand to be built up, tailored to every single one of us to feel like our voices are being heard, and that they matter because we sign enough petitions, or boycott enough websites, or hashtag the latest fucking bullshit. Me, you reading this, all of us participate in this. But the reality is that no matter how loud our voices are through the fiber optic cables, we aren’t going to downvote and hashtag capitalism out of existence, anymore than you can stop bullets by yelling at them.

Of course I’m being bombastic here. There is a purpose to cataloguing propaganda, as I mentioned.  There are benefits to connecting with people over the ‘net that we might not in real life.  I get it.  But for so, so many people it’s become the primary way they get their activism on, and it’s a cop-out. And worse, this idea of wringing our hands while we watch as bad shit happens to other people even if we are trying to make people aware of it by exposing propaganda and lies, just means that those of us with high-speed internet connections at the Imperial Core become the online biographers of a death-spiral in the rest of the world.  No blog post is going to stop Israeli phosphorus.

When I was 19 I was in Seattle for the WTO protests.  And while I’d like to say I was there because I was a principled anti-capitalist at 19, the reality is that I was going to meet some friends for coffee (I lived in Tacoma) and was completely unaware of what was going on until I happened to end up in a cloud of tear-gas.  But it was electrifying.  I’d grown up concerned about most of the same things these folks were protesting – my parents were always dissidents to one degree or another, so I grew up more “woke” then most people. But I was a typically self-involved teen, and had never seen street level activism until then. It opened my eyes up to what opposition could really be – people caring enough about <insert issue> to get up and *do* something about it. (Which in retrospect proves how little people listen to their parents, since my mom had told me plenty from her own civil-rights / anti-war stuff in the 60s).

That experience was eye-opening, but it was quickly subsumed by a less-concrete form of ‘activism’: yelling about shit on message boards on the ‘net. Then IRC. Then blogs. Then twitter. After all, it was alluring – it *felt* street level in a way (remember all the talk of grassroots online efforts? The ones that turned out to either be bullshit, or part of a color rev? Yeah). It offered me a way to feel like I was *doing something* with my time that mattered. Sure, there is no fundamental difference in how time is spent on the ‘net, whether you’re talking about the next model of chainsaw you want to buy on your favorite logging message board or snarkily pointing out hypocritical errors in a propaganda website; but the latter definitely feels different because it’s intended to feel different.

I’m not excluding myself from this.  I’m 100% implicated here. I’ve become lazy about my activism, and the ‘net is one of the primary causes of it. What used to feel like this tool that provided me so much has become the platform for my entertainment, my ‘activism’, and my work all wrapped in a neat little advertising supported bow. Corporations literally support my activism online, and yours, and everyone else’s. 20 years ago we might have been able to have non-corporate communities on the internet, but now they’re few and far between, and the ones that exist are probably Fed honeypots.

So I titled this post “Rethinking My Purpose”, and I’ve been doing a lot of just that the last couple of weeks.  I keep starting posts about whatever piece of propaganda infuriates me that day, then I stop and ask myself “what’s the point?”.  What else can I be doing that this is taking time away from?  For me, I’ve realized, there are far more important and concrete things I can be doing with my time instead of being online. And for the first time in a long, long time I’m actually excited about my plans again.

So, with all of that in mind, this will be the last post here.  I’m retiring roasty, years after I should have, but I am. I’m going to work entirely locally, and I’m not putting any of it online anymore.  What’s the point?  I don’t have anything I need to prove to anyone, and indeed it’s bullshit narcissism for me to try to – it’s more important that I use the same privilege that allows me this laptop and internet connection to do something concrete then it is to worry about the lies that the Washington Post feeds the world. In all of my time online, I don’t truly believe I’ve changed one person’s mind about capitalism. Not one. I’m sure I’ve influenced people (or at least I hope I have), but they were people who were already sympathetic to being influenced.  You can’t snark your way to a revolution (at least not one that any of us probably want). I’m going to focus on mitigating harm to people where I can; I’m going to focus on doing something, anything locally to combat climate change (because can there BE anything more anticapitalist then fighting the extinction of 99% of species at the hands of capitalism?)- even if all I’m doing is helping people and animals in the short run, it’s better than doing nothing.

So, one last time, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish – to all of you that have become my friends, you are the major bright spot to spending so much time anarchying online.  Later all, catch you at the community garden.

