18 April 2014

Snowden's side of the Putin story

All the criticism of his appearance yesterday on President Putin's call-in show got under Edward Snowden's skin. He felt it necessary to write an op-ed for the Guardian, a friendly venue, clarifying what he thought he was doing when he put his question about Russian surveillance techniques to Putin. He strikes a necessary cynical note, assuring his readers and fans that he never thought Putin would answer his question truthfully. In Snowden's knowing opinion, the sort of question he asked "cannot credibly be answered in the negative by any leader who runs a modern, intrusive surveillance program." While it might have been more interesting had he said that to Putin, his intent, he now suggests, was to catch Putin in what might be proved a lie down the line -- though it will be up to Russian investigators and whistle-blowers to prove the truth. Citing the opinion of one Russian journalist, Snowden believes that he's started a conversation in Russia about that country's surveillance programs that could prove uncomfortable for its president. Snowden is explicitly critical here toward what he describes as Putin's "evasive" response to the big question. Given all this, he is shocked, and possibly even surprised, to see himself characterized as everything from a naive dupe to a conscious mouthpiece for the Putin government.

I was surprised that people who witnessed me risk my life to expose the surveillance practices of my own country could not believe that I might also criticise the surveillance policies of Russia, a country to which I have sworn no allegiance, without ulterior motive. I regret that my question could be misinterpreted, and that it enabled many to ignore the substance of the question – and Putin's evasive response – in order to speculate, wildly and incorrectly, about my motives for asking it.

Snowden's PR problem of the moment actually has less to do with speculation about his motives than with speculation about Putin's motives for allowing Snowden to ask his question. The simple assumption is that Putin doesn't arrange for Snowden to appear -- that his appearance was pre-arranged and no surprise to the president is taken for granted -- unless Putin benefits from the moment. Regardless of the repercussions Snowden may hope for in the long term -- he wants to see Russians ask Putin tougher questions about surveillance at next year's call-in -- Putin benefits now by saying Russia's surveillance program is smaller, better regulated and less intrusive than its U.S. counterpart, even if Putin himself admitted that Russia simply lacks the technology and finances to run a program on the American scale. Putin's enemies around the world, from rival powers to those common people for whom he's become the new international bogeyman, can't let any propaganda point for Putin go uncontested. Such people would rather that Snowden had gone outside his realm of expertise to ask Putin the questions they want asked about murdered journalists, alleged sham trials of political opponents, etc. Some would not have been satisfied unless Snowden used his airtime to call Putin a dictator, or maybe a poopyhead for extra measure. But since yesterday's show is assumed to be a propaganda victory for Putin, even if no one seems to believe what he said, Snowden is presumed guilty of aiding and comforting tyranny -- and of epic hypocrisy given his concern for civil liberties.

As a celebrity and political figure, Snowden is a slow learner in the art of spin. His spin control comes a day late and any number of dollars, rubles or pounds short, depending on your perspective. In his own mind -- and I have no reason to question his sincerity about this -- he's playing a long game with Putin, with a payoff expected over time. In his game, it doesn't matter whether Putin appeared to score a propaganda victory yesterday, but to many others it does. Snowden's game seems to require Putin to score first, or at least to make the first move. " [I]f we are to test the truth of officials' claims," he writes, "we must first give them an opportunity to make those claims." In other words, while many westerners assume Putin to be a liar, Snowden wants to prove it, if he can. It may be too cool an approach when Putin makes so many people's blood boil, and it may still prove naive if no Russian whistleblower takes up Snowden's implicit challenge. But Snowden has already proven that he plays his own games by his own rules. To assume, as so many do, that he's simply playing Putin's game, or is being played by Putin, is probably premature.

