Friday, August 23, 2013

Jeffrey Toobin Went to Harvard!

I see Jeffrey Toobin on T.V. sometimes, but I don't think I've ever read his stuff in print.  He looks smart, but I'm starting to think he isn't really all that smart.  He's been doubling down on the confusing notion that whistleblowers, like Edward Snowden, do more harm than good and should go to prison even if they spark debates that are good, important or whatever.  His attempts to justify his position are kind of embarrassing.

In this column here, he leads with, LEADS WITH, this gem:
The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy led directly to the passage of a historic law, the Gun Control Act of 1968. Does that change your view of the assassinations? Should we be grateful for the deaths of these two men? 

Of course not. That’s lunatic logic. But the same reasoning is now being applied to the actions of Edward Snowden. Yes, the thinking goes, Snowden may have violated the law, but the outcome has been so worthwhile.
THAT'S lunatic logic.   It was the act of murdering MLK and RFK that upset people and led to new laws.  Snowden revealed information about wrongdoing, and it was the wrongdoing he revealed that has upset so many people, not the act of revealing the information.  If the CIA had poisoned MLK, Snowden would be the equivalent of the insider who revealed the plot, not the poisoner.  Snowden did a service by revealing information and, now that we are aware of what he uncovered, we are demanding change.

It's not surprising that Toobin gets this wrong, though.  If you believe what Snowden did is so very wrong, you might connect it to other very wrong acts, like, say, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Toobin seems to acknowledge that there is some benefit to having this debate about surveillance, but it is greatly outweighed, he thinks, by the bad stuff.

Like what?
What if Snowden’s wrong? What if there is no pervasive illegality in the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs?
I don't think that illegality is Snowden's main reason for doing what he's doing.  The point is that what the U.S. is doing is wrong and even shocking.  That's why people are upset - even people in Congress.  If we're appalled about the powers the NSA has and how much data they've been collecting, but it is all technically legal, then maybe the law should be changed and reforms are in order.  Yeah, sometimes that happens.  It was the basis of Toobin's problematic analogy at the beginning of his article - something bad happens or is revealed and we demand changes to the law.  I think there are plenty of people who argue that there has been illegality, even pervasive illegality, revealed by Snowden, including one of the architects of the Patriot Act; but even if not technically illegal, that would not negate the significant importance of Snowden's revelations.
What are the actual dollar costs of Snowden’s disclosures?
You see, now the government is going to have to spend billions of dollars to rework its surveillance programs, maybe coming up with even more shocking and invasive programs that we'll never know about unless someone like Snowden comes along.  But anyway, that's a hell of a lot of money.

Well why shouldn't we know that the government is reading our emails, or at least has the power to?  If knowing that kind of information causes the government to spend billions to change things up, then that's the government's problem.  As taxpayers, we should demand that they act transparently - that would be a hell of a lot cheaper.  

Surveillance may be necessary but we ought to know the powers the government has and the scope of that surveillance (which is all that has really been revealed).  No one has published the phone numbers of those being monitored, and no one has revealed the details of an active plot that the government is about to bust.
What did China and Russia learn about American surveillance operations from Snowden—and what will they do with this information?
Surely they tried to snoop, even if Snowden didn't turn anything over to them knowingly, so can you imagine what those evil empires might do with such sensitive information?!

He then goes on to wonder, ominously, if there might be consequences for the dissidents and political prisoners in those countries because of Snowden's information.  Yes, one wonders how they might deal with their own "enemy combatants" or their own Bradley Mannings.  Maybe lock them up for years without a trial or something crazy like that.

But come on.  China and Russia?  Since when did they join the "Axis of Evil"?  Both countries have plenty of human rights problems, but last I heard we were doing lots and lots of business with both.  And, as I allude to above, the U.S. has plenty of human rights problems of its own: we incarcerate more of our population than either China or Russia, we have Guantanamo Bay, political prisoners, we occupy other countries, we (I mean our leaders in Washington) are responsible for the deaths of (conservatively) hundreds of thousands of innocent people over just the past dozen years (probably a million +) - in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  And, oh right, we have a government that spies on its own citizens and collects voluminous amounts of information about us that we assume to be private.  