 

PropOrNot and Their YYY Campaign

When I did my satire post of propornot, part of me couldn’t believe they were real. Their site itself is so transparently, so blatantly U.S. imperial propaganda that it seemed impossible that anyone could read it and see it as legit.

Well either they’re doubling down on the satire to continue to make me look like an idiot, or they figure that their average reader is already cradling their copy of Red Dawn and bemoaning the good ole days when men were men, women were women, and Russians were coldly psychotic commie savages. NoSoyYo in the comments over at Tarzie’s blog mentioned the YYY Campaign, which I hadn’t looked into until today, and it’s pretty unbelievable.

As in my first post, every single thing they point out as a ‘tell’ on Russian propaganda applies equally to their own stuff, and any number of the news outlets they recommend. As an example:

“Check to see whether the social-media account/commenter/outlet has a history of generally echoing the Russian propaganda line by using themes, arguments, talking points, images, and other content similar to those used by obvious Russian propaganda outlets.”

Ok, so let’s apply that to some U.S. news and see what happens. From the headlines this morning: “Cubans line up to bid farewell to Fidel Castro“.

Here we have the WaPo (who propornot recommend as a proper source of journalism) doing some seriously good propaganda in the very vein that propornot is calling out. Some quotes from the story:

“If Cubans’ true feelings and emotions about the man who ruled this country for 49 years are complex and conflicted, this was not the place to express them. Just as Castro’s one-party socialist state imposed ideological and political conformity on the country, the public response to his death on Friday night at age 90 has been one of emotional uniformity, at least at the surface.”

Because, you know, they couldn’t POSSIBLY actually miss Fidel, it’s clearly staged. Or course, there’s no actual evidence given that it’s staged. But wait, they interviewed some Cubans, so maybe that will help us understand how this is staged grief:

““He’s our commander, and I wanted to say goodbye,” Sofia Morales said, with little apparent conviction.”

I’m glad that our intrepid WaPo reporter was able to discern the inner mind of someone who says they are grieving to tell us the truth that they were just lying about their grief.

Here’s another:

“Others in the crowd exhibited evidently genuine feelings of sorrow. Castro had an intimate psychological relationship, for better or worse, with three generations of Cubans, having reshaped the entire country in the name of the socialist-nationalist system known simply as “the Revolution.””

Look at the language here. From the “evidently genuine” (all bemused, the WaPo can’t understand people actually grieving for Castro), to the “had an intimate psychological relationship” (clearly, the WaPo implies with a raised eyebrow, they’re suffering from some sort of Stockholm Syndrome). The language of the entire piece is either of contempt/bewilderment for any actual grief, or suggestion that everything is staged.

“The government has ordered nine days of mourning that will end Sunday”

Because no one would grieve for this monster unless they were ordered to!

—-

Go through all of their YYY points for yourself and you can see this pattern repeated over and over with the very outlets they are suggesting. They did get one thing right though:

“Given all of that, check to see whether the social-media account/commenter/outlet qualifies under our definition of propaganda:

A systematic form of persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specific target audiences for political, ideological, and religious purposes, through the controlled transmission of deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.”

I’d say that they themselves very much fit that: instead of taking on cataloging propaganda in general, they start from the implied assumption that U.S. news outlets are paragons of journalist integrity, while those dirty Russians are out to get our Lucky Charms.

I leave you with this screen-cap from the first link I happened to click when I saw that Castro had died. But I’m sure that USA Today isn’t propaganda, no sir.

img_0040

The List (USA!USA!)

[context]

An Initial Set of Sites That Reliably Echo USA!USA! Propaganda

We have used a combination of structural analysis and critical reading, including analysis of content, timing, technical indicators, and other reporting, in order to initially identify (“spangle-flag”) the following as USA!USA! propaganda outlets. We then confirmed our initial assessment by applying whatever criteria we did not originally employ during the spangle-flag process, and we reevaluate our findings as needed.

Please note that our criteria is based on which sites paint empire as the good guy in a world full of bad actors. That means the characteristics of the propaganda outlets we identify are managed. For purposes of this definition it does not matter whether the sites listed here are being knowingly directed and paid by USA!USA! intelligence officers, or whether they even knew they were echoing USA!USA! propaganda at any particular point: If they meet these criteria, they are at the very least acting as bona-fide “useful idiots” of the neoliberal establishment and USA!USA! intelligence services, and are worthy of further scrutiny.