17 April 2014

The Putin-Snowden Show

Even those Americans most sympathetic toward Edward Snowden may regret his participation in President Putin's call-in show today. If so, it's all about Putin rather than Snowden. For those who haven't heard: Putin held a live call-in program today and Snowden was one of the callers. The American exile asked if Putin had a surveillance program similar to the one Snowden exposed in the U.S. Probably before Putin opened his mouth, most western observers will probably have rolled their eyes. Could Snowden be so naive as to think Putin would give him an honest answer? Assuming not, many immediately leap to the conclusion that Snowden's participation was pre-arranged and that the American was the willing tool of Russian propaganda. All these assumptions depend on the premise that anything Putin might have said short of "Of course we have such a spy program, only bigger and more intrusive!" would be a lie. (As for what he did say, this article includes some attempted corrections) Because he is an "authoritarian" if not a dictator, and perhaps also because he's Russian, and definitely because he was KGB back in the day, Putin is presumed to lie whenever it suits him. The west thinks it knows Putin, or knows his type: essentially a gangster, ultimately interested only in his own power, ruthless and lawless at heart. This isn't necessarily wrong, but it's also possible that many in the west, whether they call themselves liberals or conservatives, simply can no longer fathom the attitude someone like Putin may have toward his nation and its state. so that a difference in political philosophy becomes a moral failing. Many of us can't help seeing Putin as evil, especially since some people, Russians or not, have a vested interest in portraying him that way. Thus every time an opposition politician gets arrested, whatever the alleged offense, it's a fraud instigated by Putin. Every time a Russian journalist is killed or attacked, Putin is ultimately to blame. At the worst extreme, every time a terrorist attack takes place in Russia, some Russian (or Russophobic) "truther" will call it a false-flag incident designed to justify a new war or another Putin power grab. Again, my point is not to presume Putin innocent, since power has resented dissent throughout history, but to warn against a knee-jerk presumption of his constant guilt based on a culturally-biased perception of what he is and what he stands for. As for Snowden, I suspect that he actually doesn't give a damn about Putin. The show gave him a chance to repeat his basic charges against the U.S., and that may have been all that mattered to him. To go further, Snowden may be so convinced of the paramount threat posed by American surveillance and American power to both peace on earth and individual liberty in his home country that he may not care where a countervailing force comes from, or what it stands for, as long as it checks or balances the U.S, or at least protects him from his former employers. Apart from sticking it to the U.S. and the Obama administration, Snowden and Putin probably have no common interests, but as human beings we can't help linking things together to make Snowden a tool of or collaborator with Putin in some evil scheme. Before drawing such conclusions, ask yourselves why Snowden is in Russia today. Is that his fault, or ours?

16 April 2014

Krauthammer vs. the "totalitarian" American left

Charles Krauthammer feels threatened. His home paper, the Washington Post, recently received a petition organized by an organization called Forecast the Facts and signed by 110,000 people, demanding that the paper not run any of Krauthammer's columns that could be construed to deny global warming. While the Los Angeles Times has implemented such a policy, at least as far as letters to the editor are concerned, the Post did not comply. As a result, the petition ends up grist for Krauthammer's mill, proof in his eyes that the left is " no longer trying to win the debate but stopping debate altogether, banishing from public discourse any and all opposition." This is a multifront operation, the left seeking to eliminate all opposition to the acceptance of gay marriage, the Affordable Care Act's mandated contraception coverage, etc. But as Krauthammer goes on, his argument becomes less precise. Name calling, it turns out, is part of this massive "totalitarian" campaign to silence the opposition. To be called a bigot or a sexist for opposing certain measures becomes morally equivalent to petitioning the Post's editors to suppress a columnist. Merely to characterize one's opposition in terms less generous than the opponent himself would use is to try to silence the opponent. In short, Krauthammer is going PC on the left. It's long been a staple of "political correctness" that bigoted or sexist language in discourse has an intimidating effect and is used consciously to silence minorities. In effect, Krauthammer argues now that invective aimed at Republicans is an implicit threat to silence them.

Krauthammer's beef with the climate activists stems from his reluctance to acknowledge that anthropocentric global warming is a "settled" fact to such an extent that debate is no longer necessary on the subject. A sense of urgency on the subject is understandable on both sides, I suppose, one side feeling a threat to human life on earth, the other a threat to individual liberty, free enterprise, etc. Unanimity on the question of warming may be impossible, but Forecast the Facts argues for an overwhelming consensus, with 97% of climate scientists accepting the anthropocentric premise. I suppose they could be all wrong, and that the climate crisis is no more than mass hysteria, but it's also possible that the 3% are cynical corporate hirelings or ideologically blinkered. Since much of the controversy focuses on models predicting future warming and its consequences for global climate, it's impossible to say that any model is absolutely right until more time passes. Nevertheless, the consensus should seem compelling for policy makers -- but should it have any coercive effect on dissidents? Unless it can be proven that climate dissidents are lying about anything, it's hard to argue that they should be silenced by their employers, much less by any other authority, even if dissent on the op-ed pages is vastly disproportionate to dissent in the science departments due to corporate control of the media, the power of lobbyists, etc. In any event, a recognized ideologue like Krauthammer isn't really changing minds one way or the other on this issue. Readers know him as a conservative and won't pay attention if they're liberals. The irony of it is that in his refusal to acknowledge that this debate can end, his insistence that it continue indefinitely as long as some fail (or refuse) to be convinced -- Krauthammer is arguing exactly like a liberal.

15 April 2014

Democracy in Nevada?

Republicans are making a cause celebre out of a Nevada rancher's dispute with the federal government. The rancher refuses to pay the government a grazing fee imposed back in the 1980s for the protection of tortoises on the grazing land, claiming that the state rather than the feds have rightful jurisdiction there. Supporters gathered recently in an attempt to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from seizing the rancher's cattle. For right-wingers this was another dangerous encroachment on our rights by an overreaching, intrusive federal government -- and some suggest that the family of Senator Reid, the Majority Leader, has some financial interest in keeping cattle off that land.

In a USA Today op-ed, Eli Federman, identified as "an executive at an e-commerce company, sees the episode as democracy in action.

The lesson here has nothing to do with endangered tortoises, or contract rights predating the formation of the BLM, grazing fees, states right or even whether the government is acting heavy-handedly by using armed men to seize cattle. Rather the lesson is about caring citizens standing up for a cause, while openly criticizing and scrutinizing the government. That is the activity democracies are made of. Whether the cause of Cliven Bundy is legitimate is beside the point. We have citizens peaceably forming a protest against what they believe is government overreaching. That alone has drawn scrutiny over the governments actions. Such scrutiny and oversight are instrumental in a democracy.

Whatever Federman's politics may be, his remarks read like classic liberalism. The line that jumped out at me was, "Whether the cause ... is legitimate is beside the point." The real point, it seems to me, is that liberalism, if not democracy itself, is a double-edged sword. I've written many times that citizen vigilance (i.e. "scrutiny and oversight") is essential to democracy. While I don't believe that any state really can guarantee dissidents the sort of immunity that liberalism demands, and that Americans assume exists here, I do expect citizens in a democracy to take whatever risks may be necessary to expose errors or outright wrongdoing by their leaders. Does it follow from all that that "whether the cause is legitimate is beside the point?" It would follow from that that all protests are qualitatively equal, that all suspicions are equal, that the paranoid and the liar, at least at first, have just as much right to protest (or obstruct?) as the genuine truth-seekers and the actually injured. Must liberalism blind itself to such distinctions, assuming them to be prejudiced? Can there never be a case when a claim of "government overreaching" can be dismissed preemptively as self-evidently false? Or must every single accusation be indulged, lest people assume a habit of unthinking deference to leaders? The answer has to be found somewhere between the extremes. People's prerogative to protest outside institutional channels may be vital to democracy, but just as vital, if not as glamorous, is a principle of submission. That principle is the difference between democracy and anarchy. Someday, liberals may have to decide which they prefer.

14 April 2014

An angry white male

The way some people talk, people like the moron who shot people at two different Jewish establishments in Overland Park KS yesterday don't exist anymore. The shooter, who killed three people, is believed to be a former Grand Dragon of a Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Klan and an active white supremacist, as well as a failed political candidate, whether in major-party primaries or as an independent, on multiple occasions. The man believed to be the killer made news as a candidate a few years ago when he claimed that radio stations were obliged, by virtue of his candidacy, to air his inflammatory ads; the FCC ruled that he failed to meet the institutional criteria for a "bona fide" candidate. He went on a Jew-hunt, presumably, but two of his victims were Christians, a grandfather taking his grandson to some show audition being held at the JCC. The suspect reportedly yelled "Heil Hitler" at reporters as he was put in a police car.

Some people want us to believe that white supremacism or violent Christian chauvinism aren't real problems in this country. That claim usually comes from people who resent being labeled white supremacists or just plain bigots simply because they oppose or even hate President Obama, or because they resent all immigration by Hispanics, legal or illegal, or because they fear all Muslims, etc. Such people take solace from the discovery that the suspected killer had run in primaries for both major parties in recent years. That fact gives some fresh occasion to remind us that Democrats were the racist party for a larger portion of American history, as if events of the last fifty years remain less relevant to the present than everything that came earlier. Some sophists ask what they think is the right question -- "what's conservative about the KKK, anyway?" -- but that only shows the extent to which "conservative" has lost its literal meaning in the U.S., especially for self-proclaimed conservatives. For everyone else, the "conservative" aspect of white supremacism is self-evident. For that reason people who proclaim themselves conservatives, even if they really aren't bigots of any sort, will always have to deal with critics who hold them responsible or accountable for the excesses of racial or religious bigots. It may not be fair, especially in the case of a fringe figure like this Kansas killer, but conservatives have chosen the label for themselves. Instead of simply declaring themselves Capitalists and identifying themselves with the decidedly unconservative concept of "creative destruction," they identify themselves with many of the same "traditional values" that less ideological or intellectual types espouse, and look for their country's golden age in a past whose social and cultural values are unacceptable by most 21st-century standards. As a result, Republicans can't keep enough distance for comfort from extremists like the Kansas killer, no matter how they try -- and some people still wonder how much they really try.

10 April 2014

James Madison vs. Plutocracy?

A local paper has reprinted a recent editorial from the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts denouncing the Supreme Court's decision in the McCutcheon case to strike down more controls on campaign donations. The Eagle argues that the Roberts majority, by further empowering the wealthy, defeats its stated purpose of protecting the right to "participate in electing our political leaders" if the consequence of McCutcheon is the drowning out of ordinary Americans by those who can afford the loudest megaphones and buy up all the airtime. You can read the same sentiments all over the place, but the editorial writer in this case must have felt that it would really show up Chief Justice Roberts to cite the "Father of the Constitution," James Madison.  The Eagle quotes Madison as having written: "Government should prevent an immodest accumulation of riches." The editorial writer interprets this as a warning to prevent the corruption of government itself through the influence of immoderate wealth, noting sadly, "His fears were realized long ago."

As longtime readers may have guessed, it's time again to ask whether a famous person actually wrote or said something credited to him in an opinion piece. I usually catch Republicans citing counterfeit quotations, although they usually do so unwittingly, but Democrats can fall into the trap as well. In this case, however, the Eagle editorialist is guilty of no more than a condensation of Madison's opinion. In 1792 Madison wrote a newspaper essay noting the emergence, against his hopes, of political parties in the new American republic. As he was largely responsible for this development, having become an opponent of the Washington administration, or at least of its financial policies under his fellow Federalist Alexander Hamilton, Madison had some explaining to do. His own view was that Hamilton was turning the administration into a party or faction in its own right, using his economic policies to win the support of bankers and wealthy merchants. How could the republic combat this evil? Madison had several suggestions; here's one of them:

By withholding unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches. 

You'll notice that the Eagle left some words out, along with some superfluous-looking commas. My attempt to translate Madison into 21st century American goes like this: government shouldn't do anything to make the rich richer at everyone else's expense unless there's no other way to get something done. Madison and his friend Jefferson felt that Washington and Hamilton were robbing Peter to pay Paul on the pretext of building an American economy, benefiting merchants, bankers and early industrialists at the expense of landowners and the white working class. Notice, however, that Madison isn't talking about the rich influencing government, but about government using the people's money to create a rich client class -- but it's implicit that those enriched by unfair government policies would then use their wealth to help their political patrons.

Madison makes it more clear later in the essay that he considers excessive wealth a problem in its own right. He proposes combating the evil of partisanship "By the silent operation of laws, which, without violating the rights of property, reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort." I'm not entirely sure what Madison meant by "silent operation of laws," but I presume he wants an alternative to blatant acts of confiscation familiar from ancient history and possibly happening already in revolutionary France. Most modern readers take this as Madison's advocacy of progressive taxation, which would probably come closest to passing the "silent operation" test. In any event, if the means seem ambiguous, the end is clear: not just to "reduce extreme wealth" but also, to the horror of many who think themselves Madison's heirs, to "raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort." Madison concedes that this may not look perfectly reasonable, but " if this is not the language of reason, it is that of republicanism."  Some may still say that limits on campaign donations don't follow from Madison's suspicion of immoderate wealth, but Madison himself may have their answer. Later still in the essay he describes an alternative approach to his that would encourage inequality on the assumption that a wider range of social distinctions would increase the checks and balances in politics. In his summary, "This is as little the voice of reason, as it is that of republicanism." That sentence becomes false only by putting a capital R in the final word.