But this is a nice way for Toobin to set this up - harkening back to the fears of decades ago, perhaps appealing to senior citizens who vote Republican: the U.S. = good; Russia/China = evil; Snowden hurt the good U.S. and may have helped the evil Communists.  Sure, if he had traveled through most other countries he would probably be facing the same fate as Bradley Manning, or worse, perhaps he would have been taken out with a drone by now.  But, but...Russia, China, billions of dollars, and all to uncover completely legal activities!

This is a huge stretch, particularly for someone who plays in the world of liberty and journalism.  But this is a big deal and people don't like what they've learned.  So, people like Toobin have to rationalize, demonize, and defend.  Sad, because he looks like such a smart guy.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Government Needs a Really, Really Good Reason for Keeping Secrets

Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo thinks I'm a "doofus" and "really dumb." He also doesn't think leaks are always wrong, but, he says, regarding the military's need for "a substantial amount of secrecy," "when someone on the inside breaks those rules, I need to see a really, really good reason."  My problem with his position is that I would hope that journalists (a term he uses to describe himself) would view their relationship to government secrecy in the opposite way: the government ought to have a really, really good reason for keeping secrets.

He spends much of his article debating a straw man – someone who believes there should be no secrets and every leak is a good leak.  In this way he can position himself as nuanced and thoughtful compared to his reckless, imaginary opponents. This ignores the fact that the major players in the Snowden affair - including Snowden himself - have made clear that they understand the problems with certain kinds of leaks that could, for example, put human life in danger.  Manning, too, has said that his actions were about shedding light on bad acts, not doing harm or trying to "blow the whole thing up," as Marshall writes.

Putting that fallacy aside, the problem with his position is that he, like the journalists that broke the Snowden story, believes there is a need to balance before releasing or publishing leaks, but he would give way too much weight to government secrecy.  Even in the abstract that is an odd position for a journalist, but facts and context make his position pretty shameful.  Neither of the recent whistleblowers are doing anything anywhere near as harmful as the acts they've uncovered, yet reading Marshall you might wonder if you missed the news about Manning revealing tomorrow's troop movements in Afghanistan or Snowden providng North Korea with a map of nuclear facilities.  Marshall doesn't specify what great harm they've caused that would outweigh what he admits is the important benefit of some leaks - that they reveal "government wrongdoing and/or excessive secrecy."  So both leaks clearly reveal a lot of both, there is voluminous evidence for that, where is the evidence of the harm Marshall is grappling with and feels the need to call others to task for?

He doesn't need much evidence because, to Marshall, government secrecy ought to be sacrosanct.  He must not think the government (at least this government) engages in much wrongdoing; and it may surround much of its actions in secrecy, but he clearly doesn't find it all that "excessive." He goes out of his way to discuss his allegiance to the government, which in this context must mean the elements of the government who are in charge of the massive spying operation uncovered by Snowden and the war crimes and conspiring with dictators uncovered by Manning.  Sure, he gives lip service to balancing, but in the end he reveals that his "balancing" really means that the people who reveal the worst crimes of our government will probably go to prison and probably deserve to and if they did any sort of public service it was greatly outweighed by the harm they did to the state with which he is aligned.

Some leaks are good, he explains, but government needs secrets, especially a government he identifies with, and besides, why should Snowden decides what gets released?
Who gets to decide? The totality of the officeholders who’ve been elected democratically - for better or worse - to make these decisions? Or Edward Snowden, some young guy I’ve never heard of before who espouses a political philosophy I don’t agree with and is now seeking refuge abroad for breaking the law?
Why should some young guy he's never heard of decide?  Well, why should Glenn Greenwald decide?  And why should Marshall decide?  He acknowledges that it is possible that some of Snowden's leaks should have been published, but doesn't explain which (a rather easy way out) and doesn't explain how journalists could ever get their hands on such information without someone in government "breaking an oath and committing a crime" and thus making a moral choice about what the public ought to know.