We assess that this overall USA!USA! effort is at least semi-centralized, with multiple USA!USA! projects and influence operations working in parallel to manage the direct and outsourced production of propaganda across a wide range of outlets. It is data-driven, and rewards effective entrepreneurship and innovation with increased funding and other resources. There are varying degrees of involvement in it, and awareness of involvement. Some people involved seem genuinely unaware that they are being used by USA!USA! to produce propaganda, but many others seem to know full well.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact us.

More detailed analysis is ongoing:

The Washington Post

CNN

BBC

NPR

Fox News

Facebook

MSNBC

ABC News

Fusion

The New York Times

The Los Angeles Times

The Christian Science Monitor

PBS

Sesame Street

Disney’s Entire Movie Catalog

George Clooney

This Billionaire, This Billionaire, Yep This One Too

 

*Editors Note: This list is by no means comprehensive, as a comprehensive list of USA!USA! propaganda outlets would necessitate several terabytes of server space and more internet bandwidth than is currently produced by the porn industry.*

 

 

Fuck You Liberals, You Arrogant Assholes

The sheer bullshit ARROGANCE of these fucking liberals.

“It has been one of the longest weeks in human history…” begins a Salon/Alternet article, referring to the fact that Trump won the presidency.

Fuck you, yes you Janet Allon.

Fuck your insistence that the rest of the world see your tantrums over your preferred fascist being pushed aside for a different one as a tragedy. Fuck you, you mealy-mouthed shit for brains excuse for a human being.  Nothing more than that, just fuck you.  How DARE you have the fucking arrogance to declare presidential election results in the Imperial core as “the longest week in history”.  Tell that to these folks.  Or these ones.  Or these.

Fuck you. You deserve to be run over by history, ground into meaningless dust when your precious empire finally some day falls. Truly despicable.

 

This Too Shall Pass

Propaganda is subtle – at least effective propaganda is. The more hamfisted it is, the more skeptical even the most earnest of readers become. In his usual clear-eyed style Arthur Silber lays that out in his latest essay (which you should go read right now). Back? Angry yet?

I am. I’m angry. I’m angry that the impeccable avalanche of logic that Silber lays out, facts that roll down to more facts which roll down to inevitable conclusions burying us in a 10 foot wall of cold truth, just aren’t enough. As happenstance has it, I was listening to The Coup as I read his essay, and Boots Riley’s lyrics dovetailed in perfectly:

They got the TV, we got the truth
They own the judges and we got the proof

It’s all there for the taking. There’s no logic that can explain kids starving while we dump excess food in the ocean. There’s no logic that can justify the homeless freezing in doorways while houses stand empty, or are bulldozed. There’s no logic to spraying people with water in freezing temperatures just because they had the gall to ask that capitalism not poison their water.

There’s no logic to profit, to capitalism; there’s just effective propaganda telling us over and over, beating our brains with it until we are numb, that we are nothing more than a collection of individuals responsible for our own rise or demise. For the hundred thousandth time in my life, fuck the myth of bootstraps, that central origin myth of modern Western civilization. I don’t think you can find a single belief that’s left more bodies in its wake. Millions and millions dead, silently, so that the Christmas lights can gleam in the cold air downtown while you do your shopping. We step over the bodies assured that it’s not our fault, that it’s a cold hard world and we just live in it.

These lessons start early, and are reflected and refracted constantly in Western society. My wife was driving home from the grocery store yesterday and on the corner was a woman and her kids. In 45 degree rainy weather they were standing on the corner with a cardboard sign that simply said “Anything helps, extremely hungry.” My wife stopped and gave the woman some cash, 8 or 9 bucks, and offered to take them to get some sandwiches if that would help.

The woman burst into tears.

She’d been passed by car after car and no one had stopped or even acknowledged her. Another human being starving in the cold on a corner and no one could even be bothered to offer her a warm word, let alone a warm meal. A scene that’s repeated daily, hourly in this, the “greatest of nations”.  Make America what again?

Why is that? I believe that fundamentally we are social animals – and left to our own devices, I think that most people default to compassion not callousness. But compassion is a liability to capitalism. Capitalism isn’t just casually callous, it’s actively hostile to compassion. Indeed it’s predicated on the idea of atomized individuals, where community is defined as the group against which we measure our own success. Pity for those “less fortunate” than us replaces compassion. Think about that phrase – we acknowledge on one hand that our success is based on luck – that people are simply “less fortunate”, but we can’t acknowledge that as privilege. Sure sure, we feel bad for “those people” but ultimately only in that they become actors in the theater of ourselves; they are the fuck-up foils highlighting our own virtue; privilege be damned, we worked hard for this!