Militant ignorance about Ukraine

The Washington Post reports an interesting finding from a new survey of American opinion on the Ukraine crisis. While asking respondents whether they believed the U.S. should intervene in Ukraine, pollsters also asked them to locate Ukraine on a map of the world. A whopping 16% of respondents located the country correctly. The pollsters claim that belligerence is linked to ignorance: the less accurately you locate Ukraine, the more you want the U.S. to intervene on its behalf. It seems that even if you're interventionist by inclination, you're more likely to want to intervene in Ukraine if you don't know where it really is. In the pollsters' words:

Even controlling for a series of demographic characteristics and participants’ general foreign policy attitudes, we found that the less accurate our participants were, the more they wanted the U.S. to use force, the greater the threat they saw Russia as posing to U.S. interests, and the more they thought that using force would advance U.S. national security interests; all of these effects are statistically significant at a 95 percent  confidence level.

The survey seems incomplete, however. If the pollsters want to show that interventionist attitudes are exacerbated by geographic ignorance, they should have followed up by showing respondents the correct location of Ukraine and asking again whether they supported intervention. If literal ignorance is a contributing factor to interventionist attitudes, some respondents should have an "oh" moment when shown that Ukraine is next door to Russia, if only for pragmatic reasons.  While geographic ignorance may be consistent intellectually with an interventionist mentality, I doubt whether that ignorance determines that attitude. It seems more likely that interventionists don't care where Ukraine is. For some people, the Ukraine matter is purely a moral issue. On the comment thread, one writer explains that his wife is "well informed" about Ukraine but doesn't really know how to read maps. In response, other writers questioned whether such a person could be "well informed," but geography becomes irrelevant if you see Ukraine exclusively in moralized terms, e.g. Maidan good, Moscow bad. Geography is only a partial remedy to this moralizing tendency, since Russophobes refuse to concede Russia any sphere of influence in former Tsarist or Soviet territory. Moralizing Russophobia or American interventionism may be best challenged morally, by exposing the biases, bigotries and selective standards at their heart. We shouldn't need maps to do that.

09 April 2014

Amoklauf in Pennsylvania, with knives

In Murrysville a high school kid went on a slashing spree this morning and wounded at least nineteen people before he was arrested. Right now we don't know his name or much about him apart from the usual hearsay. Both sides of the gun-control debate are already spinning the story, one noting that in the absence of firearms no one has died, the other observing that sick or violent people will always find ways to hurt others and that gun control is no panacea or guarantee of peace. I'm not sure if any gun-control advocate has ever suggested that it would be, but it may sound that way to their critics. Gun control has never been the one thing necessary for peace; questions of mental and emotional health need to be addressed as well. Another part of the equation is an entitlement mentality that prevails in the U.S. more than in other countries. I don't mean the materialist entitlement mentality so often decried by Republicans, i.e. the right to have things necessary for life, but the sense of an entitlement to kill that seems synonymous with our quasi-constitutional right to individual self-defense. While other countries decide the fight-or-flight question in favor of flight, obliging citizens to avoid violence if they can, Americans demand to stand their ground and fight back. Something follows from this preference, I suspect, that can't be contained by moralizing distinctions between defense and attack. The U.S. affirms an individual prerogative -- an entitlement, if you prefer -- to declare another person's life forfeit under certain circumstances. While it's unclear whether the kid in Murrysville actually meant to kill people -- it's possible he only meant to make people suffer -- we have to ask, if murder was his intention, where he got the idea that fellow high school students deserved death. It may be that deserve's got nothing to do with it in many cases -- that people kill for the thrill of killing with complete indifference to the victims -- but it's more certain that our culture doesn't do enough to teach people that no one deserves to be killed, or at least that no individual has a right to kill, under any circumstances. Today's amoklauf wasn't about guns, but it was obviously about someone's assumed entitlement to violence, and no matter how much the gun lobby insists that their rights are exclusively defensive, their relentless assertion of an individual right to violence continues to have unintended consequences.