Saturday, June 29, 2013

Israel: A great place to be white!

Not everyone who lives in Israel is of pasty white European heritage, but you wouldn't know it from the Israeli government's outreach. For reasons only fully understood by the gods and the person trolling me, I was recently subscribed to the newsletter of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a quasi-governmental organization that seeks to replace brown people in Israel with Jews and trees.

An explicitly racist organization (Israel's second largest property owner, it refuses to rent land to Arabs), it was not surprising to find that JNF's printed propaganda featured almost exclusively smiling white people. On one page, smiling white college kids whose trip to the Holy Land totally rocked. On another page, a smiling white foodie dishing the inside scoop on Israeli cuisine. Here a white person; there a white person; everywhere a white person. The reader at home's takeaway: Go to Israel and you won't have to mix with the coloreds, unless of course you book the 4 day / 3 night Ethnic Immersion tour package.

What's a little weird is that when I tweeted something snarky about the awful lot of white folk in JNF's newsletter, the CEO of JNF, seemingly awful white person Russell Robinson, saw fit to retweet it. Judging by the rest of his tweets -- yes, older friends, I too find my generation's language insufferable -- it does not appear this was an act of passive aggression, though I probably shouldn't jump to any conclusions. Perhaps he was just distracted by how pasty white I am and hit the wrong button.

PREVIOUSLY: In 2012, Israel's Interior Minister Eli Yishai said, "Muslims that arrive here do not even believe that this country belongs to us, to the white man."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Are liberals stupid?

Whether liberals are "stupid" is probably the wrong question. A lot of smart people support stupid things; their intelligence is irrelevant. But there can be no doubt that American liberals support -- and lord knows, say -- a lot of stupid things. Barack Obama, for instance.

Supporting Barack Obama on the basis that he was anything but a slightly lesser evil -- itself very much arguable -- was highly stupid. If you hated John McCain or Mitt Romney more, fine. Understandable, even. But claiming Obama was a great progressive leader in the making was always stupid. But a lot of smart (and stupid) people thought such things.

It's worth revisiting, as a lot of bad things have happened because of it.

Quite by accident, this afternoon I came across a draft email from 2008 that I never sent containing excerpts from two different articles that I undoubtedly thought at the time were stupid, stupid, stupid, but which I apparently had neither the energy nor heart to dissect. Let's look at them now, though, because it's worth looking at and mocking what liberals, in this case the former head of Air America, Beau Friedlander, were saying before Barack Obama took office. It's really embarrassing and it should give you pause when these very same people cast themselves as sophisticated and pragmatic realists.

In a piece published by the Huffington Post on November 23, 2008, Friedlander wrote this about the president-elect's plans to fix the economy:
[W]hile many of us have expressed a range of positions from caution to strident criticism regarding the way Obama's White House started shaping up this past week, there are some indications now that--contrary to the vague fear of a more centrist tendency that some, including myself, decried--Obama may well assume a fairly radical solution to the economic problems facing the nation, one that eclipses the craziest notions dreamt up by the progressive fringe. This will happen because he is a great leader, and the hallmark of great leaders is their ability to listen to the needs of his or her people and then translate what s/he hears into programs and workable deeds. 
That didn't happen. Whoops. I don't feel like writing anything else about the above excerpt, except: look at that part in bold again. Ha ha.

In another piece published December 21, 2008, Friedlander wrote this about our great leader:
At first glance, sure, the president-elect might seem to be the ultimate confidence man. His manner is unflappable as he looks you right in the eye, calms you with that winning smile, and robs you blind. He's from Illinois, after all. To many on the progressive side, the campaign for change seems like a good old fashioned bait and switch, with the final indication being Team Obama's announcement last week that Rick Warren would deliver the invocation at the inauguration on January 20.

Here's what's missing from the grouch and brainstorm so rife among the dyspeptic tide of liberal resentment: a coherent thought. Obama is precisely who we wanted. He's going to deliver the promised change, and we just can't see it. And that's how it should be, folks, because if we could see what Obama sees, we wouldn't need a transformative leader. Remember, we elected him because he had the vision thing.
Oh, gosh. So close in that first paragraph! But Friedlander, being a liberal Democrat, doesn't know how to turn his ideal programs into "workable deeds," so he falls back on the tried-and-true partisan platform of trust, but don't verify (that only helps the Republicans).

