02 December 2013

Imagine: Religion as Social Reform - Reza Aslan, Iran, and Religious Faith

Reza Aslan


La Paloma, Uruguay
So, the holiday season is upon us. It always sneaks up on me, here in the Southern Hemisphere, where springtime is awakening into summertime. It doesn’t help that I live in a summer resort town, where the bigger issue is the launch of the holiday season that will rain a deluge of beachgoers onto the usually solitary sands of the lovely, if rather windy, shores of La Paloma. Plus, the Catholicism that infuses Latin American culture is not nearly as ubiquitous in Uruguay, and this country’s clearly defined separation of church and state also tempers the Christmas holiday atmosphere. Besides, not since childhood has Christmas been a holiday that I can get into, anyway, given my distain for the crass commercialization and hyper-consumerism that surrounds it in the States. Well, that, plus I am an atheist who feels a bit hypocritical celebrating something I don’t believe in, although I can did the idea of celebrating family togetherness and the joy that so many other people get out of the whole thing for their own sakes. Oh, but there’s so much more emotional baggage involved in my attitude toward Christmastime, including memories of that one really difficult Christmas that preceded my mother’s death from breast cancer by about a month, all those years ago...

The good news is that I find myself in a delightful, almost blissful spirit this year. I am not a person who can ignore what goes on in the world around me, in the belief that it is ignorance will deliver bliss, or something like that, and I care deeply about the fate of people near and far. I am a hopeful person, who believes in the mission of the United Nations to bring countries together to work out their differences in peaceful ways rather than through violence, and that, if the people of the world really want it and our minds are really set to it, the system can be tweaked and improved to function better than it does right now. I look back through history at all of the wars and conflicts and am uplifted by what has happened afterwards, when societies come back together, rebuild trust, forge new relationships, and move forward with the human project of civilization. So at this moment in time, my heart is overflowing with joy that relations between the United States and Iran have opened back up, after so much bad history. This is an immensely huge deal, such a positive change in the geopolitical landscape... and then there is the pope – WAP! (What A Pope!)

What’s more, I have had something of an epiphany recently, an amazing, important realization about the nature of religion and its role in culture, politics, and conflict – and it’s all Reza Aslan’s fault.

The fantabulous Reza Aslan

When he made the rounds to publicize his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Fox “News” provided the author with far more exposure than his publicist could have ever organized when the video of the show’s host spending the whole “interview” absurdly lambasting him – a religious scholar – for being unqualified to write a book about Jesus because he is a Muslim went viral (Mother Jones’ coverage of Aslan’s Fox “News” “interview"  provides some good context.)

It turns out that, if you give the guy a chance to get a word in, he has some very interesting things to say. It was his debate with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Letter to a Christian Nation (the debate is available from the Mother Jones article) that really piqued my interest. Aslan’s weaving of the threads of history, religion, culture, and identity into a vision of a multifaceted social fabric that is worthy of the complex and confounding world that we live in today was so elegant and sophisticated that Harris may as well have been a Fox “News” personality, as he was arguing on a level that doesn’t even come close to where Aslan’s head is at. God knows I love atheists like George Carlin, Bill Maher, and Christopher Hitchens, but it always bothers me when they belittle all theists as being insanely delusional or plumb stupid for their belief in a deity because I think there is much more to religious faith than reason, alone, can get at – not that I get it. But Reza Aslan has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why religious belief is valid, without having any need for concern about veracity. What he is saying – that religions are inseparable from their social contexts, and that conflicts that may seem to be about religion because they are talked about in religious language, the language that holds the most currency, are actually about economic, political, cultural, national, historical, and/or religious issues that are all wrapped up in the concept of identity – really appeals to my fascination with the vast complexity of the human experience.

So I devoured Aslan’s intriguing book about how the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth was transformed into the religious figure of Jesus Christ. Then I consumed his book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. And now I feel like I understand a whole hell-of-a-lot better not only what Christianity and Islam are all about, but also the bigger historical picture underlying the major events occurring from North Africa to Southeast Asia that are reshaping the world today.

I haven’t been this enthused about any religion since I was mesmerized by Zoroastrianism that one summer when the concepts that I wrote about in my own book No Stranger To Strange Lands: A Journey Through Strange Coincidences, Connective Thoughts, And Far Flung Places were beginning to crystallize within my being. But how did I become fascinated with Zoroastrianism, you ask? It was because I was obsessed with the possibility that Dick Cheney and his cohorts, abusing their power like that very same crowd of war hawks did during the Reagan administration, were seriously considering an attack on Iran, and I wanted learn about this country beyond the single-dimensional narrative of radicalism and hatred that was engraved upon the psyche of our nation by nightly images of angry, dark-eyed men holding blindfolded hostages and burning US flags during the 1980s.

A very abbreviated history of Iran

With a history stretching back to about 2800 BC, when the Elamite kingdom began forming on the Iranian Plateau east of the Mesopotamia, there is, indeed, much to learn about the home of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. Ancient Iran produced not only the proto-monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism, but also the heroic Cyrus the Great, who, in 538 BC, freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity – and they weren't the only ones delivered from bondage, as the King of Kings, revered for establishing the foundations of good governance, freed all slaves, repatriated all displaced peoples, and allowed the restoration of destroyed temples and sanctuaries, codifying racial and religious freedom in the Cyrus Cylinder, one of the world’s oldest charters of human rights.

Before the 7th-century Muslim conquest, there had been a series of Iranian empires – the unifying Median, Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid, the Hellenistic Seleucid, the Parthian feudal monarchy, and the powerful Persian Sasanian – whose legacy as technologically advanced, culturally vibrant, socially diverse, politically sophisticated models of administration and rulership hugely impacted Central Asia and strongly influenced the development of human civilization from Europe to China.

After the Muslim conquest, under the elite Arab rulership of the Rashidun and Ummayad caliphates, Iran was gradually Islamized, but a renaissance of Persian culture and influence under the Abbasids seeded the Medieval “Islamic Golden Age” of art, science, and philosophy, and after two centuries of Arab rule, the Persians eventually regained self-rule.

In 1219, Genghis Khan’s army invaded, but the Mongol rulers ended up adapting Persian culture several generations down the line. Iran became a monarchical theocracy in 1501, when Ismail I established the Safavid Dynasty and instigated forced conversion to the new state religion of Shi‘ah Islam.

After the rise and fall of the Safavid Dynasty, the 18th and 19th centuries were marked by regional and civil war. The modern period then found Iran in the crosshairs of British and Russian colonization, followed by Cold War manipulation by the United States. Today’s Islamic Republic of Iran is a product of the 1978 coup d’état that overthrew the US-installed and supported anticommunist, secular, autocratic monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, with the radically theocratic Ayatollah Khomeini being swept into power and setting himself up as the Supreme Leader.

Religion as social reform

Iran’s intriguing Zoroastrianism was founded upon the writings and teachings of Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, who lived sometime during the first half of the second millennium, BC. Zarathustra was, fundamentally, a social reformer. Seeing the Bronze Age polytheist religion he was immersed in as over-ritualized and supporting an oppressive class structure, war, and strife, Zarathustra sought to place spirituality into the hands of individuals. He preached the importance of personal responsibility, truthfulness, and caring about the well-being of others and the environment, all nicely summed up by the creed, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” According to his divine revelation, he promoted the God of Wisdom to the status of Creator and Supreme Being, represented by the light of fire and the sun. The essence of goodness, everything that Zarathustra’s Supreme Being had created was pure, to be treated with love and respect. The other gods also lingered, though, representing falsehood, darkness and destruction; thus spoke Zarathustra of the twin spirits of Truth and Falsehood, leaving people with the freedom of choice between the two, with prayer being simply the invocation and celebration of truth, goodness, and purity.

Reza Aslan highlights the historical importance of Zoroastroism in No god but God:

“More than a thousand years before Christ, Zarathustra preached the existence of a heaven and a hell, the idea of a bodily resurrection, the promise of a universal savior who would one day be miraculously born to a young maiden, and the expectation of a final cosmic battle that would take place at the end of time between the angelic forces of good and the demonic forces of evil.”

By the time an Arab named Muhammad was working for his uncle as a merchant in the pluralistic sanctuary of Mecca, home of the universal shrine called the Ka‘ba, around the beginning of the 7th century, Aslan explains, “Zarathustra’s primitive monotheism had transformed into a firmly dualistic system in which the two primordial spirits became two deities locked in an eternal battle for the souls of humanity: Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda), the God of Light, and Ahriman, the God of Darkness and the archetype of the Christian concept of Satan.”

Just as the ancient Persian dynasties set the precedence for good governance that would influence civilizations across three continents for millennium to come, Zoroastrianism laid the foundation for the world’s great monotheist religions that were born out of this potent region, this cradle of prophets. And like Zarathustra, both Jesus of Nazareth and Muhammad of Mecca were also fundamentally social reformers. 

Aslan defines Jesus as “the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost.” By “Kingdom of God,” according to Aslan, Jesus was talking about “a radically new world order wherein the meek inherit the earth, the sick are healed, the weak become strong, the hungry are fed, and the poor are made rich.” But this Kingdom of God “is not some utopian fantasy wherein God vindicates the poor and the dispossessed. It is a chilling new reality in which God’s wrath rains down upon the rich, the strong, and the powerful.” This Jesus of Nazareth fellow, Aslan explains, was no hippie peacenik, as teachings such as “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek” were spoken by a Jewish man to a Jewish audience in the tradition of Jewish moral codes that applied only within the Jewish community. The establishment of Jesus’ Kingdom of God on earth would, no doubt, be a violent revolution.

Some six hundred years after Jesus’ Kingdom of God had been transformed into an ethereal celestial kingdom and after his gospel had transformed from a call for Jews to rise up in revolt against the current order into a wholly new, universal spiritual calling, another righteous reformer appeared – with mission very similar to that of the historical Jesus of Nazareth:

“When fifteen centuries ago Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society.”

Religion as myth

In No god but God, Aslan writes, “It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to a religion and its mythology is ‘What do these stories mean?’”

And therein, my friend, lies the crux of the matter of religion.

Myths are like art, which Pablo Picasso referred to as a lie in service of the truth, and like literary fiction that illuminates reality in ways that the truth cannot, reaching deeper truths than facts can get at. Myths are vivid stories encoded with symbols that represent a shared cultural identity and pass along information – about people and places, about knowledge, about ethics, about aesthetics – in a way that will be internalized and then passed on to future generations. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell’s amazing conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell puts forward that myths provide perspective on what’s happening in our lives. He says that, because what we are seeking in religion and spirituality is not the meaning of life, but rather, to “feel the rapture of being alive,” myths serve as “clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”

Religion, itself, Aslan says, is a story. Religion isn’t defined as faith. Rather, it is the story of faith, concerning a sacred history that is “like a hallowed tree whose roots dig deep into primordial time and whose branches weave in and out of genuine history with little concern for the boundaries of space and time.”

Thus, prophets can be understood as mythical characters whose truths lie in their encounter with the Divine – outside the realm of facts. So true believers may have full faith that their prophets were conduits of the “Word of God,” with the understanding that their messages have been interpreted, first by the prophets to speak to a specific group of people at a specific time and place, sometimes dealing with a very specific situation (Muhammad’s words about the veil, for instance), then by their disciples to speak to different audiences at different times and places and contexts, and they will continue to be interpreted by many others through time.

Sacred traditions, according to Aslan, become religious institutions when their myths become orthodox and their rituals become orthoprax. Christianity is an orthodoxic religion because it is based on profession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, while Judaism is orthopraxic, as it is primarily expressed through the practice of its laws. Islam, too, Aslan characterizes as orthopraxic, particularly Sunni Islam. He is careful to define orthodoxy as “the correct interpretation of myths” rather than using the more common definition of “established doctrine,” and orthopraxy as “the correct interpretation of rituals,” emphasizing the key fact that myths and rituals originate from human experience.

In fact, by definition, Aslan states, religion is simply interpretation – that is, it is dependent on its social context – and interpretations are always valid. The thing is, some interpretations are more reasonable than others. It is the religious scholar’s job to compare a religion’s myths with the environment from which they arose to form a reasonable interpretation of how that religion was born, grew, diversified through the ages, and is now interpreted by people in diverse societies.

Interpretation of Islam

In the case of Islam, a reasonable interpretation looks at 7th-century tribal Arabia, then traces the gradual transformation of what Aslan refers to as Muhammad’s “revolutionary message of moral accountability and social egalitarianism” into the competing ideologies that created a widening rift between the mainstream Sunni Islam and Shi‘ism, the largest sect in Islam, as well as Sufism, the mystical traditions of Islam.

To understand Islam, one has to begin by learning about the story of Muhammad’s life, taking into account the environment that he arose from. Muhammad’s great triumph was the creation of a new kind of tribe, a radically new social organization that was based not on ethnicity or race or kinship, but on a common social and religious identity. The communalism of Bedouin tribalism persisted, where the leadership was charged with caring for the well-being of every member of the tribe, but Muhammad eliminated class structure, instituted broad egalitarian reforms – including for women – introduced laws based on moral principles rather than simply on utilitarian principles, and predicated leadership on religious authority (a concept drawn from ancient tribal Judaism).

The Fatimid Zulfiqaar
(image via Wikipedia)
As Aslan explains, Shi‘ism has an orthodoxic nature that is absent from Sunni Islam, as this sect is based on rituals surrounding the myth of the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad who died at the hands of the Umayyads at Karbala fighting for the right of the descendants of the prophet to lead the Muslim community. The Shi‘ah believe that these descendants were chosen by God and endowed with the living spirit of the prophet. Similarly, Shi‘ites believe that certain divinely inspired people, the Imams, have been chosen by God to lead the Muslim community. That the schism occurred so soon after the death of Muhammad is not at all unique or surprising, as chaos often ensues among the generations immediately following great personages in history. The story of the period immediately following Jesus’ time on earth is the same; in fact, the schism among his Jewish community was so great that a new religion was born out of rapidly evolving interpretations of why Jesus died and what the myth of his rising from the tomb means.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Muslim community was forced to rethink the role of faith in a rapidly changing world, responding to colonialism with some pushing to develop “Islamic alternatives to Western secular notions of democracy,” while others completely rejected Western cultural concepts and pushed for the Islamization of every aspect of society. And here, Aslan offers an interesting insight into the socio-political events that are reshaping the Muslim world today, when he states that “at the center of the debate over Islam and democracy is a far more significant internal struggle over who gets to define the Islamic Reformation that is already under way in most of the Muslim world.”

This is interesting because equating today’s Muslim struggles – between movements such as the pan-Islamists, pan-Arabists, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic socialists, radical Islamists, and Wahhabists in situations such as destabilized Afghanistan and Iraq, the Arab Spring of North Africa, and the civil war in Syria – to the Protestant Reformation highlights the colossal scale of the process involved in coming to consensus on how diverse peoples can meaningfully interpret the myths and rituals of Islam, a religion that is centered around building communities, in today’s world. Aslan makes clear that, rather than being at the center of the Muslim struggle, as we in the West may perceive it to be, tensions with the West actually stand on the periphery of the internal struggle for control of the future of Islam.

What Reza Aslan is doing is not only interesting but very, very important. Understanding religion in the way that Aslan perceives it is an exercise in peace-building. Acknowledging religion as the story of faith, and encouraging the reading of scripture – by those within the religion as well as those outside of it – in the poetic, allegorical, cultural, and historical contexts that produced them brings reason and validity to the ineffable experience of faith. His message is uplifting in its celebration of religion as a connective force and its rejection of the idea that religion is the cause of any more conflict and strife than nationalism, political dogma, or the struggle for power.

Uninformed Westerners might take note of the fact that Muslims are far more familiar with the Torah and the Bible than Jews and Christians are familiar with the Quran because Islam’s sacred history encompasses those of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Muslims don’t consider their religion to be separate from Judaism and Christianity. Rather, it is a continuation of its predecessors, known as “the religion of Abraham.” Allah is not a separate god, just a different word for YHVH, Yahweh, Jehovah, Theós, God, Gott, Dieu, Dios, etc, etc. The Islamic prophets include Muhammad as well as Jesus, David, and Moses, and Islamic holy books include the Gospel, Psalms, and Torah along with the Quran – it’s just that Islam interprets them differently and has faith that Muhammad is the ultimate prophet.

Of course, throughout human history, people have regularly demonize others who are perceived as a threat to their identities or well-beings, and this is true of religious factions as well as of political factions, tribes, societies, nations, and entire regions of the world. And it can’t be denied that extremists exist in every conceivable form of ideology. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are dangerous Islamic extremist groups, women are treated horrendously in some cultures, and there will be groups of Muslims who will riot any time someone provokes them by desecrating the Quran or drawing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. But there is a massive perception problem in assuming that these groups characterize the entire Muslim community.

First of all, as the title of this article from the Pew Research Center, “World’s Muslim population more widespread than you might think” reveals, people in the West, especially in the United States, associate Islam with the Middle East and North Africa, whereas the reality is that nearly two-thirds of world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, alone, is home to 209 million Muslim souls, and another 176 million or so live in India.

Then there is this report on Muslim views of extremist groups from September 2013, which shows that, rather than being anything close to the norm or even acceptable, al-Qaeda is “widely reviled.” And about women’s rights, here’s a generalization-busting fun fact: Women won the right to vote in the Muslim country of Azerbaijan in 1908, two years before women in the United States were enfranchised. Finally, this article titled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society” has a lot to teach us, showing just how differently Muslims around the world interpret their religious scriptures and traditions.

Iran today

Iran is often described as a theocratic republic, as it has an elected president and representatives but its constitution places the real power in the hands of the religious clerics, with the Supreme Leader sitting pretty at the top of the heap. He gets to appoint people to many powerful institutions, including the armed forces, the national security councils, the state television network, and major religious foundations in addition to having final say in all matters.

Hassan Rouhani
official photo
Yet the will of the people still matters, and the more moderate politicians and clerics there are in the government, the less autocracy will be tolerated. The election of Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 has already proven to be a major victory for moderation and diplomacy. The Iranians deeply appreciate their prominent place the geography and history of the world, and the opening up of relations between President Rouhani and President Obama constitutes a widening of Iranian influence, which, historically, has been a beautiful thing.

What we in the West can do is to partake in the peace-building exercise by making an effort to understand the complex context of what is happening and support the people of Iran and this movement toward moderation, encouraging the injection of reason into the way that the Iranians and, for that matter, anyone else interprets their religion instead of roundly rejecting – as I have been guilty of doing for many years – the whole idea that organized religion can play a positive role in the modern world. Religion, for better or for worse, is not going away any time soon, so imagining peace is going to require us to imagine something other than no religion. People of all colors and creeds can identify with the power of mythical stories to resonate across space and time and contexts, to speak to the universal human experience. Indeed, this is what imbibes them with their awesome spiritual power, and our spirituality is what connects us as human beings.

For more on this topic, see: Iran Nuclear Deal as Geopolitical Global Warming, my article for SpeakOut at TruthOut.org

08 September 2013

From "I have a dream" to "I will seek authorization for the use of force"

From "I have a dream" to "I will seek authorization for the use of force," the final week of August 2013 was an intense one.

"I have a dream"

We had the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington reminding us of how far our nation has and hasn't come in achieving race equality, putting us in a self-reflective mood and highlighting the conflict between those who climbed up and, as a part of the establishment, are now standing on the shoulders of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroic civil rights advocates versus those who see such leaders as sellouts rather than as examples of the movement's successes.

Fifty years is not much time, in the grand scope of things; yet, because of the increasingly accelerated speed of change in modern society, it constitutes a huge generational gap in which the synergy of King's life and work has become subtly diluted.

The untimely death of Martin Luther King Jr. – he was just 39 when he was assassinated – marked the end of an era of major advancements for blacks in the United States. Although the movement had been gaining steam well before King, a fresh, new face among the clergy in Montgomery, Alabama, was asked by activists to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 when other clergy were afraid to expand the spiritual and moral missions of the church to the broader social issues of racism and injustice, his personal magnetism along with his skills as an orator and wielder of the power of nonviolent direct action  launched him to the forefront of a movement whose moment had arrived.

After his death, the pace of racial social change switched gears, shifting into a slow progress of everyday integration through social experiments like desegregation busing and affirmative action quotas for the next twenty years. Angela Glover Blackwell reminds us that black people, half a century ago, were "the face of discrimination." In the two decades after King's death, the nation's nonwhite minority diversified and grew as urban situations changed, until a tipping point was reached and the tide was turned. On a growing swell of resentment and fear of loss of status and culture, public support for mandatory integration programs began to fizzle out. They were reactions to the gains that had been made that allowed many blacks to join the middle class and a few to join the wealthy and influential.

Defending the dream

Three decades after the turning of the tide, we have come to another tipping point, when the nation's black and brown youths are reinvigorating the "fierce urgency of now" that King had elucidated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago. The leaders of the Dream Defenders began their social activism on college campuses in Florida in 2006, outraged that 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson had been beaten to death at a Florida boot camp. Their 33-hour sit-in of Governor Jeb Bush's office helped bring national attention to Tallahassee and to force the resignation of the state's top cop. It was these same activists who, in April 2012, insisted that Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of George Zimmerman would not be just another statistic of a black youth's life being preempted in the name of safety and security. They saw the Trayvon Martin case as more than a source of reactionary outrage; it was a wakeup call to take the long view, to look beyond the results of a single trial among so many similarly unjust trials and build a movement focused on pushing for racial progress and righting the systematic inequalities that plague so many communities in the United States today.

These activists are building an expanding network of social activism in defense of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, in defense of undocumented immigrants' dream, in defense of all dreamers who know they are not the only ones.

Once again in Tallahassee, they have been fighting for the repeal of Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which, in its wildly uneven implementation, tends to be a sorry excuse for racism. But their mission is far greater than that. They recognize the crisis of the moment:
Across the country we find our communities trapped in a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and depression.
They feel the weight of a society that not only criminalizes, to a staggering degree, dark-skinned youths, but also profits from this criminalization through the "private prison menace." And as they have made clear in their #OurMarch campaign, they understand, as did Martin Luther King Jr., the connection between racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.

This is the new generation of social justice leaders. They are the real deal – not just diminutive "youth" activists. They are savvy in the use of social media, and they are powerful communicators. They are inspiring in their passion. They are contagious. They are "dreamers, fighters, lovers, defenders, builders bubbling, bubbling, bubbling beneath the rubble." They are ready to change the world. And by taking the long view, they are making a connection that is vital to building a movement that will be successful at producing real social change, the connection between the individual and the universal.

Spiritual connection

The central point of my essay Honoring the Truth of Martin Luther King's Life is that King was eliciting this connection when he said, "I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," and he found in this connection a source of strength and joy.

It is a spiritual connection with metaphysical forces that are greater than the self. It is a connection to a flowing current of positive energy, of moral imperative, of universal love, which sparks the synergy that elevates the various aspects of an engaged individual's life to a level of greatness that exceeds the sum of its parts. This spiritual connection with this magnificent energy, this essence of the processes of nature and the flow of humanity,  transcends religion, and the power that comes from sensing one's connection with the grander schemes of the universe manifests itself in the charisma, persuasiveness, and fearlessness that people like Martin Luther King Jr. are able to apply toward positive social change.

Historical consciousness

But Martin Luther King Jr. possessed something else, as well: historical consciousness. As his eloquent Letter from Birmingham Jail reveals, it was King's vast knowledge of social and religious history that informed his understanding of the "urgency of now." His keen awareness of the arc of history allowed him to tie the actions taken in the present with the progression of humanity, through the tireless efforts of social activists, toward the ideals of Justice, Beauty, and Truth.

What motivated me to write my article about honoring King's life was a disconcerting cynicism – cynicism that had crept into the celebration of the March on Washington, cynicism that would bend the meaning of King's uplifting words and disrespect his legacy by making assumptions as to what he would and wouldn't do today, cynicism that is in direct contradiction to what his life was all about. Martin Luther King Jr. was not a fear monger and he was not a cynic. Rather, he spread fearlessness and faith in people's ability to create a better future.

King preached the gospel of nonviolent resistance that requires courage and the willingness to suffer, seeks reconciliation rather than defeat of an adversary, eliminates evil rather than destroying the evildoer, rejects hatred, animosity, and violence – both spiritual and physical – and most importantly, necessitates faith that justice will, in the long run, prevail.

His conception of nonviolent social action is that it should be used to create tension and confrontation that opens the door to negotiation when it has been denied.

His philosophy is greatly influenced by Paul Tillich's idea that separation is sin and unity is grace.

Standing on this deeply spiritual and philosophical foundation, King was at once principled and pragmatic, always treating his adversaries with respect and making compromises in order to reach higher goals.

In securing major gains such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King counted among his allies both JFK, who had directed the CIA to attempt the assassinations of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and LBJ, who escalated the Vietnam War. In his focus on improving the lives of blacks in the United States, King never confronted them on other issues such as these. It was not until 1967, four years after the March on Washington, that he finally expanded the scope of his fight for social justice in his speech, Beyond Vietnam, doing so at the cost of support from many of his white allies, including LBJ. He could no longer hold his silence on Vietnam, he said. He had come to see the connection between racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, he realized, was part of a worldwide revolutionary movement, but
...because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries.
The West, he was saying, was preventing social justice causes from moving forward in countries across the globe by subjugating the world's poorest under the dark shadows of dictatorial regimes as well as corroding the values of the wealthier societies that were out to protect their own capitalist commerce.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," King had said about racism in Birmingham, Alabama. His leap into the antiwar movement was an expansion of this philosophy that was globalist and socialist in nature. Therefore, using King's opposition to the Vietnam War to back up libertarian small-government and isolationist antiwar sentiments is in direct contradiction with what the man's life was all about.

So, it is with great consternation that I observe some among the younger generations of social justice activists twisting Martin Luther King Jr.'s words toward anger at this nation's president and other black leaders who are standing on the foundation laid by activists who came before them. It pains me to see the divisiveness between people who, according to King's teachings, should reject anger and refrain from the use of vitriolic or demeaning language. Although some prominent figures have claimed that he would have been banned from the celebration for insisting on speaking out against Obama's use of drones, the truth is that nobody could possibly know what Martin Luther King Jr. would have done to help celebrate the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. After all, the original, too, had been limited in its scope and tone, due to pressure from the Kennedy administration, with criticism of the federal government being set aside, and King might very well have acted in this same spirit.

"I will seek authorization for the use of force"

Then there is the second-guessing the president. Probably the greatest irony of Obama's presidency has been the fact that, in the so-called information age, when one would think that knowledge would set us all free and people would become smarter because of it, what David Corn from Mother Jones Magazine calls "that trademarked Obama nuance-ism that blends pragmatism and principle in a manner that hardly lends itself to crystal-clear messaging" only encourages confirmation bias to take wild speculation further toward the fringes of lunacy.

From assumptions that President Obama is acting on behalf of the Israelis to accusations that he orchestrated the chemical weapons attack in Syria as a false flag operation to bring on US military intervention because of a gas pipeline, the supposed reasons for the president's push for military action in Syria are widely conspiratorial while it seems that those who believe that his intentions are, as he says, to enforce the international norm banning the use of chemical weapons are in the minority. The fact that the president decided to seek authorization from Congress for the use of force doesn't appear to have much of an effect on the fear mongers and haters of everything about President Obama.

When I heard the president speak those nine astounding words on 31 August, I couldn't have been more proud of him. The implications of this surprise decision to hand power from the executive branch to the legislature are enormous. As David Corn's source, a former Obama administration official, concludes, the only answer to why the president did this that makes any sense is that he did it because he believes that it's the right thing to do to strengthen our democracy.

Opposition for the right reasons

While in support of the desire to take action against the Assad regime for the unconscionable act of unleashing chemical weapons on innocent human beings and citizens of his own country, I was conflicted and didn't come to a coherent position on military action in Syria until Obama encouraged a national conversation with the decision to defer to Congress. After briefly toying with the idea that Obama, knowing full well that he could not win over Congress, was really just fulfilling his role as commander in chief of the world's most powerful military and projecting signals of strength without actually intending to attack, I rejected the idea, sensing that the push to gain authorization for a military strike was authentic.

Then, remembering how regretful I was after supporting Obama in his decision to go with the troop surge in Afghanistan back in 2009 instead of drawing down, and, having to accept the fact that I was coming down on the same side of this argument as vicious civil libertarians whipped into a frenzy by Glenn Greenwald's irresponsible reporting on Snowden's NSA leaks and Tea Party obstructionists who see Obama as the enemy of Freedom, I came to my senses and decided that the United States should be pursuing viable alternatives to military strikes, instead.

My greatest concern is that opposition to the Obama administration's military action be for the right reasons, and denying Obama the moral authority on the basis of this nation's past actions or even on the basis of his own less-than-exemplary record is not right. When an actor is doing something in good faith, regardless of other failings they may have, it is called "progress," not "hypocrisy," as the latter only applies when someone criticizes another of doing something that they, themselves also do.

I am arguing that President Obama does have the moral authority to take some punitive action, and more importantly, to prevent the Syrian army and other actors from being emboldened by inaction to use chemical weapons in the future. The authorization by both the US Congress and the UN Security Council would provide legitimacy for military strikes, but that does not mean that it is the right way to go about achieving the purported goals – and that is the only truly durable foundation for opposition to military action.

Another objection that has been put forward is that Obama lacks the moral authority to launch a military strike against Assad. But I reject this argument because no person and no nation is absolutely moral in every regard, nor can any person or nation be expected to be – so the issue of moral authority needs to be applied narrowly, in the specific area of concern.

In this case, Assad's army is accused, backed by much more reliable intelligence, this time around, of unleashing the chemical weapon sarin, a type of nerve gas, on its own people. Of course, it is true that the United States has its own deplorable record of crimes against humanity, and the Obama administration has continued to indulge in several very controversial programs, such as the manufacture, use, and/or sale of land mines, cluster munitions, and targeted drone killings. However, the United States does not currently use chemical weapons, according to international treaties to which it is a signatory, and the issue here is the use of chemical weapons, which have been recognized since as far back as the 1675 Strasbourg Agreement between France and the Holy Roman Empire, followed by 11 more multiparty treaties, as something that should be banned from military use. Whereas other munitions can be argued to have legitimate limited military utility, chemical weapons simply step over the line – that "red line" that Obama was referring to.

Alternatives to military options

So the strongest progressive argument against military strikes is one based on their ineffectiveness, and progressives must also present alternative courses of action rather than retreating to inaction. The most ethical thing for the United States to do is to be engaged in international efforts to bring about a solution to the crisis in Syria.

In her powerful piece on alternatives to military strikes, Sarah van Gelder explains why, instead of seeking congressional approval for military action, Obama should be pursuing peaceful solutions:

By applying the rule of law through existing international institutions, we can work to isolate the wrongdoers on all sides of the conflict in Syria from their bases of support around the world. We can support those in Syria working for peaceful change and offer humanitarian assistance. And we will move beyond the limitations of responding to lawbreaking with violence.
MLK and redemption

To emphasize the point about narrowing of the application of moral authority, let me use Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. He pushed for racial justice, making connections to other issues that are intertwined with it and, through the years, expanding the scope of his focus. His is a moral argument for justice; yet some question his moral authority because he was a womanizer, a philanderer, and he often plagiarized other people's work and ideas.

Although the social context of King's failings – that his wife supported him, even in the knowledge of his philandering, and that his plagiarism was not a clear-cut case of knowingly committing an academic crime – may be mitigating factors, I believe it is wrong to apply those moral failings, to whatever the degree, to the entirety of the man's life and work, as they don't in any way diminish King's moral authority in the area of social justice.


The moral of this story is to judge not too broadly. King was not the first to teach the principle of hating not the sinner but the sin. By loving those whose actions and ideas we wish to change, we leave open the possibility of redemption, without which there can be no social progress at all.

11 July 2013

Eward Snowden Strange Love Or: How I Haven't Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bumb

This Snowden NSA leak saga is doing strange things to me.

For starters, it has me obsessed. This real-time spy thriller has me scanning through the Internets, searching for the latest news and looking for any and all information about this snowy-white computer whiz kid that I can dig up. I want to know everything.

Freedom of information

I want to know more details about Snowden's life, like when he switched from believing that whistle blowers were traitors to believing that they are heroes.

I want to know the details of his military service, along with what Snowden's opinion might be about the fact that the US Army is declining to release his records. Would he condemn the government's refusal to reveal the truth, or would he applaud the government's respect for his right to privacy?

I want to know why the initial sensational reports by both The Guardian and The Washington Post about the PRISM Internet surveillance program had gotten the details of the NSA's access to information wrong, erring, of course, on the side of sensationalism.

I want to know the reasons behind The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and The Post's Barton Gellman feud over which journalist Snowden contacted first.

I want to know more about this Snowden claim: "Any analyst at any time can target anyone, any selector, anywhere. Where those communications will be picked up depends on the range of the sensor networks and the authorities that analyst is empowered with. Not all analysts have the ability to target everything. But I sitting at my desk certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a Federal judge to even the President if I had a personal e-mail."

I want to know all of Snowden's motives for revealing the information he revealed, why he chose the information he chose, and why he decided to present the information in the way he did. According to The Guardian, he began thinking about exposing government secrets while working for the CIA in Geneva, beginning in 2007, but decided that the CIA's secrets were not the right secrets to reveal: "Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn't feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone." Does this mean that, rather than focusing on the work he was assigned to do, he spent his post-CIA career seeking out better secrets and figuring out ways to steal them? So far, Snowden has not given a straightforward answer when asked about this.

I want to know why, also according to The Guardian, he regards himself not as having committed a crime, but rather, as "the person exposing alleged criminality on the part of the Obama administration." None of the leaked documents point to the Obama administration having committed criminal acts, while clearly, Snowden committed the crimes of theft and conversion of government property according to the laws that are in place – more on this to come.

I really want to know how he could remain so invisible in the transit lounge at that Moscow airport, which has been crawling with reporters scanning the airport bars, overpriced restaurants, and reportedly huge duty-free shop for a glimpse of the ex-spook for over two weeks.

Knowing all of this stuff might just help me feel more like his exposure of a secret program that gathers massive amounts of metadata on citizens of the world, probably in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, in the case of domestic spying, was truly the act of a citizen who was concerned about the legality and ethics of the NSA's and other clandestine programs and less like he did it because he is a true believer in the philosophy that the executive branch – or perhaps just President Obama – holds too much power and that we have all become slaves to state tyranny.

Inertia

Obviously, the surveillance programs need to be brought under better oversight, with more transparency than what exists right now, and I am glad that the domestic spying was unveiled so that champions like Senator Bernie Sanders (I, VT) along with Senators Mark Udall (D, CO) and Ron Wydn (D, OR), who have been sounding the alarm and demanding answers for years, can finally make some progress in reforming the system. The surveillance industry, like the prison industry and the military-industrial complex, is anti-democratic and ripe for abuse. These are massive, widespread, institutionalized programs that are run by career experts, outliving individual politicians and requiring long-term planning that functions to enhance their progress and resistance to change while they remain hidden behind a wall of secretive "necessity." They are so massive and so entrenched that to alter their inertia is a Herculean task. Because of all of this, extraordinary measures must be taken to prevent their abuse and to make sure that reform is possible. And for this reason, Edward Snowden deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the secret surveillance program into the light of public attention.

The oneness of means and ends

My biggest concern about Snowden's revelations is borne out in the comment section of any article by any journalist who is doing their job, which is to investigate the story and ask questions instead of just accepting things at face value. These journalists are routinely accused of trying to sideline the story about the extent of government hacking because they, themselves, must be government-paid hacks, as are any commenters who dare to ask relevant questions. Edward Snowden claims that all he really wanted was to start a discussion, but what kind of discussion can there be when his supporters, who range from privacy advocates and free-press protectors to libertarians, conspiracy theorists, social conservatives, are unwilling to discuss valid criticisms of the leaker, the process, or the outcome of the leaks beyond the fact that they unveiled a surveillance program that is in need of reform?

As I argued in my article on Snowden at Truthout.org, the character, actions, and motivations of Edward Snowden and other actors such as Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange are as integral to the story as the information being leaked is. These aspects cannot be separated from the entirety of the situation. The means to an outcome are not separate from the outcome. To the contrary, they shape and color the outcome in ways that the actors do not foresee, and this has certainly proven to be the case here, where the outcome of leaking top-secret information with such major implications has led to a surreal drama that includes pitting journalists and even entire global regions sniping at each other – not exactly a path to increased peace and freedom in the world.

Fundamentalism and Big Brother alarmism

Now, I have done my share of angrily bloviating about the danger of secrecy to democracy. Something else strange that this story is doing to me is making me defend the surveillance state against Snowden's leak, seemingly contradicting my own strongly held beliefs and values. It troubles me greatly that I would come to disagree with such heroes of mine as Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Goodman, Naomi Klein, and many others about this issue, leading me to believe that I might be on the wrong track, that I might decide that I am wrong to feel the way I presently do. After all, I was deeply ashamed for having attempted to rationalize Obama's decision to enact the military surge in Afghanistan back in 2009 – although I would like to think that I learned from my mistake. In this Snowden case, I have longed to find a position that reconciles my feelings of discomfort with what Snowden is doing with my principles concerning the corrosive effects of secrecy on democracy. So after a great deal of hand-wringing and parsing out the issues, I have come to the conclusion that this is about secrecy fundamentalism, and that this fundamentalism, tied to his disdain for the federal government of the United States that is so prevalent among libertarians, has shaped Snowden into a misguided zealot whose choices are not in the best interest of addressing the problem he is trying to solve.

My realization that fundamentalism can be applied to concepts beyond religion came in regard to freedom of speech, when I developed the argument that the free-speech fundamentalism that exists in the United States means that Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are free to purposely incite fundamentalist Muslims to violence and conflict in order to fulfill a prophecy, while placing some limits on such dangerous speech is a valid way to promote peace and democracy.

Fundamentalism, the strict interpretation and adherence to a principle or ideology, is incapable of critical self-examination or adjustment to changing social values and situations. It is unsophisticated and anti-progressive, and in its reductionism, it poses a great danger when applied to complex subjects. State secrecy, I would argue, is a complex subject, and freaking out over the Orwellian nature of government surveillance results from an exaggeration of reality that is comparable to homophobic fears about the slippery slide to bestiality and the downfall of civilization. After all, in Bernie Sanders' interview with Chris Hayes, he didn't advocate for getting rid of all surveillance programs. Rather, he specified Section 215 of the Patriot Act and said that Congress needs to narrow its scope. He also raised concerns about information gathering by private companies and warned of an Orwellian future, meaning that he doesn't think it is so just yet. Bernie Sanders is probably the most principled man in the US Congress today, thanks to being independent from both political parties, but he exhibits his progressive bonifides by consistently showing that he is capable of moderating his positions when the process of passing legislation calls for it, such as when it came to passing the landmark Affordable Care Act in 2010. This is a concept that Tea Party conservatives just don't get, and it is exactly why they make such horrible legislators.

Avoiding fundamentalism is something that all self-respecting progressives should endeavor toward, because not doing so can lead to contradictions such as freedom advocates turning to countries with low rankings in civil and political liberties (i.e. Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, according to Freedom House) and/or in press freedom (Russia, Ecuador, Venezuela, according to Reporters Without Borders), while the Committee to Protect Journalists has Russia, Ecuador, and Brazil on its "risk list" of the top ten worst countries for press freedom in the world – for protection and support. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" is a wartime philosophy that may serve in the short term but is not a sound long-term policy.

Edward Snowden's fundamentalist focus on secrecy and the alarmist way that the truth is being revealed is unsettling because it feeds the radicalism of ideologues from pro-lifers and uber-Zionists at World News Daily to the conservative hacks at Breitbart.com and more than one insomniac libertarian and, on the left, free-speech purists. Radical fundamentalism is the enemy of peace and freedom, regardless of political slant.

For those whose political slant is conservative or libertarian, the fears of Big Brother Obama are easy to fan, despite the fact that this NSA surveillance program is not really about the Obama administration, as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is overseen by Congress and the judges appointed by the Supreme Court chief justice. And Congress' involvement isn't limited to oversight. James Bamford's eye-opening March 2012 story in Wired magazine about the secret NSA data center in Bluffdale, Utah reveals this tidbit:
Last November a bipartisan group of 24 senators sent a letter to President Obama urging him to approve continued funding through 2013 for the Department of Energy’s exascale computing initiative (the NSA’s budget requests are classified). They cited the necessity to keep up with and surpass China and Japan. “The race is on to develop exascale computing capabilities,” the senators noted. The reason was clear: By late 2011 the Jaguar (now with a peak speed of 2.33 petaflops) ranked third behind Japan’s “K Computer,” with an impressive 10.51 petaflops, and the Chinese Tianhe-1A system, with 2.57 petaflops.
As Bamford explains, the international speed race is all about breaking encryption codes, and one of the purposes of the Bluffdale facility is to store massive amounts of encrypted information for the eventuality that the computers will one day be able to decrypt it.

Believe me, in my experience as an expat in Argentina and Uruguay, especially when I was editing two daily expat websites, I heard ALL about the "United States as evil empire" meme from other expats having fled the country for reasons ranging from fear of the One World Order, with its UN thugs, to anti-tax zealots trying to hide their wealth from the IRS thugs, with just a few of us citing deep disappointment and disgust with the war-mongering police-state thugs, a position I'm pretty sure has a lot to do with why Glenn Greenwald now lives in Brazil. I recently read Edwardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America. I am a fierce critic of US foreign policy, the War on Drugs, and the export of militarism, and I am distraught about the use of drones and the force-feeding of hunger-striking inmates at Guantanamo. I totally agree that the United States is hypocritical, meddling, thuggish, and completely full of itself. And I suppose the US government deserves this outing of its secret surveillance network because it is so vast and out of hand.

However, I am very concerned about the methodology being employed by Snowden, Greenwald, and Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker who Snowden reached out to even before he contacted the journalists at The Post and The Guardian, to publicize the leaks, because this alarmist tactic is toxic. As I mentioned before, the initial reports by these two publications were incorrect in the key details about the NSA's access to the metadata of corporations like Facebook and Microsoft, but as we all learned long ago from the Drudge Report and Andrew Breitbart, once a rumor or untruth gets put out there, it lives a long and fruitful life on the Internet, regardless of any attempts to clear the story up.

And the problem hasn't ended with the first reports. Rather, the continuing allegations of spying operations seem intent on fomenting anti-US sentiment across the globe, and it makes me worry about the consequences – especially if, once again, the allegations turn out to be less than accurate or the caveats that explain how the headline is not as frightening as it appears are buried amidst hyperbole like this, from Greenwald's 7 July 2013 article in The Guardian:
That the US government – in complete secrecy – is constructing a ubiquitous spying apparatus aimed not only at its own citizens, but all of the world's citizens, has profound consequences... It radically alters the balance of power between the US and ordinary citizens of the world. And it sends an unmistakable signal to the world that while the US very minimally values the privacy rights of Americans, it assigns zero value to the privacy of everyone else on the planet.
Seriously, Glen, get a grip on yourself. We get it. The NSA surveillance network needs to be reformed, and you have incited enough outrage that it will be. You have done your job. But now, you run the risk of overplaying your hand and creating bigger problems because the United States, for all of its problems, has not yet become the Orwellian tyranny that you are making it out to be, and with this kind of language, it is you who is sending this message that the US government is out to crush freedom the world over.

As long as I am asking questions, Glenn, why didn't you – or anyone else, for that matter – report on this 25 June 2013 report by Stephen Aftergood at the Federation of Scientists' Secrecy News titled "Secrecy System Shows Signs of Contraction," which includes details such as how, in December 2009, President Obama issued executive order 13526 on reforming the security classification and declassification processes to augment government transparency? Could it be that it doesn't fit into your narrative that the Obama administration hates democracy and freedom?

There is enough grandstanding, backstabbing, intrigue, and drama queening in international politics already – especially among the leaders of Latin America, the queens among queens, although Barton Gellman's description of Snowden as being "capable of melodrama" indicates that he, along with Greenwald, is no slouch in this department – without having the excuse of Evo Morales' airplane being diverted for the hard-left populist leaders of South America to puff themselves up and grandstand before their state-run media about EEUU imperialismo. But in all of this theater, there are real consequences for regular people, as even before the airspace fiasco, Ecuador's communications minister "unilaterally and irrevocably" renounced the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which provides for reduced tariffs on hundreds of millions of US dollars' worth of Ecuadorean trade, leaving the country's flower growers and other exporters in the lurch. It, of course, also doesn't help that Sen. Robert Menendez (D, NJ), head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, got in on the drama-queen act as well, threatening to block renewal if Ecuador offered asylum to Snowden. A few months ago, there were hopeful signs that Venezuelan and Cuban relations with the United States were warming, to the dismay of Republican hardliners in the United States and others who put their ideology above creating more stability in the Americas by forging positive relationships – but now?

The Church Committee

Now, about that quote that has appeared all over the Internet as of late by the late Sen. Frank Church (D, ID), a great statesman who, in 1975, chaired the senate committee that was set up to investigate US intelligence agencies for illegal activities after the Vietnam War. Never trust that an out-of-context quote means what the quoter's use of it would lead you to believe that it means.

The 8 September 1975 Newsweek article titled "No Place To Hide" catches readers' attention in dramatic fashion, breaking the news "that the country's most secret intelligence operation, the National Security Agency, already possesses the computerized equipment to monitor nearly all overseas telephone calls and most domestic and international printed messages-and that the NSA has made heavy use of its Orwellian technology."

But despite its use of "the Big O," the article goes on to discuss the need for this kind of intelligence gathering in the face of nuclear proliferation and the Cold War, even as first the Rockefeller Commission and then the Church Committee, which was much larger in scope and depth, had been charged with investigating intelligence service abuses. The nature of the abuses ranged from the subversion, sabotage, paramilitary action, and attempted assassination that the Church Committee would deem to be unauthorized illegal covert actions on the part of the CIA to domestic spying on antiwar activists and black power organizations by the NSA.

Found near the end of the article, the now-ubiquitous quote by Senator Church is from an appearance he made on Meet the Press a month earlier, where he stated that eavesdropping technology "at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything-telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter … I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America."

Two paragraphs later, the article concludes:
But the central issue raised by NSA's huge eavesdropping network is not really whether the agency has over stepped its authority. The point is that the scientific capability for this wholesale monitoring now exists, and where the capability exists, so too does the potential for abuse. It is the old story of technology rushing forward with some new wonder, before the men who supposedly control the machines have figured out how to prevent the machines from controlling them.
What this shows is that, way back in 1975, eight years before Edward Snowden was born into this world, the country was struggling with these same issues, and the intelligence network that has evolved since then did not develop entirely without regard to these complex dilemmas. The issues of keeping the laws up with the pace of technology and of finding a balance between secrecy and the democratic values of freedom and the right to privacy have been of concern to those who have been paying attention since the mid-70s, when such revelations as the FBI's COINTELPRO, the CIA's Family Jewels, and Nixon's dirty tricks were fresh and disturbing. It was a perilous world filled with perceived enemies of freedom, when the US government was truly more thuggish than it is perceived to be today because the intelligence community had evolved ad hoc, running ahead of any system of accountability. The Church Committee, lead by a true national hero, analyzed the problems in depth and made created a system of oversight that, not surprisingly, nearly 30 years later, in the wake of the Red Scare's definitive replacement by terrorism, is ready for more reform.

The Church Committee Reports show the great detail that the committee went into in its investigation of the legality of intelligence activities with the central aim of addressing the balance of secrecy and democracy:
The task of democratic government is to reconcile conflicting values. 
The fundamental question faced by the Select Committee is how to reconcile the clash between secrecy and democratic government itself. 
Secrecy is an essential part of most intelligence activities. However, secrecy undermines the United States Government's capacity to deal effectively with the principal issues of American intelligence addressed by the Select Committee: 
-The lack of clear legislation defining the authority for permissible intelligence activities has been justified in part for reasons of secrecy. Absent clear legal boundaries for intelligence activities, the Constitution has been violated in secret and the power of the executive branch has gone unchecked, unbalanced. 
-Secrecy has shielded intelligence activities from full accountability and effective supervision both within the executive branch and by the Congress. 
-Reliance on covert action has been excessive because it offers a secret shortcut around the democratic process. This shortcut has led to questionable foreign involvements and unacceptable acts. 
-The important line between public and private action has become blurred as the result of the secret use of private institutions and individuals by intelligence agencies. This clandestine relationship has called into question their integrity and undermined the crucial independent role of the private sector in the American system of democracy. 
-Duplication, waste, inertia and ineffectiveness in the intelligence community has been one of the costs of insulating the intelligence bureaucracy from the rigors of Congressional and public scrutiny. 
-Finally, secrecy has been a tragic conceit. Inevitably, the truth prevails, and policies pursued on the premise that they could be plausibly denied, in the end damage America's reputation and the faith of her people in their government. 
For three decades, these problems have grown more intense. The United States Government responded to the challenge of secret intelligence operations by resorting to procedures that were informal, implicit, tacit. Such an approach could fit within the tolerances of our democratic system so long as such activities were small or temporary. 
Now, however, the permanence and scale of America's intelligence effort and the persistence of its problems require a different solution.
These reports are essential reading, as they provide an indispensable historical perspective on the issues. Clearly, Senator Church's Meet the Press comment, uttered while he was in the midst of the investigations, shows that he was deeply concerned about the potential for abuse of the system, and the Church Committee Reports show that he was well aware of the tendency for intelligence community step outside of the bounds of constitutionality and to hoard the power of intelligence information in the name of national security, but he was by no means predicting that tyranny was inevitable. His intent was to highlight the vast scope of the capabilities of the new technology and gain support for the oversight of such powerful technology through the balancing of power among the three branches of the federal government.

On the bravery of being out of range

Edward Snowden took brash steps to steal and then pass to journalists for publication top-secret information about the NSA's domestic surveillance programs that are in need of better oversight to prevent possible abuse. He also stole and then passed on top-secret information about foreign intelligence programs, an act that is far more dubious in its valor because it treads into the arena of international relations, opening up a can of worms concerning the complicity of the governments of other nations in surveillance that verges on meddling in the internal affairs of foreign countries, with the collateral effect of doing the opposite of promoting peace among nations.

But it is Edward Snowden's attempt to run away and hide from the United States that really turns me off to the idea that he is a real "hero." This has been defended by many people who I highly regard on the grounds that he would not receive a fair trial at the hands of US law enforcement. But I reject this excuse in the name of all African-Americans, women and any other nonwhite male group who has ever been excluded from participation in the forging of laws under which they have been subject, many of which still have no chance of receiving fair treatment in all aspects of their lives. Every black person and undocumented immigrant in the United States today, other than regular old criminals and psychopaths, is a hero for trying to live their lives under an unjust system, and the biggest heroes are those who have fought to change the system in some way. The most effective way to create change is to dramatize the unjust nature of the system by disobeying the law and suffering unjust punishment – otherwise known as "civil disobedience." This is what makes Bradley Manning, William Binney, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so heroic. The point is not only to defy the law, put to suffer the consequences, sacrificing the self to emphasize how morally wrong the laws are, to endure physical and mental pain and suffering, yet go on fighting.

If Snowden's idea of pain and suffering is to give up his lucrative job and his hot girlfriend in Hawaii and not be able to return to the United States or travel to most countries in the world, then he is only promoting the arrogant and aloof attitude of US citizens that is despised in many foreign countries as much as US government overreach is.

11 June 2013

Secrecy, Scandals, and Snowden



This is a bit contrary to the usual progressive stance on the latest NSA data collection revelations. Although I believe that the legal system that is in place might very well be infringing on our Fourth-Amendment rights, I don't see a major scandal here. Rather, I see an opportunity highlight the danger of excessive secrecy.

Back in September 2008, after giving birth to by book, No Stranger To Strange Lands, had sadly come to an end, I felt like the only way to rid myself of a sense of post-partum depression was to keep writing, indulging myself in writing an undisciplined screed titled Secrecy, Democracy,and Fascism: Lessons From History. Having been watching a lot of episodes of House, the theme was to discover the disease that was manifesting itself as through the unfortunate symptom of runaway conspiracy theories and, I was arguing, unwarranted distrust of the government. "Mis-diagnosing the disease, "I wrote, "can be as bad or worse than just ignoring it." I was deeply troubled by such issues as Karl Rove's plan to politicize the judiciary and create one-party rule, Dick Cheney's penchant for secrecy and his abuse of power in lashing out against Joe Wilson for outing the administration's flawed argument for going to war in Iraq, and George Bush's excessive use of signing statements, and I decided to take a look at what critical terms Like "tyranny" and "fascism" that were being bandied about really meant — what it was that our failing democracy was becoming. The issue of secrecy seemed to me to be one of the greatest forces eroding at democracy, which depends upon informed citizens to function properly. Secrecy also erodes trust, and a crisis in trust can turn into an earthquake, catastrophically tearing apart the foundation of democracy.

Barack Hussein Obama would soon be elected president, and I supported him, believing in his promise to do things differently. Of course, his decision, upon winning the Democratic Party primary, to eschew public financing, which was contrary to what he had previously said, was an early disappointment, but after all, the man would most likely be outspent by the Republican Party if he didn't. His cozying up to the banking community right out of the gate was the next sign that things would not be all that different, yet I rationalized that it was something President Obama had to do to gain the trust of the elites and show that he was not going to be a wild-eyed radical. Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech was inspiring, but then came the surreal moment in December 2009 of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, where he rationalized expanding the war in Afghanistan rather than trying to put an end to it, at which time I went a little crazy trying to make defend him from so many people around me who felt totally betrayed by him. Obama refused to put the single-payer option on the table during the healthcare-reform debate, Guantanamo has continued to be a black stain on the idea of the United States being a shining beacon of freedom and justice, the prison-industrial complex has only grown more robust, and the president has continually disappoint progressives in many other ways, with the latest anger-inducing policies being the drone attacks and the Justice Department's aggression toward whistle-blowers and journalists... and yet... And yet, Obama remains a champion of many progressive causes.

Now we have the NSA spying story dropping like a bomb and blowing up in the face of any progressives still trying their best to find a way to defend Barack Obama against social conservatives and libertarians who long ago judged the president to be the enemy of Freedom and the "American Way."

Yes, the metadata collection is troubling for its scope and secrecy. Given the questionable constitutionality of the targeted killings that the Obama Administration and Attorney General Eric Holder claim are legal under the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists Resolution" passed by Congress shortly after 9/11, there are certainly grounds for concern about what the NSA is up to. However, I feel like the breaking stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post are a bit heavy on the hype and light on the context and possibly the facts – although this does highlight the problem of secrecy making facts hard to come by. I can't help but agree with David Simon, creator of The Wire, who posted an article titled We are shocked, shocked... on his blog, and his assessment of what the problems that need to be solved are, which I have bolded:
When the Guardian, or the Washington Post or the New York Times editorial board — which displayed an astonishing ignorance of the realities of modern electronic surveillance in its quick, shallow wade into this non-controversy — are able to cite the misuse of the data for reasons other than the interception of terrorist communication, or to show that Americans actually had their communications monitored without sufficient probable cause and judicial review and approval of that monitoring, then we will have ourselves a nice, workable scandal. It can certainly happen, and given that the tension between national security and privacy is certain and constant, it probably will happen at points. And in fairness, having the FISA courts rulings so hidden from citizen review, makes even the discovery of such misuse problematic. The internal review of that court’s rulings needs to be somehow aggressive and independent, while still preserving national security secrets. That’s very tricky.

The original breaking stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post did require some revision that removed a good deal of explosive power. Ed Bott at ZDNet has the details:
Crucially, the Post removed the “knowingly participated” language and also scrubbed a reference to the program as being “highly classified.” In addition, a detail in the opening graf that claimed the NSA could “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to read simply “track foreign targets.”
I also tend to agree with William Connolley's analysis:
I can’t tell where the truth lies, but I suspect that the Graun [Guardian] has indulged in what Wiki would call “Original Research”, which is to say connecting the dots a bit further than the sources permit. This is the key slide, and the key words are “Collection directly from the servers of…”. Weeell, its only a powerpoint slide, hardly a careful analysis. It looks like the real meaning of “directly from the servers of” is actually “we put in requests, following the law, and they comply with that law by providing data”. Which is a very different thing to direct access. The former is known and boring (even if you don’t like it); the latter would be new. The Graun knows about the distinction and is definitely claiming the latter (they have to be, otherwise there is no story): Companies are legally obliged to comply with requests for users’ communications under US law, but the Prism program allows the intelligence services direct access to the companies’ servers.
I especially agree with this science writer's assessment of whistleblower Edward Snowden. Although he is in favor of whistleblowers, he thinks praise of this one is premature, because "some of the stuff the Graun has him saying makes him sound rather tin-foil-hat to me." And John Michael McGrath at Hazlitt has a similar opinion.

There are real, heroic whistleblowers, like Joe Wilson, CIA torture whistleblower John Kiriakou, Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning, who have outed secrets that are secret because they are illegal and deplorable, and then there are fake whistleblowers, such as John Dodson, who engage in illegal and unethical acts themselves then pretend to be victims of government political persecution. I'm not saying that I think Snowden is as bad as Dodson... but I'm sorry; this guy's story just doesn't quite sit right with me, and I am very interested to find out if all of the claims he has made can be confirmed. He was a supporter of Ron Paul, which means he is not a fan of Big Government, even though he made awfully good money working in the spy business (well, according to his now-former employer, not as much as he claimed – so there's one possible crack in his story). Maybe he thinks he is another Bradley Manning, but all he actually did was out corporations for how they share data with the government, rather than proving the government to be acting outside of the given laws, which I don't believe are totally constitutional. Unfortunately, case law says otherwise. I would say that the massive amount of electronic data collected and stored by the government—at great expense—is rather scandalous, but that news doesn't seem to have made nearly as much of a splash.

And what does it say that we keep using Google and Facebook—by choice—despite all the grumbling about how the corporations are spying on us? The fact that it is totally and completely fine for corporations to collect this data is more maddening to me than that the government is doing it, because of the two, I believe it is easier to hold the government accountable. In fact, it is the government that is charged with keeping corporations from invasions of privacy, such as when Google got carried away collecting information for its Street View mapping project.

Although the NSA disclosure is probably a good thing for bringing about a national conversation about how the agency gathers information, this isn't warrantless wiretapping, which is what the G.W. Bush Administration was up to with the President's Surveillance Program under the legal guidance of Office of Legal Counsel Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo. According to a 2009 report by the Office of Inspectors General, James Comey, Patrick Philbin, and Jack Goldsmith eventually challenged this legal counsel, concluding that "Yoo's memoranda did not accurately describe some of the Other Intelligence Activities that were being conducted under the Presidential Authorizations implementing the PSP, and that the memoranda therefore did not provide a basis for finding that these activities were legal," which led to a dramatic hospital-room standoff pitting Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales against the three DOJ challengers to the program followed the next day by the threat of mass DOJ resignations.

Until we hear of this kind of internal dissent, I am not sure that it is true that the United States is on a "slippery slope to totalitarianism," as many have been claiming. And I really resent all those "Orwell: I told you so" slogans I am seeing, because George Orwell's dystopia was far more fucked up than this. The spying was total and complete. Judging by all the crazy shit that is allowed to be said about the president and the government, there is nothing close to the Thought Police in the United States. The Cult of Personality thing hasn't exactly panned out like fearmongers have said it would during the 2008 elections... and nobody has come after anybody's guns.

I suggest we talk about strengthening the safeguards in the system, try to remove some of the unnecessary layers of secrecy and wait and see just how our government deals with this individual before assuming that a vicious attack or smear campaign takes place.
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