Archive | June 2013

Going Back to Saturn

I’ve been hearing Stevie Wonder in my head all morning:

We have come here many times before
To find your strategy to peace is war
Killing helpless men, women and children
That don’t even know what they’re dying for

We can’t trust you when you take a stand
With a gun and Bible in your hand
And the cold expression on your face
Saying, “Give us what we want or we’ll destroy”

Mandela Dying, Snowden Flying

Two notorious lawbreakers dominated the news this weekend. Due to his activism against the apartheid policies of the white South African government, Nelson Mandela was convicted as a communist, prosecuted for high treason, then convicted of inciting strikes, then convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. He was imprisoned for twenty-seven years. Upon his release, he negotiated the end of apartheid with FW de Klerk and was elected President of South Africa in 1994.

Apartheid was probably doomed anyway, but it is safe to say that Mandela played a key role in ending it sooner rather than later.

On the run from a US arrest warrant, Edward Snowden was allowed to leave Hong Kong – angering the US government. He flew to an international area at a Moscow airport – therefore not technically entering Russia. Though his passport has been frozen, Wikileaks arranged papers that would allow him to travel internationally. He was allowed to book a flight from Moscow to Cuba – which also pissed off the US government – but as of Monday morning, that trip may have been a feint. No one knows where he will end up, so it makes for an exciting news event.

Mandela is currently revered by any self-identified progressive, while Snowden is currently revered by the far left and some libertarians and reviled by conservatives, moderates and Obama loyalists, but in the Guardian, Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson remind us that Snowden is not the primary story:

Let’s be absolutely clear about the news that the NSA collects massive amounts of information on US citizens – from emails, to telephone calls, to videos, under the Prism program and other Fisa court orders: this story has nothing to do with Edward Snowden. As interesting as his flight to Hong Kong might be, the pole-dancing girlfriend, and interviews from undisclosed locations, his fate is just a sideshow to the essential issues of national security versus constitutional guarantees of privacy, which his disclosures have surfaced in sharp relief.

The Wilsons are correct. Even if he is caught and imprisoned for 27 years, Snowden will probably still only be a whistleblower that happened to have access to data that the government didn’t want us to know about. He could surprise us and evolve into a heroic statesman, but that seems unlikely.

To actually challenge the surveillance state, people that should know better have to stop excusing the government for spying on us, and hold whichever administration is in power to account for abuses.

Pandora’s Boxes

A post on the NY Times suggests that blogs may soon be as passe’ as folded newspapers. Nevertheless, on the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, we find, ‘Pandora’s Promise’ Director and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Debate Nuclear Options:

It’s a brisk and frequently heated exchange in which I barely had time to step in and separate or reorient the two men. Kennedy set the tone from the start by answering my request for his Siskel-Ebert style review with this line:

“If I had to characterize the film, I would say it’s an elaborate hoax. Almost every fact in it that’s presented as facts is untrue or misleading.”

Stone initially rocked in his chair as if absorbing a body blow, but held his ground. Kennedy’s most convincing points were on the economics of nuclear energy (an area the film avoids tackling), while Stone effectively challenged assertions about health risks.

The debate is also directly available on Youtube.

My takeaway is that both men agree that industrial society must A) decrease emissions leading to climate change, and B) maintain an electrical grid. They differ as to which strategy holds the most promise. Kennedy believes that nuclear options are not only far too costly, but dangerous, so he favors wind & solar. Stone believes that only nuclear power has the energy density to replace fossil fuels.

The moderator has promised a fact check, but I can offer a few notes. Stone repeats the common claim that there have been only three significant nuclear failures: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. As I previously wrote in Strontium In the Bone, there have been several more.

Few outlets mention the fire at Windscale, the ravaged test site Semipalatinsk, the hydrogen bomb contamination at Palomares or the nuclear waste explosion at Kyshtym. In A Survey of the World’s Radioactive No-Go Zones, Der Spiegel does describe many of the nuclear events that the atomic power industry would probably like us to forget, such as 1949’s radiation release at the Hanford Site in Washington State.

Stone’s defense of health risks relies heavily on claiming that coal is just as bad as nuclear, and denying any but WHO-approved statistics. But WHO and the UN scarcely even acknowledge the events near Kyshtym, complaining that Soviet studies of the area were not presented in English.

Stone also briefly mentions that there can be environmental drawbacks to Wind & Solar. Threats to raptors, and sludge from making solar panels do pale in comparison to the thousand-year half-life of nuclear waste, but could be dealt with. What is troubling is that – like the fossil fuel industry – the alternative energy industry prefers to silence or pay off its critics. Perhaps that is because many players in alt energy are closely allied with the fossil fuel industry.

One has to wonder if we really want to hand public money to either player.

Guardian Friday

Three recent articles from the UK news site:

Revealed: the top secret rules that allow NSA to use US data without a warrant

Top secret documents submitted to the court that oversees surveillance by US intelligence agencies show the judges have signed off on broad orders which allow the NSA to make use of information “inadvertently” collected from domestic US communications without a warrant. … even under authorities governing the collection of foreign intelligence from foreign targets, US communications can still be collected, retained and used. … even under authorities governing the collection of foreign intelligence from foreign targets, US communications can still be collected, retained and used.