We all know liberals think they're the smartest ones in the room, especially if there's some hipster anarchist in it pointing out how full of shit their blood-soaked heroes are. But when they adopt the cynic's stylings to piss on anyone who hopes for anything better -- "This is the best we can do. The only hope worth having is the hope that things don't get worse." -- it's worth remembering what they and their idols once promised. And how stupid it all sounds.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Nationalism is an invention

"As long as you know that all of this stuff is arbitrary—that karate is invention, that Catholicism is invention, that America in an invention—but that humanity is an actual thing, we don't have to all pretend to believe this shit." 
Read the rest.

Monday, June 17, 2013

How a Lhasa Apso made me eat my vegetables

For a long time, I thought about eating my dog. After years of devouring cows and chickens and pigs and little lambs, why not deep fry a Lhasa Apso? So yeah, I thought about it. Though clever, he still wasn't as smart as the animal that gave me bacon. Though cuddly, his hygiene was in serious doubt. And the nail in the miniature coffin: none of the other animals I ate without a second's thought had ever bit me.

Horrifying, you say? Absolutely. My little schnookems wasn't just another animal, he was a friend. He had a little personality. He got happy. He got scared. He got pissed. Sure, he couldn't solve a Rubic's cube, but then neither could I. The point is that he was a complex character, one capable of sensing your mood and licking your hand when he thought you were down, while also having the independence of mind to launch premeditated raids on trash cans for spoiled Pastrami sandwiches while you had your back turned.

What got me thinking about rolling my dog around in flour and setting him in the oven for 45 minutes wasn't that I'm some sick, broken soul, though that may have been part of it. It's that I couldn't make a good case for not eating him while still eating other animals capable of being happy and scared and pissed. Living in Nicaragua at the time, I regularly saw big, fat, lumbering pigs hanging out in people's front yards, playing and cuddling with the family dog. Little piglets looked like puppies from afar, some black, some white, some with spots.

My heart would melt when I saw the little critters. I gained newfound respect when one of their 400-pound elders was walking down the street in my direction and it decided, no, buddy, you cross to the other side. And got to thinking and was forced to confront an uncomfortable thought: I was fucking Cruella De Vil, at least if she wore v-necks and had an active social media presence.

Apparently, and this makes sense to people, it is incredibly wrong to turn dalmatians into fur coats, but not to hang a pig or cow by its hind legs and sever its jugular vein with a knife and watch it bleed to death. If you actually think about this, which I studiously avoided doing for a good 27 years, it makes no damn sense. And indeed, in some cultures your furry little friends often end up on the dinner plate, not because the people are more cruel, but because they are just more consistent. They don't necessarily see a morally significant difference between a dog or a cat and a pig or a cow.

And if you think about it, there isn't. That occurred to me when I, a little piglet in my eye, began trying to rationalize my meat eating. I wasn't confident in my position. I was defensive. Mostly, I was lazy. It was a behavior to which I had grown accustomed and I couldn't, or wouldn't, consider it rationally. Ugly as it was, and this is no real excuse, but: I had grown up in a speciesist household, calling animals names like “sausage patty” and “hamburger” that I'd never address them by face to face.

Put aside your strawmen. No one is saying animals are people too. No, angry white men, Little Miss Piggy will not be taking your job. You will not be denied entrance to law school because of some lefty, “PC” board of admissions decides to take a chance on some muskrat from a broken home. And no, blades of grass do not experience consciousness the way an animal does, which is why even meat-eaters will concede trampling to death the one is very much different from trampling to death the other.

We know that animals, including the ones we eat the most of, can experience suffering. We know that some animals, including the ones we eat the most of, are arguably smarter than the dog you will cry over when it dies. We know this. And we know that we can get by just fine without inflicting this suffering. In fact, science suggests those who give up eating animals aren't just fine, but better. One recent study found that vegetarians have a 32 percent lower risk of heart disease. Numerous studies have found that vegetarians live longer. Eating plants isn't just good for your nagging liberal guilt, but for your body.

What do you have to lose? Maybe there's nothing morally wrong with eating an animal (there is), but why take that chance and inflict unnecessary suffering? There's a reason many states are trying to ban video footage of corporate slaughterhouses: they don't want you to see what goes on inside. Because it's fucking terrible. Your steak went through a lot of torture before it reached the steakhouse. And it didn't have to.

Eat a salad, you asshole.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Just give up

I only read Kevin Drum when I want to get upset, which is probably something I should speak to a mental health professional about. Yesterday, I read something Drum wrote and, yes, I got upset. That was why I did it. I got upset because it is boring, unimaginative liberals like Drum who regularly call anyone to their left who doesn't see the Democratic Party as a great ally in the fight for social justice a "cynic," condemning them for preferring the comfort of purist apathy to the often slow, messy job of making the world better -- but adopting the cynic's pose as soon as anyone starts talking about change.

Writing about the broad NSA spying operation revealed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, Drum wrote that his basic view on surveillance hasn't changed since Bush was president. "I didn't like this stuff in 2005 and I don't like it now." However, and of course there's a "however" because this is Mother Jones (we would rebrand, "but that takes a lot of money."), Drum's views have in fact changed: he's not sure what the point of caring is anymore.

"I'll confess that it's hard to sustain a feeling of outrage over this," Drum admitted. "We had a huge fight about all this stuff five years ago and we lost. Now everyone is supposedly shocked, shocked" -- editor's note: a firing squad for the next person who does that double-shocked thing -- "that NSA is hoovering up huge amounts of data. Well, of course they are. We lost."

What Drum does here is what sensible liberals like him do every election cycle, which is tell those of us who hope for a world superior to the status quo to quit dreaming and accept that this is the best we can do, folks. Barack Obama, kill lists and bail outs and record deportations and all, is the best we can do. The two-party system is the best we can do. Oligarchy disguised as representative democracy is the best we can do. Give up. We lost.

I think we can do better. Spurred by the economic collapse and the continuity under Obama, people are having conversations today that they wouldn't have had a decade ago (albeit they are now being recorded by the government). Yes, absolutely: some days caring about the world and thinking we can make it better feels like a laughable error in judgement. But even if my optimism is irrational, as even I believe it is before coffee, who wants to be an above-it-all loser? I'd rather be the underdog who doesn't go down without a fight than the guy suggesting defeat is the most reasonable option.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We could use more rebels

What should you do if you uncover wrongdoing and the people responsible are the same ones who are supposed to investigate it? The way our politicians and elite media figures talk, you would think there's something honorable about tipping them off (or shutting your mouth). In the political arena, the bold person of conscience – the rebel, the maverick, the damn-the-costs truth-teller – is the bad guy, not the action hero; the company man is played by Bruce Willis.

When Edward Snowden gave up a lucrative career in an island paradise to blow the whistle about the US government's staggeringly broad spying operations – revealing what thousands of others with access to the same information wouldn't – he was going up against a system that values loyalty to those who sign your paychecks over loyalty to principle or the public. A columnist for The New York Times, which is very much a part of that system, denounced him in terms one would think would be reserved for our leaders, declaring that Snowden had “betrayed the Constitution” and “the privacy of us all” by leaking evidence of the Obama administration doing just that.

Snowden need not be the world's greatest human being for us to recognize the courage it took to do what he did. When compliance with a system makes one an accomplice to wrongdoing, there's no virtue in being compliant. There's no virtue in abiding by the “honor codes of all those who enabled [one] to rise,” as the Times columnist put it, when that code doesn't respect the rights of everyone else. We recognize that when we go to the movies. Maybe we should stop condemning it in real life?

Instead of getting caught up in media attempts to pathologize a whistle-blower, we should also probably look more closely at what the whistle was blown on, because what Snowden revealed should be concerning, even if you don't have relatives in Yemen.

This Matters

According to leaked classified documents, the US National Security Agency (NSA) is collecting data on nearly every call made by nearly every American, from the time it was placed, who was called and from where it originated. The NSA also has relationships with nearly every major Internet company, from Facebook to Google, granting the agency streamlined access to your user history. Everything you email or post to your wall could end up on an NSA server somewhere. That's a lot of data, which is why the agency is building a 1.5 million square feet server farm in Utah to hold it, at a cost of $1.2 billion.

The Obama administration claims the information it belatedly admits it collects is only later accessed with a court order. But then, those court orders are classified, granted by judges in a secret court in front of which only the government can appear. Meanwhile, the White House has refused to release its legal rationale for the spying program, which senators from the president's own party suggest is both illegal and unnecessary. It has, however, publicly credited the program with breaking up terrorist plots, though those claims – like its earlier denials that the spying program existed – have proven false.

But while it's intrusive, sure, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right? Well, no. Even if you don't have grandparents in Yemen, you should be concerned about any agency – that is, a collection of fallible human beings – that claims the right and has the power to know pretty much everything you've ever done on your iPhone. Go ahead and assume the best motives on the part of those in power, just don't forget that even the most honorable people have ex-lovers too. Even saints can be seduced by power.

Most spooks aren't saints, either. They're like us: fallen. And what would you do if you were invisible? For some NSA employees, listening to your phone calls is the equivalent of sneaking into the locker room, several of them telling ABC News that the agency routinely eavesdrops on the phone calls of Americans abroad as they call friends and family back home.

“Hey, check this out,” the agents would tell each other, according to one whistle-blower. "There's good phone sex or there's some pillow talk, pull up this call, it's really funny, go check it out.” Not exactly the model of professionalism one would hope for in someone who has god-like eavesdropping powers.

"These were just really everyday, average, ordinary Americans who happened to be in the Middle East, in our area of intercept and happened to be making these phone calls on satellite phones," said another military whistleblower. Journalists and aid workers had their communications intercepted on a regular basis.

That was a decade ago.

It's Gotten Worse

These days, the NSA is now known to be intercepting a much broader range of communication. Revelations to The Guardian show it claims the ability to tap into not just email communication, but live Skype calls. Basically everything you do on the Internet could potentially be viewed by a US government agent. There's no need for black helicopters when you voluntarily divulge your life secrets with the help of a black box made by Sony. Or a white one by Apple.

You should be especially concerned if you have opinions about things going on in our world. When a group of Pennsylvanians began working to stop a natural gas fracking project in their community, they found themselves listed on a state Department of Homeland Security bulletin. “We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies,” the Secretary of Homeland Security, a Democrat, stated in an email.

If you oppose corporate America's destruction of your community, you could end up being lumped in with actual terrorist threats. And once the word “terrorism” is invoked, all bets are off, potentially leading to a government agent, working on behalf of their corporate stakeholders, going through every ill-considered email you ever sent.

Sometimes, simply stating one's political beliefs is enough to grab the state's attention. In Seattle, the NSA's partners in surveillance at the FBI tracked a group of young anarchists to a May Day demonstration, not because they were wanted for any crimes, but because they called themselves anarchists.

“Although many anarchists are law-abiding,” an FBI agent explained, “there is a history in the Pacific Northwest of some anarchists participating in property destruction and other criminal activity in support of their political philosophy.” And so we track them. And with the surveillance capabilities we have today, it's not hard to make even the most innocent acts seem sinister, particularly when one has unpopular political beliefs or presents a challenge to corporate or state power.

It Could Be You

Combined with expansive terrorism laws, that could be a nightmare for those who fall in the arbitrary crosshairs of a government prosecutor looking to make a name for themselves. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that humanitarian groups can be convicted of “material support” for terrorism even if that support consists solely of helping seek conflict resolution. As former president Jimmy Carter said at the time, “the vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom.”

Others don't have to wonder. Since 2010, antiwar activists across the country have been subpoened and forced to testify before grand juries into a “material support” for terrorism investigation that has succeeded in scaring those who do humanitarian work in Palestine and Colombia, but as of yet yielded no convictions. Perhaps our broad spying and terrorism laws are working, just not in the way our leaders tell us. And, as these activists can attest: you don't need to be convicted of anything to be constantly spied on.

As another NSA whistle-blower, William Binney, recently told journalist Amy Goodman, “if you're doing something that irritates or is against what the government wants to be expressed to the American public, then you can become a target.” It's as easy as that. And whenever you call a friend, keep in mind that you're calling every friend your friend has ever called. Are you absolutely sure you have nothing to hide?

In Washington, most politicians seem annoyed that you now know this. They wish you didn't. As Senator Al Franken explained, “Anything that the American people know, the bad guys know so there's a line here, right?”

That's how those in Washington often view those they claim to represent in our representative democracy: lumped in with the bad guys. Indeed, aiding us in our knowledge of what the government is doing in our name, as Bradley Manning and now Edward Snowden have done, is often likened with aiding the enemy.

“I don't look at this as being a whistle-blower,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said of the NSA leaks. “I think it's an act of treason.”

Feinstein voted for a war in Iraq that she and her husband personally profited from, so she knows a thing or two dozen about treachery. But she's off base here. The American public is not the enemy, nor should informing them about the things being done to them with their own money be construed as the act of a traitor. Edward Snowden may not be the world's greatest human being; who reading this has met him? What we do know his act did a lot of good by exposing a lot of wrong and took a lot more courage than it takes to criticize him on Capitol Hill. Since they don't see that very often there, no wonder they mistake it as treason.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Does he fear getting droned too?

Barack Obama said some shit today. Among the shit he said was this, in response to reports his administration is tracking every phone call made in America, while also directly tapping into the servers of Facebook and Google:
"I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs," Obama said. "My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards."
The president says he was skeptical of this power until, friends, you have to hear this funny story: the power became his. And what head of state wants to be less powerful than their predecessor? Also there was scrubbing and safeguarding involved (we can't really get into details).

But Obama won't be a head of state forever, he reminded the press, actually saying this out loud in front of people who didn't snicker:
"With respect to my concerns about privacy issues: I will leave this office at some point—sometime in the next three and a half years—and after that I'll be a private citizen," he said. "And I suspect that on a list of people who might be targeted so that somebody could read their emails or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. So it's not as though I don't have a a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected."
If you honestly believe the world's most powerful man is honestly concerned he will be subject to the same sort of scrutiny as other private citizens -- and, more importantly, that he fears facing the same consequences (what, is he going to be Jose Padilla'd?) -- you should immediately transfer power of attorney to a trusted love one. Once he leaves office, Obama will be making millions of dollars a year giving speeches at stockholder meetings. Maybe a spook or two will glance at his email now and again, but that won't be because of any program he established; they'd do that anyway. And legally speaking, he'll face the same consequences as George W. Bush.

When presidents and former presidents do it, that means it's not illegal.

Also, this. Obama said this:
"If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here."
Barack Obama already claims the right to unilaterally kill all sorts of people endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them I recall being "life." We have some problems here.

'The Wire' wasn't that great

David Simon, creator of the American television series, The Wire:
  • Opposes marijuana legalization because he says it will only help rich white kids, which isn't true.
  • Opposes the free dissemination of information, encouraging major media companies to form a cartel aimed at ensuring only rich people like him can afford to read the news.
  • Supports intellectual property laws that guarantee people like him are overpaid, arguing that "journalism, literature, film, music -- these endeavors need people operating at the highest professional level," by which he means: I like living in a big house (ask yourself: does the best journalism, literature, film and music tend to be produced by the really rich or those that don't much care for money?)
  • Supports Barack Obama's dragnet PRISM program, which collects data on all phone calls placed in the United States, on the look how much I know basis that the government has done stuff like this before, the only thing different being "the scale." Yes, David. And LOL
All of which is to say: The Wire had its moments, but it was still just a cop show and as a one-time straight news reporter I found the last season to be unwatchable. Newspapers always sucked and I hope the next gig David Simon is up for is given to a blogger.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Chuck Hagel and the fight to keep Hope alive

Before he was confirmed, some on the liberal left sold US defense secretary Chuck Hagel as a voice for "less war, more diplomacy." I don't have to tell you what has happened since confirmation, but then I also won't get money for rent if I don't, so read my latest piece for Qatar's state-controlled media to see if Hagel has lived up to his billing.