I do a lot of thinking about revolution. That’s strange by social standards I guess, but I do. Some of that is based on hope. It’s a life raft that I cling to at times, when the absurdity of the empire becomes particularly stark, when a starving woman bursts into tears at even a modicum of respect being paid to her. “This too shall pass”, I remind myself. I imagine bricks being thrown, tides of people pushing back against the constant, relentless propaganda that buries us.

I still have hope. I’ll take that with me to the grave. I’m not willing to cede that to capitalism and empire, even if they take everything else. “This too shall pass” indeed. It may take decades, centuries, but eventually capitalism will take its proper place in history alongside every other psychotic and barbaric path that humanity has walked down. I believe that wholeheartedly. [edit: There’s been an active discussion over at Tarzie’s blog after he reblogged this – and I want to clarify that my belief here is that capitalism is not a permanent state of being for humanity; either it will end or humanity will end. That, plus my use of the word ‘hope’ seems to have made this come off as either acting on ‘faith’ or acting fatalistically – neither of which was my intent.  More on that in my comments at Tarzie’s.]

But goddamn it’d be nice if our compassion could overcome capitalism’s bullshit long enough to push it into irrelevance sooner rather than later.

The Long March

The young man rises early, the dark of the fall/winter transition cold outside oppressive – but he’s up for a reason, his steel resolve unwavering. Today is the day. It’s the day that he finally pushes back against the fascism creeping through his community. It’s the day he stands up, on the front lines, helping the oppressed. He ties his boots slowly, deliberately, wondering what the outcome of today’s solidarity action will be. An electric thrill goes through him at the thought of the fight ahead – after today, the fascists will truly know they can’t continue unopposed.

He moves into the living room and sits down at the computer, adjusts his lapels. The selfie snap of his camera sounds in his ears… he hits “post picture”.

The safety pin on his lapel glows in the morning dark.

He can hear the joyful cries from the millions of oppressed, thankful for this antifascist warrior, and glows in their imagined adulation.

He’s Facebook posted his safety pin selfie, in all it’s glory.

Fascism doesn’t stand a chance.  Free Hillary! 

…And You Will Know Us By Our Latte Tears.

*EDIT* ok so in re-reading this, I realized that I might sound dismissive of the uniqueness of a lot of the issues that POC face both in addition to, and as a part of, poverty in contrast to white poverty. Not at all my intention, my apologies if it comes off like that. Indeed my point is the opposite: Clinton liberals have GRABBED those differences between white poverty and non-white poverty and made them the dividing line that matters. It’s *highlighting* the differences between the two, at the expense of the similarities, that cost these hand-wringing libs their Queen. Their focus on (the very real!) racism-connected-to-poverty is deliberate of course: they can safely attack it without jeopardizing or even *questioning* their own economic privileges because it doesn’t directly indict capitalism.

And it’s for this same reason that they are hyper-focused on how “dumb” white folk are the problem: if they admit white poverty exists, is systematic, and is not just drug-addled fuckupery, they can’t claim their bootatraps smug victory for having “risen above”. THIS is why they lost, not the lack of education of poor rural whites, but their own fucking smug self-righteousness.

Gah. I’ll leave it there, I’m getting even angrier now.

/edit

OK, so I had no intention of writing up anything about the election because I really don’t think there’s a fundamental difference between Clinton and Trump, at least not as candidates. As I said to an irate co-worker of mine asking why I wasn’t voting: if my choices are a fascist record or fascist rhetoric I think I’ll stay at home and play with my cat.

All of that being said, my affluent neolib co-workers have helped me to see something that IS worth exploring: despite their rhetorical flourishes, Clinton liberals (which seems to be the vast majority of them at this point) truly, truly, truly don’t understand poverty to be an economic problem, but strictly a racist one.

I know, that sounds weird, but hear me out.

Before my mom retired she was the volunteer coordinator at a local university (my Alma Mater actually). The Uni is located on sprawling park like grounds, a truly beautiful campus, which just so happens to sit smack dab in a predominantly white poor working class neighborhood. It’s hard to describe how jarring it is to walk across the boundary line of the campus into run-down and decaying neighborhoods, ‘hoods that over the course of the 90’s would be hit with a double whammy of 1st meth and then oxy addiction well before the rest of the country became aware of either epidemic (to whit, three weeks ago the *12th* friend of mine since high school OD’d on heroin, having moved to it from the Oxy’s he was hooked on after they became too expensive. May he rest in peace.)

It’s especially jarring as this is a private university with a largely upper-middle class and above student body that has almost no experience with poverty in any real way.  Case in point, a friend of mine from school who was there on scholarships and a helluva lot of working hours, was asked what his biggest worry about attending was during Freshman orientation. He answered ‘paying for school’, to which the girl next to him chimed in saying he just had to be good at budgeting when his parents sent him his tuition check. Riiiiight.

Back to my mom: back in college I was visiting her in her office between classes and she was just finishing up orientation with a new volunteer group. After they left she looked incredibly frustrated, and told me that she *could not* get any of them to volunteer locally. These rich white kids were gung-ho to help out in the black community a few miles down the road – they saw that as worthwhile – but the thought of volunteering where everyone looked like them? No chance. They (correctly) saw the short end of the economic stick that blacks and other people of color have been given in this country for 500 years, but their poor white counterparts?

Naw, they’re just fuck-ups. Addicts. ‘White trash’.

Maybe you see where I’m going here.

My friend Tarzie pointed me to this amazingly articulate article on the rust belt and the failure of everyone in the establishment to understand the economic situation poor whites there find themselves in. I encourage you to read it through, as it draws some incredibly useful parallels between the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s (specifically around the government’s lack of reaction to it) and the current opiate epidemic that seems to be largely poorer and whiter than past drug epidemics.

Where this relates to Trump and Clinton, if you don’t see it yet, is the attitude of affluent liberal whites (read: Clinton’s core demographic) about their working class white counterparts.

In his blistering, breathtakingly wonderful post-election write-up “Cheer Up Liberals: You’re Still In Charge“, Sassy writes:

“A Seattle-area friend who lives in the farther working-class suburbs came to work to his inner-city, wealthy liberal coworkers bitching that his neighbors “voted us into fascism.” In the same breath, this rich shit complained about the passing of a transportation bill that would raise their taxes: “If they want Trump so bad they can pay for their own buses.” Here’s someone who probably calls themselves a progressive attacking actually existing progressivism because their taxes will go up a split hair, and potentially benefit unworthy types, “deplorables.” Maybe these people wouldn’t feel the need to “shake things up” if they had had what they needed to thrive all along. But then your misty piney mossy café-flanked Seattle townhome might have to fit only one Subaru in the garage.”

This nails it (that was me, by the way, and yes I actually did have that very conversation this morning when I came into work).

Trump terrifies liberals. But you have to ask: why does Trump uniquely scare them vs. Clinton? Trump talks about building a wall and deporting ‘illegals’ and banning Muslims and and and… but let’s not forget that Clinton has *actually* contributed to the deaths of a helluva lot of people in the global South; let’s not forget that Obama deported more people than any other fucking president in history; let’s not forget that John Kerry smiled while literal Nazis burned people alive in Ukraine so that Joe Biden’s son could have a board-seat on the largest oil company there. But sure, TRUMP is terrifying as opposed to the paragons of progress in the Democratic establishment.

No, I think that the conversation that Sassy relates above tells you exactly why Trump scares them: because, at least in rhetoric, he threatens their privilege (oh noez! those uneducated whites are running this guy up!), he threatens their self-image (think of those rich white kids wanting to help the poor blacks but not those gross white trash addicts), and most of all he threatens their view of themselves as being bravely progressive.

The core of Clinton’s supporters (white supporters anyway) are VERY concerned about racism, poverty, education, opportunity, etc. Just ask them, they’ll tell you all about it over $9 lattes while they wait for their Uber.

*note: before anyone says it, yes I realize that Clinton has large swathes of non-white supporters.  Clearly you’d be hard pressed to vote for Trump when he tells you that you’re a terrorist, or illegal, or whatever.  But I’d be willing to bet that most of that support is against Trump, not for Clinton.*

This Whiskey Is Missing It’s Owner, and the World Laments

My dad died on Friday. It’s taken me 3 days to get to the point where I can type that statement without completely falling apart. At 1:30 AM on Friday, August 21st, 2015, my dad died.

I’m one of the luckiest people I know, I grew up with supportive parents who always taught me that I was not only allowed, but encouraged to be myself. This wasn’t just lip-service on their part: my dad in particular, his whole life, held one belief above others: that loving people regardless of, and more importantly *because of* who they are, is the one and only way that humanity will move forward. Celebrating our differences, indeed seeing those differences for the opportunity for us to grow as people, was sacrosanct to him.

He lived a fascinating life. Growing up depression-era poor, lost his own dad at 12, and found himself getting his first job. Between his under the table and odd jobs, and my grandma’s minimal waitress salary, they got by.

He was caught early by the learning bug, and it never stopped. He’s one of the few people I’ve ever met that wanted to KNOW (everything, anything). He found a delight in expanding his knowledge and experience that I’ve never seen replicated in anyone else. When he was that poor street kid, his refuge was the Springfield (Mass.) public library, as well as the planetarium. By the time he was 14, he’d sweet talked the librarians into letting him out of the kids section and into the full adult section. For hours on any given day, when he wasn’t working (or getting in trouble with the cops), he was in the library devouring it section by section.

His great intellectual love, from those early days on, was poetry. He read anyone and everyone, and when he was older and living in Boston, he was immersed in the poetry/art/counterculture scene of the late ’50s that centered around Beacon Hill. He met my mom there in the early ’60s.

His favorite poet of all time was W.H. Auden, in particular “In Memory of W.B. Yeats“. He always swore to me that no one recognized that the greatest line of text in the English language was contained therein:

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

He read this poem outloud to my mom, and the dog, about 2-hours before he died. It was a simple happenstance, as his death as sudden and unexpected, but wonderfully appropriate nonetheless.

He had quit drinking about a year before he died. An ongoing family joke was my mom asking if he needed anything, and him answering “I just need a damned whiskey”.  I hope if you are anywhere dad, that they’ve got Johnny in endless supplies.

In 11th grade poetry class I quoted

Cummings in Olaf’s voice

The teacher’s shocked look as

Olaf profaned the flag, and

Declared his defiance; later

I recounted it to your unrestrained

Roar of a laugh (that never failed

to charm a single soul)

Around cattle camps and Beacon Street pubs,

This whiskey is missing it’s owner,

And the world laments.

I later taught your granddaughter,

The same statement you

Had taught me, our secret family

Benediction against the evils of this

Fucked up world.

“Don’t let the assholes get you down.”

Our private spitting in the face of

Cruel absurd fate.

From morning ship decks to never-quite-made-it-to-Casablanca,

This whiskey is missing it’s owner,

And the world laments.

Mom told me that your

Last poetry reading of your

Life, to she and the dog,
(An audience you always knew

was worth more than any other.)

Was Auden lamenting Yeats.

Fitting, as you understood the

Poet’s soul better than any.

Oh aging beatnik from the Eisenhower Era

This whiskey is missing it’s owner,

And the world laments.

————

Math is Universal; Ethics Are Not

So I just finished up reading Quinn Norton defending TOR in a counter-piece to Yasha Levine’s initial questioning of the funding behind the developers that create TOR, and while there were some things I think that she said well, particularly in how systems like TOR work and the math that underlies strong-cryptography, I still found myself shaking my head by the end of the article from some of the things that she left unsaid.

First off, what she gets right:

I want to say immediately that when Yasha Levine went looking at the project’s funding, he was following a tradition of vital and good journalism. “Follow the money” is a maxim of investigation that will rarely lead you wrong, especially in matters of political policy. There are only a few places where funding can’t influence the contents of the outcome – maybe fundamental physics, and math, and not much else. Math is as far from policy as human endeavor gets. Math either works or it doesn’t work, and that is true for everyone in this galactic cluster, at the very least. What makes Tor different from the usual thesaurus-full of government projects is that Tor is essentially a very elaborate math trick, using layers of math puzzles to create a network-within-the-network. That math is being implemented in front of a global audience of millions of sophisticated watchers. It is likely the most examined codebase in the world. It has been subjected to multiple public audits. The math, well known and widely standardized, will work for everyone, or it will not, whoever pays the bills.

This is spot-on from a technical standpoint.  Policy decisions don’t change math, anymore than ignoring climate change will make it go away.  My initial view of Yasha Levine’s article was much in the same vein that Norton’s take on it above is: from a journalistic standpoint he was doing his due diligence, but from a technical standpoint the funding didn’t matter.  So far so good.