Steve Wozniak: ‘I felt about Edward Snowden the way I felt about Daniel Ellsberg’

Asked about US surveillance programmes in an earlier interview with a Spanish technology news site, FayerWayer, Wozniak said: “All these things about the constitution, that made us so good as people – they are kind of nothing.

“They are all dissolved with the Patriot Act. There are all these laws that just say ‘we can secretly call anything terrorism and do anything we want, without the rights of courts to get in and say you are doing wrong things’. There’s not even a free open court any more. Read the constitution. I don’t know how this stuff happened. It’s so clear what the constitution says.”

He said he had been brought up to believe that “communist Russia was so bad because they followed their people, they snooped on them, they arrested them, they put them in secret prisons, they disappeared them – these kinds of things were part of Russia. We are getting more and more like that.”

Decline and fall: how American society unravelled

The large currents of the past generation – deindustrialisation, the flattening of average wages, the financialisation of the economy, income inequality, the growth of information technology, the flood of money into Washington, the rise of the political right – all had their origins in the late 70s. The US became more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic, more individualistic and less communitarian, more free and less equal, more tolerant and less fair. Banking and technology, concentrated on the coasts, turned into engines of wealth, replacing the world of stuff with the world of bits, but without creating broad prosperity, while the heartland hollowed out. The institutions that had been the foundation of middle-class democracy, from public schools and secure jobs to flourishing newspapers and functioning legislatures, were set on the course of a long decline. It as a period that I call the Unwinding.

Serena on Steubenville

Towards the end of a routine Rolling Stone interview, Serena Williams: The Great One, appeared to sympathize more with the Steubenville rapists than the victim:

We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV … Serena just shakes her head. “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”

To answer her question, Yes I think the rapists got what they deserved (thanks in part to Anonymous). But at the same time I agree that women should be careful of drinking too much at parties. I am aware of the ideal belief that women should be safe no matter what, but I tell my own children that ideal isn’t all that practical in the real world. If Serena had said only that she might have raised fewer eyebrows. And I don’t agree that she – the victim – was all that lucky.

After a great deal of blowback, Serena spoke to the victim and her family and released a statement in which she hinted that she didn’t really say it the way it was printed:

“I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article,” the statement said. “What was written — what I supposedly said — is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.”

But she did say that.

Another Victory for Plutocracy

I have been surprised at the vitriol towards Snowden, and the defense of government surveillance, by people that self-identify as progressives. Interviewed on Democracy Now!, Glenn Greenwald observes that criticism of Edward Snowden is coming from those who criticized NSA surveillance under a Republican Administration.

It’s interesting, because the criticism completely converges. In fact, I recall very well during the Bush years of 2006, 2007, when their NSA scandal was really raging, that exactly the same arguments were being made about those of us who were writing about these programs and those who had leaked them and the journalists who had published them, that they were traitors, that they were endangering national security, that they were engaged in all sorts of attempts to harm the United States. And it’s amazing because back then you heard from Democrats, none of whom was saying that, and yet now, under a Democratic president, of course, many of them are mimicking exactly those same beliefs. … these Democrats who, under Bush, were very ardent critics of the surveillance state, of secrecy, of the idea that journalists are criminals or leakers are criminals, … now have completely done a 180 reversal now that it’s a Democrat in office. And I can tell you that, by far, the most vehement and vicious attacks on our reporting and the stories that we’ve been writing come not from Republicans, but from Democratic partisans, both in politics and in the media.

It seems less and less possible to formulate a reasoned position without being attacked by one side or the other as a traitor to the cause.

SpongeBob Snowden

Emulating his older brother, teenager Robert Snowden today leaked revelations that his employer, 7-Eleven, had been improperly recording employee and customer data. Snowden has reportedly fled to the family treehouse to escape retribution.

“Robert and Edward – who used to call each other Squidward and SpongeBob – were very close, but also very competitive, so it is not surprising that Bobby would follow his older brother into the role of whistleblower.” said their mother, from under a red blanket. She observed, “A lot of people wonder why he went to the treehouse instead of hiding in the basement, but he knows I get dizzy after the fourth rung.”

In point of fact, authorities were already aware of the 7-Eleven abuses:

Federal authorities seized 14 7-Eleven stores on Long Island and in Virginia, arresting nine owners and managers, and seized property, including five homes. They are investigating 40 other 7-Eleven franchises in New York City and elsewhere in one of the largest criminal immigrant employment investigations ever conducted by the Justice and Homeland Security Departments, officials said. … The case began two years ago when a 7-Eleven employee approached the New York State Police about not being paid for his work. Another worker later contacted the Suffolk County police.

But the younger Snowden is still convinced that he will face either official retribution, or retaliation from operatives of the Seven & I Holdings Corporation.

Local reaction has been mixed. His classmates applaud Snowden as “sort of” a hero, while older people worry that he is setting a bad example by being disloyal to his employers. “Who cares about privacy? I need my coffee in the morning, and I can drive to our 7-Eleven half-asleep.” said one neighbor, “If whippersnappers like Snowden have their way, my 7-Eleven will close, and I’ll have to go out of my way. I might have an accident! I wonder if he is secretly working for Royal Farms, or even Sheetz! I wouldn’t be surprised to see young Snowden in a new uniform very soon.”