This calculus is a lot easier if you believe, as I do, that we all ought to know nearly everything our government is up to.  Of course there are examples where revealing government secrets does more harm than good – whether you are a government insider or a journalist receiving that information.  But Marshall's problem is that he seems to think that that is almost always the case – the government should have secrets and a whistleblower better have a damn good reason for removing that cloak of secrecy.  In a democratic and free nation, however, the truth ought to be the opposite.  The government needs a damn good reason to keep things secret.  In the case of what Snowden has revealed and what Manning revealed, I'm still waiting for one.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Nationalist-Internationalist Gay Divide and Bradley Manning

The reaction to Bradley Manning being selected and then deselected as grand marshal of this year's San Francisco Pride Parade exposed a divide in the community of gays and our allies: a divide between those who generally support U.S. foreign policy and those who generally oppose it; between nationalists who may disagree with this or that decision by a particular president but generally believe in the good of American power around the globe, and internationalists who recognize the U.S. as an imperial power led by individuals and institutions who's goals are not in the best interests of most people – even most Americans – and who recognize the destructive nature of American militarism to people across the globe, gay and straight.

If you believe that U.S. foreign policy is largely guided by the goals of liberation and human rights, then Manning is right to be shunned since his action impeded that.  If you believe that, human rights or not, U.S. foreign policy prioritizes keeping Americans safe, again, honoring Manning would be problematic.  Even if you only think those things when your political party is in the White House, you still recognize the threat his action posed to your leader's agenda.

On the other hand, if you understand that U.S. foreign policy is neither about keeping Americans safe nor about human rights but about global dominance at the expense of human rights (and often making the world more dangerous for the average American), then you can and should rally around Manning.

He has brought to light much of the backroom deals and outright criminality of many of our political, civil and military leaders, not to mention those of oligarchs in other countries, removing a veil of secrecy that hid war crimes and shielded dictators.  He is a whistleblower whose actions have contributed to the fall of repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and helped spur on uprisings elsewhere.  The facts he leaked have been used in countless news articles in many of the same outlets that also condemn him or ignore his plight.  The benefits of his actions are really too numerous to mention here; and while I wouldn't call him a hero, I absolutely find his actions courageous and incredibly important.

Despite the fact that Manning is gay and possibly transgender, and despite the human rights perspective that his act was courageous, some in the gay community responded negatively when they discovered he was named SF Gay Pride's grand marshal.   A handful of gay militarists launched a campaign against the selection, calling Manning a "traitor" and his actions "treacherous" and "a disgrace." Within hours the honor was rescinded and SF Pride board president announced as follows:
His nomination was a mistake and should never have been allowed to happen ...

...even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform -- and countless others, military and civilian alike -- will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.
Bradley Manning protest at SF Pride board meeting.
That brought the divide between gay nationalists and gay internationalists to the fore.  It also revealed a factual disagreement that mostly boils down to the same ideological divide.  The factual assertion, as reflected in the statement from the SF Pride board president, is that Manning's leaking of information caused harm.  Usually this idea has taken the form of: "his leak put soldiers at risk;" but I've also heard: "his leak made diplomacy more difficult making the alternative of military action more necessary."

If you believe that what the U.S. is doing around the world is wrong then it is clear that the people putting our soldiers in harms way are the leaders in the White House and the Pentagon, not a soldier who revealed some of the truth about our wars and foreign policy.  The diplomacy angle falls the same way.  If you believe our diplomats are conspiring with other regimes around the world, many unelected and unaccountable, to maintain U.S. hegemony at the expense of universal human rights, then it doesn't really matter that their job is made more difficult, and it is not accepted that the alternative is military force.

Furthermore, if you are a critic of U.S. foreign policy and you have a human rights perspective, then you likely dig beyond official press releases for your facts, and you know that there is no evidence that Manning's actions put any troops in harms way. You also recognize that the anger directed at Americans in some parts of the world has everything to do with what the people living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere experience on the ground and nothing to do with Bradley Manning.  If anything, his actions demonstrated the problem with saddling the citizens, and even the soldiers, of any particular nation-state with the crimes of that nation-state.