But there’s a problem with taking a purely technical angle on this: any project like TOR, math and all, *is* subject to subversion in any number of scenarios.  To expand on that, first I’ll quote Norton again:

Occasionally the stars align between spooks and activists and governments and anarchists. Tor, like a road system or a telephone network or many pieces of public infrastructure, is useful to all of these people and more (hence the debate on child pornographers and drug markets), because it’s just such a general architecture of encryption. The FBI may want Tor to be broken, but I promise any spies who are counting on it for mission and life don’t. Once again, math makes the final call — a bug in Tor exposes the US Government users as surely as it does a Silk Road-style site. A “backdoor” could get concealed in code or in the particular implementation of the cryptographic math, but there’s no way it could only be a backdoor for the US Government, and there’s no way anyone using such a flaw could ever know if it was being used by someone else.

There’s an underlying assumption being made by Norton here that deserves being challenged: the idea that the U.S. Government is a monolithic entity, that the bonds of government brotherhood (or even the bonds of practicality) will hold different alphabet soup lettered agencies together. That the FBI wants TOR broken is not speculation, they’ve said as much. That the spies who rely on it don’t want it broken is also a fair assumption.  But what Norton has missed here is that not all spies are necessarily working in lockstep. It’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario where, say, the CIA wants TOR to be functional and rock solid for their own purposes – but the NSA, on the other hand would rather TOR have a back door in it.  We live in a country that has 17 different intelligence agencies; agencies with different budgets, different people running the show, and even from what we lowly peons can see, often different agendas.  And remember: the power that these agencies hold is *staggering* – if you think it’s inconceivable that the NSA would do everything it could to undermine TOR despite the fact that it would weaken it for CIA agents in the field, well I have some beachfront property in Oklahoma to sell you.

Now, all that being said I’m obviously speculating here. For all I know, things stand as Norton has claimed – indeed as someone who’s used TOR extensively in the past, I’d love to believe it does stand this way. But there’s another troubling aspect to this that she fails in her entire post to even mention indirectly: the conduct of the developers behind any given project should be taken into account when that conduct itself is directly counter to their stated aims.

Behind the above board wrangling between various TOR developers and Yasha Levine, something else happened that Norton is certainly aware of, and ought to have mentioned: some of the lead developers of TOR doxxed a critic of theirs. Doxxing, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is stripping someone’s anonymity online by posting up personal information.  It’s a shitty, shitty practice with often life-ruining consequences.  The critic in this case was a twitter user by the name of JBJabroni.  JB was obnoxious in my view, insulting often, and definitely walked a line of misogyny (again in my view – I’m not particularly interested in debating whether it was or not).  But he was also, very very often, putting forth legitimate criticisms.  Those of us who interacted with him on twitter usually characterized him as someone who “connected dots”.  Again, I’m not defending his ‘trolling’ as the TOR devs have labeled it – because it’s frankly irrelevant. [Note: in case it was  unclear from this, I don’t even *provisionally* support doxxing – even if it’s someone I don’t personally agree with.  For more on this particular doxxing, and the absolute viciousness behind it, I’d recommend this excellent piece from @RancidSassy] [Note 2: I’m not going to edit it, since I said it I’ll own it, but several people have pointed out that JB really wasn’t misogynist – and I think I agree.  Sexist, maybe, but not misogynist]

The TOR devs that performed the doxx (and their supporters) 1) unmasked his anonymity and 2) apparently called his place of work and got him fired.

Think about that for a minute.

TOR’s primary purpose is anonymity. It’s devs pride themselves on keeping activists around the world anonymous, protecting them from the repercussions of having unpopular opinions in regards to power, etc. They champion anonymity as a way for this to work, and they say that TOR is their contribution to that.

And they unceremoniously ripped that anonymity away from someone because they didn’t like what they had to say.

What Quinn Norton’s post misses, as it so deftly explains the math behind cryptography, is that as non-technical users we are forced to trust the motives of the people developing the software that *uses* that math.  Yasha Levine’s article was in that vein, even if it was hamfisted in places when it came to the tech – but if that had been the end of it, if the TOR devs had simply said “here’s what we have developed, and here’s our track record of being committed to anonymity” then I’d have very little to say.  But how am I supposed to trust TOR now?  Given the Chinese government’s history of online censorship, would I trust them if they told me that a tool they’d developed would help me avoid censorship?  Like it or not, TOR devs live in a world where most people aren’t as technical as them.  They can say until they’re blue in the face that we can trust the code, trust the math, trust the audits, trust that the project is Open Source – but for the average TOR user, they have to trust the people telling them to trust.

When anonymity activists violate someone’s anonymity… well, trust is thin at that point.

 

Of Bumblefuckery and Bad Apples

So I’m writing this against the context of RancidSassy’s brilliantly done post on the use of ‘agency’ in completely non-left fashion (if you haven’t read his piece yet, stop and do so now, seriously it’s great). And up front, I may be re-treading stuff he’s already said, I just wanted to get a reaction piece up while I was thinking about it.

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I think Sassy has done a great job identifying how this block of people we call the Celeb Left use agency in such a way as to be closer to what we’d expect from the people on the right:

An example of right-wing playing up of agency is when my Fox-watching dad complains, for instance, that black people “know better” and slavery and Jim Crow and the drug war “aren’t an excuse.” It’s The Liberals who are actually racist (by denying agency), not those who think “criminals” (stealing and dealing for sustenance, sabotage against class enemies, expressions of righteous anger are included) are “responsible for their own acts.” In this flavor — the kind most modestly educated people would recognize — this usage loses its humanist luster.

He also nails exactly why this is a problem:

Playing up agency while ignoring structure is associated with the political right. That’s why it’s been surprising to see this tendency among left-identifying figures.

I’ve ranted at length here, and in the past on twitter, about the ignorance (deliberate or otherwise) of structure by liberals/neoliberals/etc. What strikes me though, in reading Sassy’s post, is how this is not just ignoring existing structures (patriarchy, racism, homophobia, etc – structural problems), but an ahistorical erasure of the very mechanisms that built those structures in the first place.

This particular block of Celeb Lefts seems absolutely dead-set on ignoring how we got here in the first place in their dismissal of the possibility of empire being involved in causing whatever situation that they are championing (be it Syria, Ukraine, or wherever). At best we get an implication of “that was then, this is now” from some of them – as if the U.S. has somehow moved beyond its past. Or we get them trumpeting ‘blowback’ theory, again quoting Sassy:

All this “agency” talk leads very cynically into the quaint notion of “blowback.” The idea that “terrorism” exists solely because the US has predictably provoked it, that it has poked at masses of drooling animals and they have responded the only way they know how: extreme, senseless violence and oppression. This ignores that these “savages” nonetheless form focused militancies with specific goals. Yes, the US did “help” create the Islamic State but not in the “oops” way — it literally armed and financed either itself or through proxies organized groups of killers who have acted in ways probably not specifically predicted by the empire but whose actions will certainly benefit it in some way or another once it’s figured out how to profit from them.

The concept of blowback, again, ignores structure; it implies that it’s specific actions, whether short-term or long-term, that result in things like the Islamic State. Often this is coupled by the laughable idea that the Empire is a blundering bumblefuck, stumbling around the world like a drunken fratboy. In this view of the U.S. it is political gaffes, not structures, that lead to things like the Islamic State. In this view of the world, the U.S. is not in fact a coordinated empire fucking over various countries/populations for its own benefit, but an infant learning how to walk and getting bitten when it steps on the dog’s tail.

To quote Sassy again:

The US military and CIA are responsible for millions of casualties, the installation of dictatorships, and the gutting of totally agency-born democratic revolutionary processes throughout this period in one-third of the countries of the planet. That’s not a theory.

The U.S. empire did not simply appear, apropos of nothing. We are not the world power we are through simply stumbling our way through history, making mistakes and occasionally being subverted to bad ends by bad apples doing bad shit. We are structured towards empire. It’s not even that I’m suggesting we are monolithic – I think it’s much more likely that we are a multipolar mass of competing power structures (the various intelligence agencies, branches of government, military, corporations, etc). But the unifying theme for all of these poles is that they are deliberately building structures that move the U.S. (and thus their own) power forward.

Despite the ahistorical bumblefuck theory of empire that the Celeb Left seems to be pushing, where each crisis that arises can be dealt with individually and where hegemony can sometimes be used for good purposes, the reality of U.S. empire is that down to its core it is structured to benefit those in power, and in every and any situation it will do so.

Bad apples, blowback – whatever you want to call it – these are justifications of, and minimize, the true purpose of empire. This is not the Marvel Comics view of the U.S., where evil Hydra has infiltrated and subverted the good superheros of SHIELD for the purposes of world domination.

We are, in fact, Hydra. We always have been.