As a gay man, an internationalist and someone who feels strongly that human rights are universal, I believe the conventional wisdom about foreign policy coming from Washington D.C. and the corporate media must be challenged.  The destructive role the U.S. plays around the world is difficult to fathom, especially for many Americans who have never experienced occupation, the buzzing of weaponized drones over our homes, or the killing of hundreds of thousands within our borders at the hand of a distant, foreign power.  Bradley Manning has played a critical role in revealing, to a broader audience, some of the crimes of our government – crimes committed against civilians, gay and straight.  Furthermore, he did this brave act as a gay soldier of conscience.  He deserves the honor of grand marshal at any parade honoring a history of struggle for human rights and ongoing liberation; but as a gay man working in an institution that, at the time, maintained a policy requiring him to keep his sexual orientation a secret, Bradley Manning certainly deserves to be grand marshal at gay pride.

I was happy to add my name to a complaint filed with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission against SF Pride regarding the Manning matter.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Hate Against Muslims? San Francisco Gays Shouldn't Stand For It

One of the original ads.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative Hate Group (AFDI) has decided that riling up anti-Muslim rhetoric on buses and subway stops is an ideal way to stay relevant and maybe recruit some ignorant fools to their cause.  In San Francisco, they are even trying to convince gays and our allies to hate Muslims.  There is no reason why they should succeed with such a blatantly hateful message, but it doesn’t take much to incite hate crimes and justify much worse.  Gays and our allies have to take action against the presence of these disgusting ads on our buses.  If Muni won’t take down the ads, then other actions, such as the culture jamming that is already taking place, are in order.

The AFDI, apparently, feels it is critical to educate Americans about the dangers from extremists who identify as Muslim, like Osama bin Laden.  Because, you know, Americans are just too accepting of bin Laden’s views.  That’s silly and there is obviously no such need. AFDI’s objective is to rile up hatred of all Muslims and defame an entire religion.  Indeed, the ads they are mocking were fairly innocuous ads run by the #MyJihad initiative that showed average Muslims and their admirable self-improvement goals.

One of AFDI's reactionary hate ads.
After AFDI's initial run of disgusting response ads, and a lot of pushback in San Francisco, they decided that their newest ads should include some quotes about homosexuality by some people who call themselves Muslim and/or claim to speak in the name of Islam.  There is no other purpose for such ads, but to attempt to demonize all Muslims in the eyes of San Francisco gays and our allies.

No one would debate that people can and do use religion as a twisted justification for hate and violence – whether against gays or others.  This is true of all religions though. Yet you don’t see the AFDI Hate Group running ads quoting the Westboro Baptist Church and warning of the dangers of Christianity or Christian extremists.  No.  They’re bigots and prefer to target a religious minority already targeted by hate crimes, and overzealous law enforcement.

The AFDI’s hate ads certainly encourage hate crimes.  They also help justify and support killing, war, occupation and apartheid.  That is the larger context beyond the mosque fires and assaults in our communities, as horrible as they are.  Demonizing Muslims reinforces policies supported by some of our political leaders in Washington – war in predominantly Muslim countries, incarceration without trial at Guantanamo Bay, assassination by drone, support for friendly despots in predominantly Muslim countries, and tremendous support, including billions in tax dollars, to Israel with no accountability for crimes against Palestinians.

Earlier AFDI Hate Ads dealt with properly.
I think Muni should pull the ads because I don’t believe these particular ads could be described as “political speech,” and the substance of their message is only one demeaning an entire religion and everyone in that religious group. Of course I understand the risks involved in removing the ads.  Our Muni system is already underfunded and the last thing they need is a major lawsuit. Though it is hard for me to believe they would allow ads from other hate groups, such as the aforementioned Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan, without a fight.  Regardless, it would be an uphill battle in the courts.  I’m also very sympathetic to arguments by many civil libertarians about the dangers of empowering the state to police hate speech when that same state may easily abuse such powers.  I get all that.  In some ways, perhaps the best case scenario is widespread civil disobedience.  The hate ads have already received a fair amount of reappropriation, and in a city like San Francisco, we’ll hopefully see much more culture jamming and thus much more popular education.

As a historic center of the gay rights movement, San Francisco has an opportunity to demonstrate that our gay rights agenda is not so narrowly focused.  Gay, straight, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist – we are a community for all and we’ll tolerate everything but intolerance and hate.


 The new gay-themed ads are set to run in April.  Hopefully we'll see more of this: