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    Letter from New York

    June 1, 2020 // 1 Comment »

    New York City remains locked down while America seeks the bloom of spring.

    No wrinkles then around my eyes the first time I saw her, and she wasn’t just a bubble tea shop then. When people could roam the streets of New York City without harassment for failing to tie a talisman of a mask across their face, I used to walk regularly, often without specific purpose, past the old San Remo Cafe in Greenwich Village.

    In the 1950s and 60s the regulars included giants like James Agee, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs, Miles Davis, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, William Styron, Dylan Thomas, Gore Vidal, and Judith Malina. Imagine the conversations, the dirty jokes, the warm beer.

    If you don’t recognize all the names, Google a couple. James Baldwin. A black, gay man, he wrote about victims without victimizing. Because he was a black gay man he understood the failings of humanity not just towards black gay men, but towards men. Modern writers in his genre always seem to start off their work with “AS a ____” demanding your sympathy on line one. Baldwin was better than that. He saw hope, not profit, in anger.

    Woody Guthrie played in the neighborhood around the San Remo and certainly must have stopped in, as did Bob Dylan.

     

    The cafe closed long ago. The property was most recently a bubble tea shop and its clientele about 99 percent Asian tourists who I do doubt ever read James Agee. Irony is a character in this story. Do history a favor and skip the abomination of the tea; just down Bleecker Street is Fiore’s Pizza, named after a New York firefighter killed on 9/11. It’s hard not to remember those sharp blue September days when we took care of each other, briefly, before we became so afraid. Heat can forge, or it can melt. Men who ran into a fire were NY’s heroes instead of people who, however necessary, stock shelves.

    Bob Dylan lived nearby on West 4th Street, having come to the neighborhood in large part because he wanted to meet Woody Guthrie. Neither man would be newly successful today. Both were in their primes imperfect men, perfect for #MeToo entrapment by those who have likely since graduated into masked tattletales (irony again; they hide themselves with facemasks while judging you.) The poets made you pay attention to the words because they wrote prayers, not songs. The words mattered because words once mattered as more than sounds that just rhymed well to a beat. Dylan wrote “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man” in this neighborhood about some NYC-type who often kept him awake at odd hours wandering around like we once could do. The sleepless Dylan never imagined what we see now when he wrote the lyric “the empty street’s too dead for dreaming.”

    The last war had been fought up the street, at the White Horse Tavern in the 1930s with the reds, and the place would make a comeback in the later gasps of the 1960s. At San Remo were the children of World War II too young to have experienced the bloodshed but damn aware of the price war took on their fathers, awake in the affluence of the 1950s and 60s alienated by the Cold War. Americans never really made peace with all that. It’s quite a neighborhood.

     

    The cafe can’t be there anymore, nor the Asian tourists, and neither can I because a good idea to implement social measures to slow the virus in line with our capacity to deal with it morphed into a fear driven shelter in place mania until we achieve zero-death plan. New York City has a dirty little secret it isn’t talking about. Arbitrary standards have been set for the whole of the place (available hospital beds to reopen the city must be 30 percent; it’s now at 29 percent. Number of hospitalizations misses the market by two-thirds of a person) , some eight million people. But there is little of the virus in Manhattan, including near the cafe. Most of the deaths are clustered in in the Bronx and distant Brooklyn, separated by class and money. The rich areas are held hostage in lockdown now to the poor areas. Yet to go out for milk now I have to look like Billy the Kid about to knock off the 10:15 train.

    I miss New York, the idea of New York, because the real place barely ever existed. The city always goes too far — too many handouts, too much poverty displaced by too much wealth, too much real art pushed aside by garbage, too much multi-generational public housing. Everybody knows the city always goes too far, and periodically it has to be culled back like weeds out of control.

    The 1970s and early 80s saw it turn into Beruit, with hard lines those stuck here learned to navigate. There is OK during the day, up there never, over near the park only if you had a good reason and some street smarts. The Bronx burned, the cops windshield wipered between giving up and turning vigilante. We did it again not too long later, with stop and frisk and broken window policing. Then back down to where a year ago or so the mayor ordered the police to stop arresting people of color for what he defined as minor crimes in the subway and then declared the subways safe (again) while minor crimes enmassed into just crime. Again. Each of those cuts through life here and the city walks around with the scars.

    The deal with New York was that you put up with stuff like that, grad school liberal poli-sci think pieces actually acted out (free methadone to replace cheap heroin, what could go wrong when a “clinic” replaces a grocery store in a neighborhood) in return for the old San Remo Cafe you could not get in South Bend or Allentown in return for putting up with what you did not have to navigate in South Bend or Allentown. The city is like a sunset, you don’t expect it to admire you back.

     

    Then it all went to hell in 2020. Those same political think pieces said they needed to put the city into a medically-induced economic coma to top the virus. The solution hit hardest on the poor. They need to become poorer to save them, that irony thing again.

    The public school system, which in another social experiment gone too far had been largely turned into a massive outbox for free meals, free daycare, free menstrual products, free birth control, and free medical care, just gave up education as a function completely and closed. The one single only solitary thing that has any chance of helping someone do better than their parents, education, was shut down. The city’s “public advocate” even wants penalties waived for skipping online school. So that’s OK. One imagines the immigrants on the Lower East Side a hundred years ago working extra hours on top of a 60 hour regular week to send one of their four kids to school to give the whole family a chance. Thanks, Grandpa.

    A good friend taught public high school in the deranged and ravaged South Bronx for several years under “Teach for America,” another grad school project which theorized anybody in front of a classroom was basically better than nobody, and hoped if you rolled the dice enough and stuck enough privileged kids in front of enough poor kids something decent might come of it. My friend eventually quit, realizing how much time he spent in his classroom on things not related to teaching science. His conclusion — you can’t fix the schools in the South Bronx until you fix the South Bronx — isn’t anyone’s current project. One imagines the minimum wage Amazon frontline worker thinking about the flyover honoring him about the same way he thought about people thanking him for his service after Afghanistan.

    Somehow Bill Gates is now deeply involved. What does he know, but he means well and he is a rich tech prince, about what in New York passes today as civic virtue. It reminds me of my nation-building days in Iraq, when any dumb idea could find a sponsor only the people in NY care even less about the results.

    New York is generally content with the system it has, a bizarre mashup of pseudo-socialism inside the greatest concentration of capitalism ever known enforced by near-fascist decree to enact the social experiments while the cops keep the rich and poor safely apart. Extreme forms of mitigation can have diminishing returns, but only in real life. The virus saw New York in the name of a liberal experiment to save New York from the virus shut down the jobs and the schools. Projections are more comfortable. Charter schools, no grades, more computers, more African history and art, free college for all, lockdowns, quarantines, masks, let’s try it. A virus will crush an already broken society faster and more efficiently than a working one. What’s happening now is a culmination not an event.

     

    We are most certainly not all in this together. Across the rest of the city, people are here without being here, with the richest areas about 40 percent empty. They have other homes to retreat to, suburban panic rooms from which to see how long this time it will take NYC to surface again. You can track their flight by the drop off in garbage collected in certain neighborhoods. Less people, less trash. The real rich toughing it out with the proles have private speakeasies to ease the pain.

    One thing the rich will be watching is where this time the economic (and thus safety) fault lines will settle in. On my side of town, the bad streets had receded above 96th. They’re working their way back to 93rd now. Google up real estate values and statistics for burglaries of old people and street assaults and you’ll know. The rich abandoned the public school system long ago. They also had the comfort of closing their public schools earlier to protect themselves from the early days of the virus (their schools being used primarily for education not as charity distribution centers; a mega-irony was that the schools still being part of the last social experiment meant they had to stay open longer until alternate food distribution could be worked out) and will exercise the option of reopening their private schools sooner, as the virus statistically is far away from them.

    Heat can forge, or it can melt. New York’s mayor is a goofball, a knucklehead, a jaboni who imagines himself a Caucasian blend of Cesar Chavez, Obama, and Dr. King. He wanted to be president even. Nobody really likes him, but the people who vote (by mail, from their second homes) generally endorse his policies even as they wish for someone a bit more elegant. They like the idea of feeling good, and so love the idea of a handful of “lower income” apartments mandated into billion dollar residencial towers. They tolerate a population of several thousand human trolls living homeless in the subway system because it adds “grit” to their city while they take Uber. Quaint shops and bars needed for Instagram are kept alive via GoFundMe and tax breaks, not customers. They mandated a city without public toilets, customers only!, and then seem surprised everything smells like urine. Can’t they eat cake? They act like they discovered the vaccine against irony long ago.

     

    Of course no one talks much about how the good ideas never seem to improve the lives of those they are aimed at. Despite the lockdown, plenty of people keep getting sick and dying in New York. The South Bronx is still poor. Despite the economic coma NYC still has a higher death toll per million in population than any other state in America. New York City also has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country yet we tolerate the death toll which persists. Most of those who die by gunfire are in the same category as the virus deaths, poor and of color and from another part of town walled off by street signs as plain and easy to understand as that wall across the Mexican border.

    The virus takes its victims, but much more of the harm is self-inflicted. It will take researchers years to sort out where the Venn diagram circles overlap among social distancing, natural processes like herd immunity, and just plain exaggeration, but it is clear today the virus is not the most dangerous thing here anymore. This is a dismal city to be in today, ravaged by a virus of bad ideas and self-delusional political experiments that laid in wait for a trigger event, COVID for now, to land some body blows. New York is a place now that misses its younger, happier self. Hard to imagine the poets at the old San Remo Cafe like I am now, wishing away a lovely spring and summer to hurry it up until November.

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    Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?

    April 18, 2020 // 11 Comments »


     

    The talk in New York is about when to return to normal. But that misses the point; normal never really left, it just changed clothes. We traded economic disparity expressed through poverty for economic disparity expressed through viral death. The real problem isn’t when we’ll return to normal, it is that we will.
     

    All the energy that made this city more than livable, made it desirable, is gone. It’s just a big, empty place now, all the seams showing. The closed stores still have St Patrick’s Day decorations. Time stopped in March. I am a native New Yorker by birth, seven years now returned. I don’t know how many times we can all stand on the ledge and not jump. From 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, Super Storm Sandy. This feels more like the gray of post-war East Germany than the white hot panic of late WWII Berlin.

    New York state has more corona cases than any other country in the world. About half of all U.S. deaths are here in the broader New York area. Sure, there are other hot pockets but while NYC counts the bodies in the thousands there are some states still in single figures and most others in the hundreds. The stars may soon again hold benefit concerts for us, echoing post-9/11’s “ferocious tenderness of how desperately America loves New York.” When the city talks in its sleep what many remember most is the kindness people showed toward one another that blue September, little courtesies of holding doors and allowing someone to cut the line, half smiles from total strangers in a place where such vulnerability could previously have made you prey.

    Not with the virus. We snap at each other, enemies now, each a potential carrier. This is a not a city which lends itself to personal space without a flash of aggressive eye contact. Walk without a mask and someone will snap at you. Two guys hissing something in Spanish at an Asian woman. Lines to enter the food store with everyone watching like North Korean border guards for sneaks. SNL and late night never mocked Bush in the immediate 9/11 aftermath. If we ever were one we are not now. Because we are for certain not all in this together as Governor Andrew Cuomo said: “Everyone is subject to this virus. I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are.”

    That is not true. The virus is highly concentrated in the poorest Hispanic and black neighborhoods of Queens and the Bronx. The viral death rate for Hispanics is 22 people per 100,000; for blacks 20 per 100,000 while the rate for whites is 10 per 100,000. For whites even that is deceptive, given the hot spots in the isolated Hasidic Jewish enclaves of Brooklyn versus the paucity lack of white deaths in the high-income areas. Poorer people are more likely to die at home than in a hospital, and so the surge in at-home deaths, most never tested, suggests the death rate for the virus is being under-counted. Overall the virus is twice as deadly for Hispanics and blacks than whites in NYC.

    In New York we speak hundreds of languages but not to each other. A map of viral cases neighborhood-by-neighborhood tells the tale. America’s most diverse city, America’s most sanctimonious city about that, is also one of her most segregated on the ground.

    New York City is also the most economically unequal city in the country. It is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. Living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the largest homeless population of any American metropolis. The number of New Yorkers who live below the poverty line is larger than the population of Philadelphia or Phoenix, and would be the country’s 7th largest city. The billionaires fund the social services and the poor clean the homes and scavenge the trash of the billionaires.
     

    The reasons are the same reasons. Poor neighborhoods are served by the city’s miserable public hospitals, not its world-class private ones. A virus patient in the ravaged Bronx is twice as likely to die as one in a “nice” neighborhood. The problem is the quality, not the quantity, of healthcare. “We are watching, in real time, racial disparities and the pandemic of poverty,” one assemblyman said.

    Poor people suffer from comorbidities (86 percent of the dead have one), particularly the ones of bad diets like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity. Hypertension is 3x more prevalent, and diabetes 5x more, in the South Bronx than in well-to-do lower Manhattan. Influenza, which has already killed about twice as many people this season as COVID-19, follows a similar pattern.

    The Elmhurst neighborhood in Queens is “the epicenter within the epicenter,” according to the mayor. Some 64 percent of its residents are Hispanic, and the median household income is three-quarters of that of the metro area. Nearly 11 percent of households there are multigenerational. The grouping of young (who carry the virus without symptoms) and elderly together helps drive the higher infection rates.

    Park Slope, Brooklyn, has some of the city’s lowest rates of COVID-19, 56 percent below average. Two-thirds of its population is white and the median household income is one and a half times greater than average. Less than two percent of households are multigenerational. But when the Surgeon General specifically admonished people of color to stop drinking and using drugs during the pandemic to power up their immune systems he was called a racist.
     

    This is the normal. The economic disparity driving the viral load in NYC was here long before the virus; COVID-19 was superimposed on that sordid base. What is happening now, the deaths, was always happening, albeit slower. This mocks what pundits are calling the big question, how to balance the city’s health and the city’s economic needs, when to re-open for business. Economic inequality has been killing people all along, and keeping poor people from working by decree only makes them poorer and eventually sicker. It is a slow death as opposed to the quick countable deaths from the virus.. Tom Hanks will thank the food delivery guys for their service on SNL but we still won’t pay them a living wage.

    One of the things blamed in NYC was the late decision to close the public schools. Many wealthy private schools closed on their own in early March. The mayor kept the massive public school system open until the middle of the month not for educational reasons, but because it doubles as a social service center for poor children, including 114,000 who are homeless.

    More than half of all public students get their meals at school, and for the homeless kids it is the only place they can wash clothing and clean themselves. Birth control and STD testing for kids from strict Hispanic Catholic homes mostly happens surreptitiously through the schools. The schools provide daycare so poor people can work, and are the last hope to keep a few children out of gangs and offer them a break from abusive homes. “Given the alternatives, schools are a safer place for many kids,” one teacher said. Closing the schools was a “last resort,” judged a better option than hiding from the virus at one point. The uptick in child violence and domestic violence in general New York is experiencing now was understood to be coming, collateral damage.

    The city made up its mind a long time ago. During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which killed 30,000 New Yorkers, the Health Commissioner demanded public schools be kept open, believing the risks of gathering kids together were outweighed by the benefits of giving them a break from their crowded and unsanitary tenement apartments. The Commissioner also noted working immigrant parents had no time to care for their kids, better to have them looked after at schools. As he put it, sick people don’t go to the theater when they feel bad but they do go to work.

    Same for the subway system, still running 24/7, a remarkably effective way to spread the virus. As in 1918, poor people can’t work remotely. NYC kept the public schools open, and keeps public transport running, then and now, knowing it would spread the virus, because the alternative hardships seem worse.
     

    I’ve lived in the developing world and you get used to this. You have and they don’t, way it is, beyond one man’s blame and seemingly any man’s fix. The biggest barrier to some sort of “re-opening” in NYC is to figure out how to express that in palatable terms for 2020. Not that we weren’t already already doing it for the last hundred years, but now we need to make rules to govern our apartheid of dollars that sound OK in the Sunday Review section. The rest is just logistics.

     

    BONUS

    New York is not alone. In Chicago, more than 70 percent of the deaths related to the coronavirus were among black residents, though blacks make up only a third of the city’s population. In Michigan, black residents make up just 14 percent of the population, but over 40 percent of the COVID-19 deaths.

    It was always sort of this way, but maybe a slightly better version of it. Up until the 1970s or so, New York had always been about The Deal. You put up with the filth, the crowding, the lack of empathy, and she’ll throw you a bone. If you really make it, the luxuries of the world are available at your fingertips. In the middle, for the plumbers and the clerks, a spring afternoon at the stadium with a hot dog and a beer (or nowadays more commonly, a churro) reached at heaven. For the immigrants, from the 19th century Irish, Germans, Jews, and Italians to today’s Dominicans and Vietnamese, work until you’re running, burned, and near blind, and we’ll educate your kids so they don’t have to.

    We did away with The Deal when we switched to more disposable workers. A janitor I know tells the tale. His father came to New York from Puerto Rico a few Americas ago. Dad worked nights until he bought a house in Queens. Miguel’s brother is out of work with a high fever, but the real worry is dad, diabetic and elderly and living downstairs. Miguel cleans for rich people and “can’t get sick” because he’s now holding the family purse. He’s angry his kids have to “online school,” because he wants them to make the move, third generation, up and out, and online isn’t going to be enough.

     

     

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    The Monsters Are Due on Pennsylvania Avenue

    April 11, 2020 // 3 Comments »


     

    “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own…”
     

    That’s the closing narration to a classic Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. A summer’s day turns darkly paranoid as a group of neighbors convinces themselves strange doings are part of an alien invasion. Worse yet, one family among them may be aliens in disguise. Their fears escalate until a neighbor is shot and the former friends descend into a mob. The episode ends on a nearby hilltop where real aliens are watching the riot on Maple Street while manipulating the neighborhood’s electricity to encourage the violence. They comment on how simply fiddling with consistency leads people to descend into paranoia, and that this can be exploited to conquer Earth. The message is clear: while there is a real threat, the worst damage is done by ourselves, driven by the search for someone to blame.
     

     
    And oh yes in 2020, in what the NYT calls this “land of denial and death,” we search for someone to blame. Paranoia does not require much grounding in real life. So while a global pandemic unfolds, affecting over 150 countries, the blame for what is happening rests with one man. China, Spain, Canada, wherever, have no Trump. They don’t have America’s grossly commercialized medical system, or the economic inequality, or the the presence/lack of border controls, to exacerbate the virus. Yet they have the virus, statistically flexible enough to be worse than the U.S. where needed (China and Iran, they lie) or better than the U.S. to prove some point (South Korea tests more, Denmark has socialized medicine.)

    The Boston Globe has it clear: Donald Trump “Has Blood On His Hands” over coronavirus. The idea that a global pandemic is not “anyone’s” fault is unthinkable and Trump is a ready foil. The MSM has spent three years seeding our thoughts Trump is deadly. He was a Russian spy selling our secrets even as the #Resistance lead by Alec Baldwin practiced shouting “Wolverines!” He brought us to the brink of civil war, or nuclear war with North Korea, Iran, and China, enroute to climate change death. So what if the MSM got the details wrong — it wasn’t Russiagate or white nationalism or Ukraine — it was, we found it, this.
     
    Look, Trump did away with the “Pandemic Response Team” in 2018. If we had had that Team they would have swatted the virus away. Except there was no Team. What was fired was one man, Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who was actually only a bureaucratic coordinator on the NSC. Ziemer was originally a George Bush anti-malaria appointee after his naval aviation career, an evangelical Christian, with little real-world experience with a pandemic. Not a doctor, not a specialist. No matter his team and its duties were reassigned inside the NSC to a new biodefense directorate. And no matter Ziemer still works for the government, at USAID, in case anyone needs his expertise. And no matter he and his position did not exist in 2009, when by most MSM accounts the U.S. successfully handled the swine flu virus.
     
    Well, maybe it is because Trump cut funding to the CDC and NIH! Except that did not happen. The president’s budget proposals called for reducing funding even as Congress said no every time. Joe Biden claimed Trump “tried to defund the NIH” even as lawmakers enacted increases. Not that it matters much, but Trump never called the virus a hoax, though he did call Democratic efforts to tar him with inaction a hoax. And a Johns Hopkins study in 2019 ranked the U.S.  the best-prepared country in the world to handle a pandemic.
     
    But Trump didn’t test! Of course testing has ramped up quickly to the point where the U.S. has tested more people than other countries and is leading the world in deploying the new, faster, antibody test. But blame requires focus on an initial couple of weeks, mid-impeachment proceedings, when testing was not available in large quantities. One typical headline claimed, “The U.S. Badly Bungled Coronavirus Testing.” But the problems were old news almost as soon as the stories were written. Within a week, nearly a million tests would be available. The initial testing rollout of a CDC-designed test kit to state and local labs was unsuccessful because it contained a faulty reagent. CDC quickly backed away from a policy position limiting full testing to its own labs for statistical and quality control purposes, and commercial, university, and state labs gained approval to use their own tests.
     
    The CDC’s actions were standard procedure, and for good reason. When a new disease emerges CDC normally gets the ball rolling because it has the expertise and the biosafety laboratories to handle dangerous novel pathogens. Typically there are few confirmed viral samples at the outset, which researchers need to validate their tests, and CDC has the capability to grow the virus for this critical quality assurance step. You lose that if you allow everyone to test simultaneously. It’s not a “blame,” it is science.

    As for the technical problem with the original CDC kits, here it is: “The key problem with the kits is what’s known as a negative control. CDC’s test uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay to find tiny amounts of the SARS-CoV-2 genome in, say, a nose swab. To make sure a test is working properly, kits also include DNA unrelated to SARS-CoV-2. The assay should not react to this negative control, but the CDC reagents did at many, but not all, state labs. The labs where the negative control failed were not allowed to use the test; they have to continue to send their samples to Atlanta.” The CDC has been supplying reagents through the same place for a decade. So if you want to blame Trump for stirring in the wrong DNA in the kits, whatever, go ahead.
     
    Oh, you want someone to really blame? Well, there’s two pandemics’ worth of it to go around.

    But what about the ventilators? The U.S. tried to build a new fleet of ventilators, but the mission failed, leaving us in the present situation. Left out of the discussion was that the failure took place under the Obama administration, following the H1N1 pandemic. It was understood then some 70,000 ventilators should be stockpiled. Yet through a failure of oversight by the Obama administration the project ultimately produced zero ventilators. Last year the Trump administration approved a new design to kickstart the project, with deliveries to start in the summer.

    But didn’t we once have more ventilators? Yes, in California, but Governor Jerry Brown sold them. In 2006, citing the threat of avian flu, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had the state invest $200 million in a powerful set of medical weapons. He created a truck-borne system of some 50 million N95 respirators, 2,400 portable ventilators, and 21,000 patient beds. Then in 2011 the new Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, cut off the money to maintain the stockpile. The ventilators were given to local hospitals and health agencies without any funding to maintain them. Many were resold to dealers who shipped them abroad. The N95 respirators were allowed to expire without being replaced.
     
    New York, once again Ground Zero for a national tragedy, may not have enough ventilators. After learning in 2015 the state’s stockpile of medical equipment had 16,000 fewer ventilators than New Yorkers would need in a severe pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo could have chosen to buy more ventilators. Instead, he asked his health commissioner to draft rules for rationing the ventilators they already had.

    Governor Cuomo also recognized, but failed to do anything about, a shortage of masks and other protective gear. On March 6, weeks before Trump raised the issue, Cuomo stated people were stealing the equipment out of hospitals in New York. “Not just people taking a couple or three, I mean just actual thefts of those products,” Cuomo said. “I’ve asked the state police to do an investigation, look at places that are selling masks, medical equipment, protective wear.” There is no evidence he or the police ever followed up, directly resulting in a shortage today. Cuomo did not restate his order to investigate even after a warehouse with pallets of black market masks was reported.

    Despite the crisis, Cuomo continues to pursue $2.5 billion in Medicaid cuts to NY’s hospitals alongside limiting their expansion to save more money. That will end up being a lot of ICU beds missing if needed.

    Elsewhere in New York, city mayor Bill De Blasio’s decision to keep public school open through mid-March, well into the pandemic, is seeing its gruesome legacy play out in Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn, where multi-generational households are among the hardest visited by death.
     
    What about Congress? Public health experts testified on in 2018 and 2019 asking for over a billion additional dollars as part of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, explaining programs created after 9/11 to ready the nation’s health system for any kind of disaster had since been stripped down to dangerously low levels. Congress cut the funding. That decision is “among several key moments over the last few years where experts warned of the likelihood of something like current pandemic and government leaders did not do enough to prepare.”

    The point is not to absolve Trump. The point is not to blame others. There exists among too many an ugly need for things to fail, so we can blame someone. That glee cruel because the desire for a scapegoat coincides with much suffering.
     
    You never defeat a disaster, whether a hurricane in Puerto Rico or a virus. You mitigate it. Success is measured by how well those natural processes are pushed back beyond civilization’s walls and by how much suffering is relieved along the way. The process almost always follows the same path: recognize the disaster (easier with earthquakes, harder with a virus), determine what is needed (time consuming and ever-evolving with the goal being the right help to the right places in order of priority), procure and transport (can take time), and allow the mitigation efforts to go to work. Disaster management specialists know it will never be fast enough, as the response starts in deficit. But a tipping point will take place, and people will start to receive the help they need.
     
    The press conferences, clogged with ritual passive aggressiveness, grow wearisome, do not inform and entertain only in the way slowing down at a car wreck does. It’s not Weimar, it’s not Rome, but it is time to grow up; we’re all on the Diamond Princess now. We’ll have an election soon enough, and the people can decide for themselves what the MSM and Democrats have been trying to force on them for more than three years. Until then, focus on fixing the problems for our neighbors, not the blame.
     
     

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    What We Lost in the Pandemic

    April 4, 2020 // 11 Comments »


     
    A lot of change has taken place in a very short period of time in America, almost all of it undebated and unchallenged, in response to what still has a long way to go to justify it. But the virus is killing us all! Stop. It is not only possible to hold two ideas in mind at once, it is vital. The virus is a threat. At the same time we are immersed in making fundamental changes to society willy-nilly that will outlive the virus.
     
    Only two weeks ago I had an hourly-paid part-time job, my hours subject to my boss’ needs and whims. That made me a lot like the 60 percent of the American workforce who are also hourly employees, not to mention those working as independent contractors, adjuncts, and the massive undocumented labor behind our farms, hotels, and restaurants. The government ordered most of us to stop working and we did. Nobody is entirely sure if “the government” can actually just do this, but it did. Almost none of us can work from home. We wait like baby birds for the government to drop checks into our mouths. Overnight we went from workers, albeit workers at the failing edge of economic inequality, to dependent on government handouts. As the balance of power between Americans and their government changes dramatically, 60 percent of us approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis.

    Perhaps the clearest example of what just happened took place among teachers. Teachers from K-College worked frantically on their own time to eliminate the need for classrooms and move instruction online. Something that might have been rejected as unacceptable six months ago, or expected to take years under normal circumstances, was done at no new cost overnight. No consultants, no arguments from parents or unions, just worker bees radically transforming the American educational system. It won’t take long after this is done for institutions to realize they don’t need so many teachers, classrooms, janitors, etc. anymore. The infrastructure now assembled can be used so one teacher can instruct hundreds or thousands of kids. Why have ten math professors to teach ten sections in ten rooms when one person online can more or less do it? So teachers, thank you for your efforts to iron out the bugs in a mass proof-of-concept experiment. Don’t worry in the future when you’re out of work; there are always alternatives in the free market system. A porn site is offering the unemployed big bucks as cam girls during the pandemic.

    A live classroom teacher (doctor, therapist, consultant, etc.) may someday become yet another luxury available only to a select few. Quality will be what you can afford. That is part of what corona is doing, helping people adjust to a new standard. Remember once most white collar jobs came with a private office with a door, a dedicated secretary, and a formal lunch hour, never mind a pension. Manufacturing jobs paid a living wage, with union benefits and a picnic each summer to honor the American worker. Stuff happens, ya’ know?

     

    For the second time in about only a decade, we are seeing our homes endangered. Rent payments are hard. As mortgage payments slip the banks are sniffing around like hyenas. Some people will fail on rent payments on the same homes they used to own. Occupy Wall Street? No, occupied by Wall Street.

    Like good boys and girls a lot of us did invest our money after the 2008 economic crisis, yet anyone contemplating retirement or college in the near term just saw 20 percent of all that go away. Again. The bailouts are here, in the trillions, again, for the airlines and other businesses. Of course the stock market will go back up, it always does. What occurs in the space between it going down and going back up is the wealthiest Americans, having money in reserve, buy cheaply once-expensive stocks you were forced to sell at the bottom to feed your family. In a few years you’ll start buying in again, you know, when you get back to work, to push up prices and fuel the rich folks’ gains. The wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-2008 financial crisis growth while the bottom 80 percent, whose wealth was in their homes not stocks, became poorer as their missing homes did not “grow.” Their wealth, such as it was, was a Potemkin vision in the form of their homes which they actually did not own. The last recession represented the largest redistribution of money in a century.

    What about 2020? Since over half of all Americans now own no stock, the wealth in 2020 will be sucked out of the so-called 10 percent, the remains of what was once the upper middle class. They are the only ones who actually have money for the hyper-wealthy to take. The bottom 90 percent are basically too poor to steal from (except our labor; see above.) A month ago the richest 10 percent of Americans owned 84 percent of the total value of the market. The One Percent are in the process of taking from the Nine Percent below them right now. Fair enough in a way; much of the Nine Percent’s wealth was harvested out of the 2008 crisis.

     

    At least in 2008 it was just our money they took. I sit here in NYC under a multi-layered federal, state, and city state of emergency. I am still sort of free to go out, but since most stores, bars, restaurants, theatres, gyms, etc. are closed by fiat, freedom of movement is an illusion, like prisoners circling the rec yard. Adding to the people who now tell me what I can and cannot do, the manager of my local grocery has made up his own rationing rules, choosing which products and which quantities he allows us to purchase.

    Freedom of assembly is gone. No more questions about whether Milo can speak on campus. No more Pink Pussy Hat marches. A month ago if anyone said that to a BLM group, the riot would have been followed by a Supreme Court First Amendment case. In 2020 only three people nationwide have legally challenged anti-assembly orders. Before the virus we made fun of George W. Bush, who in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 seemed to downplay the severity of it all by telling Americans to go shopping, to visit Disney World. That seems generous to a population now cowing in their bedrooms. We are being conditioned to reject the comfort and solidarity of being in the presence of others; one media outlet explains to little JoJo’s and Yorki’s how to report large gatherings to the authorities via an online form.

     

    Politically the progressive movement disappeared with the proverbial whisper, not a bang. Is Bernie still in? All that talk about a brokered convention, third party stuff, whatever, it is gone. Frightened people (they were scared about Bernie’s ideas long before the virus but the end came quick once the virus arrived) want to pull the blanket over their heads. Joe Biden’s campaign slogan seems to be “I Won’t Do Much,” or more succinctly, “Better Things Aren’t Really Possible.” Joe is the political equivalent of an Obama tribute band. You’ve seen them, imitators who look a little like the Rolling Stones. They play only the best hits, competently but not skillfully, showing how wide the gap is between someone who can pull “Honky Tonk Woman” from the ether and someone who can just play the cords with enthusiasm. It’s a way to make a living and for Joe Biden telling everyone things will look like the 1958 it might just be enough. Protip: don’t wager too many dineros on the political future of AOC and The Squad. Even Tulsi endorsed Biden on the way out.

     

    Orwell in 1984 never really explained how it all came to be. He wanted to shock readers with a dystopian society whole on page one, something that felt like it always was and thus always will be. For us, however, living in this time, the evolution is of some interest. Orwell was also an amateur. He imagined freedom as something people would fight for. He did not envision how easy it would be to manipulate fear into learned helplessness such that Americans would in the space of a week voluntarily give up most of their freedoms, along with their actual jobs. Orwell envisioned the need for a Ministry of Truth when in fact all it took was a handful of deaths, some prolefeed — worthless entertainment for the masses about whether calling it “Chinese flu” was racism — and a dash of sky-is-falling articles for the majority not only to go along with the new authoritarianism, but to demand more. Fear is the problem and empowering government is the solution. You have to give some things up for a safe good society. If not, you’re selfish, a thought crime.

    Of all the bell curves, the one of interest is when the cure becomes worse than the disease. When do we as a society cross the line where measures of social control are no longer affecting the spread of the disease but are damaging the life we live. Of course many of the draconian steps taken these past weeks will be pulled back. But some will stick. And the lessons learned by the darkest corners of American life will be jotted down. The same thing happened after 9/11, when frightened by terrorism, Americans gave up their rights to privacy and freedom from search with great enthusiasm. Somewhere Dick Cheney is saying to himself “we could have taken it so much further, we just didn’t realize it would be so easy.”

    Hey, Dick, check it out — we have voluntarily given up our livelihoods and jobs, freedom of assembly, and transferred most of our speech to social media monsters who can edit or block it as they wish. We are heading toward more dependency on government money to eat. Access to medical care, once limited by having “good” insurance, is now limited by medi-bureaucratic decisions — committees who will decide who gets to see a doctor. Remember how even the rumor of such “death panels” under Obamacare set people afire? We understand better now, sorry grandma.

    Unintended consequences? Doubt that. This did not just happen, our governments made it happen near enough to overnight and we wanted them to do that. No one wants to die. But think ahead to how we are going to live.
      

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    Looking for Jim Jones Amid COVID-19

    March 30, 2020 // 12 Comments »


     
    I’m not worried about the guy coughing next to me. I’m worried about the ones who seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
     
    Jim Jones was the charismatic founder of the cult-like People’s Temple. Through fear-based control, Jones took his followers’ money and ran their lives. He isolated them in Guyana, where Jones convinced over 900 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced grape Kool Aid. Frightened people can be made to do literally anything. They just need a Jim Jones.
     
    So it is more than a little scary Never Trumper and MSM zampolit Rick Wilson wrote Twitter to his 753k Twitter followers “People who sank into their fear of Trump, who defended every outrage, who put him before what they knew was right, and pretended this chaos and corruption was a glorious new age will pay a terrible price. They deserve it.” The Tweet was liked over 82,000 times.

    The NYT claims “the specter of death speeds across the globe, ‘Appointment in Samarra’-style, ever faster, culling the most vulnerable.” Others are claiming Trump will cancel the election to rule as a Jim Jones. “Every viewer who trusts the words of Earhardt or Hannity or Regan could well become a walking, breathing, droplet-spewing threat to the public,” opined the Washington Post, which suggested they should be placed on hiatus. And the rest of you, drink the damn Kool Aid and join in the panic enroute to Guyana.

    In the grocery store in Manhattan just after the announcement of the national state of emergency was pure panic buying. I saw a fight broke out in one aisle after an employee brought out a carton of paper towels to restock the shelf and someone grabbed the whole carton for themselves. The police were called. One cop had to stay behind to oversee the lines at the registers and maintain order. To their credit the NYPD were cool about it. I heard them talk down one of the fighters  saying “You wanna go to jail over Fruit Loops? Get a hold of yourself.” Outside New York, sales of weapons and ammunition spiked.

    Panic seems to be something we turn on and off, or moderate in different ways. Understanding that helps reveal what is really going on.

    No need for history. Right now, in real time, behind the backs of the coronavirus, is the every-year plain old influenza. Some 12,000 people have died, with over 13 million infected from influenza just between October 2019 and February 2020. The death toll is screamingly higher (as this is printed corona has killed just 69 Americans.) One does not hear much about that. Why?
     
    Bluntly: more people have already died of influenza in the U.S. than from coronavirus in China, Iran, and Italy combined. Double in fact. To be even more blunt, no one really cares even though a large number of people are already dead. Why?
     
    The first cases of the swine flu, H1N1, appeared in April 2009. By the time Obama finally declared a national emergency seven months later, the CDC reported 50 million Americans, one in six people, had been infected and 10,000 Americans had died. In the early months Obama had no HHS secretary or appointees in the department’s 19 key posts. No commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, no surgeon general, no CDC director. The vacancy at the CDC was especially important because in the early days of the crisis only they could test for the virus; states weren’t allowed until later (sound familiar?) The politically-appointed DHS secretary, not a medical doctor, led the federal effort. Some 66 percent of Americans thought the president was protecting them. There was no panic. Why?

    Of course Trump isn’t Obama. But if you really think it is that black and white, that one man makes that much difference in the multi-leveled response of the vast federal government to a health crises you don’t know much about the federal bureaucracy. In fact, most of the people who handled the swine flu are now working the coronavirus, from rank and file at CDC, HHS, and DHS to headliners like Drs. Andrew Fauci (in government since 1968, worked Obama-ebola) and Deborah Brix (in government since 1985, prior to her current role with Trump-corona was an Obama-AIDS appointee.)

    Maybe the most salient example is the aftermath of 9/11. Those who lived through it remember it well, the color threat alerts, the sneaky Muslims lurking everywhere, the sense of learned/taught helplessness. The enemy could be anywhere, everywhere, and we had no way to fight back. We panicked like never before. But because the Dems and Repubs were saying basically the same thing, there was a camaraderie to it (lead by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, where are they now?), not discord. But the panic was still very real. Why?
     
    Why? We panicked when people took steps to ensure we would. We were kept calm when there was nothing to gain by spurring us to panic (the swine flu struck in the midst of the housing crisis, there was enough to worry about and it could all be blamed on the previous administration.) The aftermath of 9/11 is especially clarifying. A fearful populus not only supported everything the government wanted to do, they demanded it. Nearly everyone cheered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not believing the government meant you were on their side, either with “us” or against us. The Patriot Act, which did away with whole swaths of the Bill of Rights, was overwhelmingly supported. There was no debate over torture, offshore penal colonies, targeted assassinations, kidnappings, and all the other little horrors. The American people counted that as competent leadership and re-elected George W, Bush in the midst. Fear and panic were political currency.

    Jump to 2020. Need an example of how to manipulate panic? Following fears of a liquid bomb, for years after 9/11 TSA limited carry-on liquids to four ounce bottles. Can’t be too careful! Yet because of corona they just changed the limit for hand sanitizer only (which with its alcohol content is actually flammable, as opposed to say shampoo) to 12 ounces. Security theatre closed down alongside Broadway tonight.

    False metrics are also manipulative because they make fear seem scientific. We ignore the low death rate and focus on the number of tests done. But whatever we do will never be enough, never can be enough, the same way any post-disaster aid is never delivered quick enough because the testing is not (just) about discovering the extent of the virus. For those with naughty motives, it is about creating a race we can’t win, so testing becomes proof of failure. Think about the reality of “everyone who wants one should get a test.” The U.S. has 331 million people. Testing 10 percent of them in seven days means 4,714,285 individuals a day for seven consecutive days while the other 90 percent of the population holds their breath. Testing on demand is not realistic at this scale. Selective decision-based testing is what will work.

    South Korea, held up as the master of mass testing, conducted at its peak about 20,000 a day. Only four percent were positive, a lot of effort for a little reassurance. Tests are valuable to pinpoint the need for social distancing but blunt tools like mass social distancing (see China) also work. Tests do not cure the virus. You can hide the number of infections by not testing (or claim so to spur fear), but very sick people make themselves known at hospitals and actual dead bodies are hard to ignore. Tests get the press, but actual morbidity is the clearest data point.
     
    There will be time for after-action reviews and arguments over responsibility. That time is never in the midst of things, and one should question the motives of journalists who use rare access to the president to ask questions meant largely to undermine confidence. If they succeed, we will soon turn on each other. You voted for him, that’s why we’re here now. Vote for Bernie and Trump wins and we all literally die. You bought the last toilet paper. You can afford treatment I can’t. You’re safe working from home while I have to go out. Just wait until the long-standing concept of medical triage is repackaged by the media as “privilege” and hell breaks loose in the ERs. We could end up killing each other long even as the virus fades.

    At the very least we will have been conditioned to new precedents of control over personal decisions, civil life, freedom of movement and assembly, whole city lock-downs, education, public information, and an increasing role for government and the military in health care. More control by authorities over our lives? Yes, please! Gee, it’s almost as if someone is taking advantage of our fears for their own profits and self-interest. Teachers who just digitized their classes at no cost to their employers and created the online infrastructure to eliminate classrooms, don’t be surprised if less of you, and fewer actual classrooms, are needed in the virus-free future.
     
    There are many reasons to take prudent action and not downplay the virus. There are no good reasons for fear and panic. The fear being promoted has no rational basis compared to regular influenza and the swine flu of 2009. We have a terrifying example in 9/11 of how easily manipulated fearful people are. Remaining calm and helping others do so is a big part of what your contribution to the disaster relief is going to be. As John Kennedy said, “We cannot expect that everyone will talk sense to the American people. But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
     
    That’s one way to see this. Too many right now however seem to be looking for Jim Jones.
      

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    Navigating the Homeless and Mentally Ill

    February 24, 2020 // 12 Comments »

     

    New York, America’s richest city and Ground Zero in how economic inequality is reshaping every day of our lives.
     
    NYC is home to 70 billionaires, more than any other American city. One apartment building alone, 740 Park Avenue, is home to the highest concentration of billionaires in the United States. Yet living among those billionaires (NYC is also home to nearly one million millionaires, more than any other city in the world) the city also has the highest homeless population of any American metropolis, close to 80,000 and growing. The homeless numbered 24,000 during Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral administration some twenty years ago. Three years after that the homeless population swelled to almost 38,000 under Michael Bloomberg. The number of homeless single adults today is 142 percent higher than it was ten years ago, the highest level since the Great Depression.
     
    The city shelters about 64,000 on any given night. Another 3,000 people make their full-time home in the subway system. Their belongings and their defecation crowd out morning commuters on the platforms. In the winter many never emerge above ground. A visitor from outer space would be forgiven for thinking they weren’t even human, recognizable as just a head emerging from a urine-soaked bundle of clothing, not living really, just waiting. The ones who prefer to ride the trains 20 hours a day or more are like one-celled amoebas that react to heat or light by moving out of the way, in the specific case a transit employee whose inquiry causes some physical shift but no sign of sentient action.

    Don’t be offended — what did you think runaway economic inequality was gonna end up doing to us? Macroeconomics isn’t a morality play. But for most New Yorkers the issue isn’t confronting the reality of inequality, it is navigating the society it has created.

    Navigating income inequality is not a problem for the rich. Public transportation, once the great melting pot, is less so as Uber plays a bigger role. The new super apartments, with their city-required handful of “affordable” units, have separate entrances based on wealth. A someone goes and gets the coffee, does the shopping, delivers the food. Armored cars for personal use are seeing a boom in sales. NYC’s newest mega-development, Hudson Yards, (Jeff Bezos is a fan) has been dubbed the Forbidden City, a mean snub as it is self-contained, literally walled off from the environment around it (there are “service” entrances for workers, and the stores have their primary doors opening into the gated courtyard, not on to Tenth Avenue.) NYC helps its wealthy pay for all this with a generous 40 percent incentive tax break. The city also built Hudson Yards its own subway line and park network for a total expenditure of six billion (the city spends only half that total on the homeless.) Elsewhere private restaurants, private clubs, private entrances, members only-everythings and VIP sections at public events keep the homeless beyond arm’s reach.
     
    For the rest, stuck between middle class and the abyss, navigating the world of economic inequality is more of a contact sport.

    Public libraries are in various degrees off limits, at best shared, with the well-behaved homeless. They are among the tens of thousands who live in the gulag archipelago of NYC’s vast shelter system. Most of the shelters (there some exceptions for women with small children) are only open at night, leaving the residents to find somewhere to physically exist between 7am and 11pm, after which the city cares about them again. There is no daytime plan for this population, so in bad weather they take over the libraries. Regular patrons are on their own if the staff don’t manage it well; the signature main library with the stone lions has guards to send the homeless across the street to a branch, where the homeless are more or less curated like the oversize books on to one particular floor. At the 96th street branch, the library serves no other purpose than homeless daycare, except for a brief period after school when bodies are moved around for an hour or two to accommodate story time.

    How do the non-homeless navigate this? They buy books on Amazon. They buy quiet workspace and WiFi at coffee shops. They buy their way around the homeless same as others buy their way around via ride sharing services.

    Economic inequality is part of life for many New Yorkers. Not homeless but damn poor, 400,000 reside in taxpayer-paid permanent (permanent as in multi-generational, grandmas passing squatter’s rights to grandkids) public housing. Conditions are literally toxic in these “projects,” as well as crime-ridden and just plain Third World crumbling. And yes, New York’s public housing authority is the world’s largest. There are probably fewer no-go zones than in the dark times of the 1970s, but maybe more “why would you want to go there anyway” places.

    Housing prices for who can pay their own way are such that 40 percent of adult renters live with a roommate. The city even has a program to help elderly renters share their homes. Hanging on to the middle in times of economic inequality means shared or public housing, juggling multiple jobs which often pay less than minimum wage (Taskrabbit, Fiverr, who background check their employees and then send them into anonymous homes), living with life-crippling debt, skating on the edges of no healthcare, and snubbing your nose at people who aren’t living that Big Apple dream.

    In a society constantly creating more poor people and depleting its middle class, spending more money on shelters won’t work. Look to Honolulu. It has been overwhelmed with some 7,000 people who became newly homeless in 2019. That number erased the 616 homeless people per month, on average, who were placed into “permanent housing.” They’ll really not ever stop building until, in theory, shelters house about 99 percent of everyone.

    To lighten things up, New York loves irony. Many of the cheaper apartments for young Millenials are in the same parts of town which once housed new immigrants in the early 20th century, that now golden-hued era of open borders celebrated as a democratic ideal when a more accurate vision would realize it was just a massive labor pool for the wealthy to exploit. That’s also a reminder that modern immigrants, particularly from Central America, form the exploitable, discardable labor pool that undergirds New York’s food service and day labor industries, and staffs car repair shops, butcher and delivery businesses.

    Hey, businesses, too, still have to navigate, especially around the homeless. I used to work at a Barnes and Noble near the bus stop out to the main homeless shelters on Randall’s Island. The B&N was open late and in bad weather the homeless came in to wait for their ride. There was actually a store policy created, and the regulars were trained: don’t interfere with commerce, no bathing in the restrooms, no sleeping, use the electrical outlets in the back to charge phones, don’t panhandle in the coffee shop and you can stay. A kind of Darwinian process kept some warm inside while security moved others out into the weather.

    An ecosystem in balance, same as at most Starbucks. People here sometimes refer to the place as a public toilet which also happens to sell coffee because, following charges of discrimination, the chain now claims its space and toilets are open to all, not just customers. Of course in some marginal parts of town those toilets are forever closed to all “under repair,” but in most places the homeless are trained to navigate us, staying out of the way, taking a cup out of the trash to set on the table and pretend they are buying something. Being seen as being nice is important to Starbucks’ customers as they mentally navigate their own place being able to afford expensive coffee alongside those who have less. Awkward!

    As a woke company catering to woke customers who want nice things without guilt, Starbucks has a whole corporate page up about how kind they are to the homeless. Something similar at the new food court at Essex Market (called the “anti-Hudson Yards”), which has full-time staff assigned to monitor the public toilets, allowing the homeless in and nudging them into the boundaries the Market deems acceptable. Essex market, like Starbucks, seems to see faux-humanitarian gestures towards the homeless as part of its marketing plan to Millenials who don’t want to see bag ladies dragged into the street whilst sipping artisanal Tibetan tea. It’s pretty much all just undergrad-level socialist theatre. Different rules and rougher play at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, where the more delicate suburban ladies and fragile tourists still shop pretending like it is 1968. At the end of the day, however, the homeless are still homeless at each place and night comes the same for all.
     
    The urban stories above are only about one part of the homeless population. There are two overlapping populations: those outside capacity of existing systems who depend on businesses and us to navigate, and those so far whacked and gone nothing exists to help them.

    It’s inevitable in a society that is constantly adding to its homeless population while simultaneously lacking any comprehensive way to provide medical treatment, all the while smoothing over the bumps on the street with plentiful supplies of alcohol and opioids (I was in line behind a homeless guy in liquor store paying with sock full of coins. He was 67 cents short for a bottle of no-name gin. What’s the right thing to do? I probably drink as much as he does most nights but it’s OK because I work for my money instead of begging? There are moral hurdles to navigate as well) are the severely mentally ill. These people exist outside the vast shelter system. They live outside, discarded, driven out of the overnights and the daytime Starbucks by violent or paranoid delusions. Even the recent killing of four homeless men by a fifth mentally ill homeless man failed to shock anyone into action.

    Navigating these people requires something more than a benign balancing of company profits and makeshift humanitarian gestures. At the Fulton Center subway station, problems with the mentally ill homeless reached a point where wire rope was installed alongside a made-up “no sitting” law to eliminate places to rest. A team of angry rent-a-cops make the homeless stand, wandering through the space waking up those who tumble, and chase away the worst. The sole working men’s room remains a kind of demilitarized zone, and it is not uncommon to see one man washing his clothes in the sink while another talks to himself as a third vocally struggles with his defecation. Most of the city’s such privately owned public spaces employ guards not against crime per se, but to enforce rules about how much baggage the homeless can bring in, whether they can sit, sleep, or have to pretend to buy something, and act as not gentle referees when a tourist snaps an unwanted photo and angers someone, or a homeless person otherwise becomes too aggressive with himself or another homeless person.

    There are of course other, more profitable, ways to navigate. San Diego created a “toolkit” to help businesses benignly wrangle the homeless without needing to involve the cops. NYC stores are told to invest in barbed grates that homeless can’t lay on comfortably (the hostile architecture of bars, protrusions and spikes that make it impossible to lie down on a park bench or wall are pretty much sculpted into the architecture of the city, markers of the struggle for public space. The idea even has its own Instagram account.) A private security firm offers more comprehensive solutions: advice about restricting access to sidewalk overhangs, alcoves, or other areas protected from inclement weather, remove handles from water spigots, and keep trash dumpsters locked when not being filled or emptied. If things get too bad, the company, for a price, will deploy “remote cameras integrated with military-grade algorithms capable of detecting people in areas they shouldn’t be in.” There are other ways to make money off the homeless, of course. Many of the shelters in NYC are contracted through private companies (fraud criss-crosses the system) , who charge the city about $80 per adult per night for an SRO room without its own indoor plumbing. Food stamps are distributed via Electronic Benefits Transfer or EBT (some recipients claim the acronym really means “Eat Better Tonight.”) JPMorgan Chase holds the contracts in half the United States to handle the transactions. In New York that’s worth more than $112 million. But hey, Amazon now accepts EBT online in New York and you don’t even need Prime!

    A concise fable of what economic inequality has done to this city lies in canning, a nice term invented to describe the underground economy of returning aluminum cans for the five cents deposit. What was started in 1982 in hope the deposit would encourage consumer recycling alongside kids picking up cans to supplement their allowances, has become way to make a sort of living for an estimated 8,000 human beings. As the value of a nickel to many faded over the years, the need for a few bucks among the city’s growing homeless population grew. They started picking up cans for the money wealthier people set out as trash. The recycling centers in most food stores, however, hoping for return shoppers, did not want the homeless in their stores. Most set $12 daily redemption limits, often broken up in per can lots that forced the homeless to return two or three times. Streetside automated drop off points devolved into social centers for the homeless, including the infamous Pathway site at 125th Street that was renown as a drug market and dumping spot for the near-dead until it was closed down.
     
    Unable to redeem their cans, the homeless moved on, replaced by highly exploitive canning crews which buy cans in bulk from elderly pickers (many are retired or on disability) for about a $30 nightly haul per person, and who then deal directly with the bulk metal recyclers uptown. A five cent can might be worth only three cents on the street; competition among the people living off my garbage is sharp, where on a late night dog walk just before the bulk trucks arrive can crews run by Chinese organized crime (rumor is those who can’t work off human smuggling fees otherwise work the can routes) tussle with individuals for turf. The cops are uninterested and some local doormen try and intervene but often tire of the guff. It’s not a proud thing to witness.

    We’re a society built around economic inequality. We’ll all just have to learn to navigate our way through.
      

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    Who’s Got the Rocks to Stand Up to Government?

    February 6, 2020 // 17 Comments »

     

    “I have seen dictatorships around the world, where blind obedience is the norm and truth-tellers are threatened w punishment or death. We must not allow the US to become a country where standing up to our gov is a dangerous act.”
       
     — says Marie Yovanovitch from her well-funded State Dept retirement.
     

     

    “What does that bitch know about standing up to government?”
     

    — might say Chelsea Manning from her jail cell.

         

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    Defamation: Enter Sandmann v. CNN

    January 25, 2020 // 12 Comments »

    Once again a geopolitical event — this time, the killing of an Iranian General — was falsely blown by agenda-driven journalism into ItIsWWIIIWeAreAllGonnaDieBecauseTrump and then within a handful of days we realize no, not the case. Again.

    The facts never support the media contentions, but the facts seem to matter little. The need to drive an agenda,  Orange Man Bad, controls.

    Remember how Trump will start WWIII with China over Taiwan’s inauguration phone call, Trump will start global economic war with China trade sanctions, Trump will start WWIII by withdrawing from NATO, Trump will start a wider war in Syria bombing Russian bases, Trump will start a  war moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Trump will start WWIII pulling out of Obama’s Iran Nuclear Agreement, Trump will start WWIII with North Korea, Trump will sell out the U.S. to get peace with North Korea because he wants a cheap Nobel, Trump will start WWIII because he is Hitler, erratic, mentally ill, impulsive, isolated, Trump will ___ to distract from Mueller, Comey, impeachment, Trump will start a war over Venezuela, Trump will start a genocide of Kurds with Turkey, Trump will start a Mideast war after Iran attacked a Saudi oil facility or shot down a drone, Trump will start a civil war inside the U.S. after Charlottesville, or to stop the midterms, or to prevent the next election, or he won’t leave if he loses, Trump is a Russian asset, Trump owes Putin billions, Trump is Putin’s cockholster, Trump is a pee tape sex pervert, Trump will start a recession, Trump will trigger a depression, Trump is rich from emoluments, Trump is almost bankrupt with hidden taxes, the stock market will crash, trade wars will end global capitalism, Trump killed all the Puerto Ricans, Trump will take away health care, Trump will imprison LGBTQXYZ people, Trump will end legal abortion, Trump has America on the brink…

    One can find dozens of articles on any of the subjects above. By my count the NYT’s Paul Krugman predicted LINK a Trump recession 17 individual times, the first even before inauguration, alongside many more instances of the clear and present dangers of tax cuts, market bubbles, tariffs, and more. MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow devoted her entire show for about two years to the walls closing in on Trump, repeating “tick tock” like some modern version of the Rain Man.

    Columnist Max Boot in The Washington Post put into writing what we have all known for some time: real journalism, Jefferson’s informed citizenry and all that, is dead. The job has shifted to agenda writing, just plain made-up stuff to drive events. Boot is at least honest that he writes to drive Trump from office and overturn the 2016 election, “Much of my journalism for the past four years has been devoted to critiquing President Trump and opposing the spread of Trumpism. But no matter how many columns or sound bites I produce, he remains in office… I am left to ask if all my work has made any difference.”

    The worst agenda journalism reads like bad anti-Trump fan fiction, worse than the basement Star Wars stuff where Leia always ends up without her golden bikini. Trump is a spy. Trump digs golden showers. Turn around his jest, and if Trump saved a man’s life in the middle of Fifth Avenue Don Lemon would explain that night why that was wrong, and an existential threat to the rest of us if not Democracy itself. If it doesn’t pass even the sniff test, well, it was designed to. When writing for a fan fiction audience one simply need to feed them the raw meat they crave (naked Leia, Orange Man Bad.) Truth, subtlety, challenging thought have no place and indeed no value. That’s kind of what you expect when the goal is basement Solo pleasures, but it is now one of the drivers of the national mainstream media in America.

     

    The giveaway that journalism is near-singularly devoted to an agenda, frightening the public in service of driving Trump somehow from office, is how the mistakes are always wrong in same direction. Meanwhile none of the people who keep track of the lies Trump tells and who are demanding “fact checks” before ads are allowed to run on social media seem to spend any time on the other side of the equation. Who would accept a track record this bad from their doctor, lawyer, their nail technician (“No, seriously, cracked nails are hot this year, it was in the NYT”)? Is there any price to be paid for agenda journalism?

    Assuming credibility, professionalism, and self-respect are apparently worth about zero, the price tag for agenda journalism looks to be about $25 million. That’s what CNN is reported to have paid settling a defamation case brought by Covington High School student Nick Sandmann charging the network “maintained a well-known and easily documented biased agenda against President Donald Trump and established a history of impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the president.” The amount is probably half what CNN spends yearly just on botox for Anderson Cooper but as Cooper’s estheticians are prone to say, it’s a start.

    Almost a year ago to the day Sandmann and his Catholic school classmates traveled to Washington, DC to join anti-abortion protests. Sandmann was photographed grinning at a Native American DC protest regular. The media with one mighty flatulent blast knew what to do. Based solely on a YouTube clip, outlets like CNN and WaPo imagined Sandmann, wearing his MAGA cap, as the distillation of everything evil, some redneck crapper from Kentucky a hatin’ women and a protestin’ them abortions and rubbing his smug grin in the face of a noble Native American POC supposedly trying to defuse a tense situation with native drumming. The drummer was also quickly (but wrongly) glorified as a Vietnam Vet.

    Blue Check Twitter suggested Sandmann be punched in the face, and veiled suggestions of mob action led to threats, Sandmann’s family temporarily run out of their home, the kid dropped from school trips, and other disciplinary action to include coerced apologies. The second wave was pearl clutching Op-Eds about what Trump has turned us into, and look, it has spread to The Children. The media implied Sandmann deserved it because of his politics. Contrast that treatment with the beatification bestowed on #Resistance kids like Greta Thunberg, and the good victims of the Parkland shooting (the Parkland kid who supports the Second Amendment meanwhile was media-doxxed out of his Harvard scholarship.)

    Not only was all of that absolutely wrong (Sandmann was never an aggressor, and alongside his peers, said nothing in return to those taunting him, even though CNN claimed they “looked like they were going to lynch” the Black Hebrew Israelites who actually started the whole thing) it wasn’t even news. Students on a field trip, with the media appointing Sandmann their symbolic oberfuhrer, were fashioned into props to fit the characterization people who wear MAGA hats are intolerant. The media cared little for the truth when they had their entire white nationalist anti-Trump agenda as they imagine it exists packaged in one handy snapshot.

    The media counts on America to forget their propaganda fails and move on. Only this time it turned out differently. Sandmann is suing a range of journalists individually, including Maggie Haberman, Ana Navarro, and Shaun King for slurs they threw at him on Twitter, and their employers for directing their massive global platforms to beat up an innocent high school kid. Included in the swath of lawsuits by Sandmann are CNN, MSNBC’s parent company, the AP, Gannett, and the Washington Post. In the words of the suit, they “brought down the full force of [their] corporate power, influence, and wealth on Nicholas by falsely attacking, vilifying, and bullying him despite the fact that he was a minor child.”

    Representative Ilhan Omar, who tweeted the boys yelled “it’s not rape if you enjoy it” when they did not, is exempt from the suit as a public office holder. “Comedian” Bill Maher, who called Sandmann a profane name on TV, also likely enjoys a legal exemption for satire. Maher topped off his coverage of the events by making a child rape joke about Sandmann, stating “I do not get what Catholic priests see in these kids.”

     

    While the many suits are pending, this month CNN independently reached a cash settlement with Sandmann, one of those we-sorta-admit-it but legally do not admit, in the words of the lawsuit, to defaming Sandmann by accusing him of “engaging in racist conduct” without properly investigating the incident. The suits contend CNN and the others would have “known the statements to be untrue had they undertaken any reasonable efforts to verify their accuracy before publication.” In other words, CNN willfully failed to commit journalism, the finding of facts, the asking of questions in lieu of packaging what was actually nothing at all into a steamy piece to fit an existing agenda.

    With a win in Sandmann’s pocket and as his cases against the other media outlets work their way through the courts, others also appear ready to challenge agenda journalism via the defamation laws. Ten more Covington high school students are now suing various media for defamation. Elsewhere, writer Peter Brimelow is suing the NYT for labeling him an “open white nationalist.” Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Donald Trump, filed suit against Fox a month ago claiming defamation. George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, filed a defamation suit against HarperCollins, the Martin family lawyer’s publisher. Trump critic and Harvard prof Lawrence Lessig is suing the NYT, accusing them of publishing “false and defamatory” information about him. Melania is suing all sorts of outlets for defamation. Representative Devin Nunes sued CNN last month claiming the network defamed him with false reports he traveled to Vienna to meet with the Ukrainian prosecutor Joe Biden helped oust in 2016.

    Under current law, most of those suits will fail. Going forward, how powerful a weapon defamation lawsuits might prove to be against agenda journalism will depend on how flexible the courts choose to be. Historically they have given great leeway to anyone, journalist or not, who appears to libel (an untrue defamatory statement in writing) or slander (same, but orally) public figures. The idea is if you put yourself out there as an actor, or a politician, you’re expected to take a few slings and arrows and so the standards of proof are higher. This is what allows tabloids like the National Enquirer to get away with making up stories about popular figures as their basic trade. Defamation as a business practice was once upon a time what they did, and not what places like the media of record are now about.

    The major defenses against defamation are truth, or that the alleged defamatory statement was a statement of opinion. If CNN were to prove Nunes did go to Vienna as reported, that would end his suit. One woman who claims Trump raped her several decades ago is now suing him, claiming his Constitutionally-protected statement of innocence defamed her. Her suit demands he prove the truth of his denial to escape judgement. Opinion is exempt when it is truly some sort of opinion — Nunes is the worst Congressman ever — and not just when it is fudged along the likes of “This reporter’s opinion is Nunes traveled to Vienna.”

    The hope would be justice recognizes a new media environment has crawled out from the mud, one which drags innocent people onto the national stage unnecessarily and without context in a way which is unethical and exploitative. And that even public figures, never mind the voters who select them, deserve accurate, factual reporting.

    Yeah, one can hope. But in the case of CNN and Nick Sandmann, it appears the network would rather pay out a couple of million dollars then to roll the dice to see what a court would say. And hey, small world: Nick Sandmann’s attorney, Lin Wood, is the same person who successfully represented Richard Jewell in his defamation suit against CNN years ago, when the network falsely labeled him the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber.

    In a rare breath of self-examination, columnist David Brooks wrote “Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable. The anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.”

    That CNN has not made any noticeable changes in its stream of agenda journalism since the original incident a year ago, or since settling with Sandmann, suggests what they paid out is to them a reasonable price to continue to lie to the American public. Defamation settlements are just another business expense. The Founders assigned journalism a specific role to ensure that citizens would be able to carry out informed debates. Truth, they understood, is more than an ideal, it is a perspective. Yet over the last three years serious journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush to do away with Trump, not by honest persuasion but by any means necessary. Fear won out, and so objectivity is now #Collusion. Seeking facts before going viral is so 2015. The media picks on kids because they can’t get Trump. We asked for an informed citizenry and we got Mean Girls.

     

     

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    15 Questions for Robert Mueller

    July 24, 2019 // 14 Comments »


     

    You know that movie with Bruce Willis and the kid who says “I see dead people?” In the end it turns out everyone is already dead. Now imagine there are people who don’t believe that. They insist the story ends some other way. Maybe there’s missing footage! Spoiler Alert: the Mueller Report ends with no collusion. No one is going to prosecute anyone for obstruction. That stuff is all dead. We all saw the same movie.

    Yet there seem to remain questions to be answered. And while it is doubtful the stoic Robert Mueller will ever write a tell-all book, or sit next to Seth and Trevor dishing, he may be called in front of Congress. Here’s some of what he should be asked.
     
    1) You charged no “collusion,” obstruction, or any other new crime. In simple words tell us why. If the answer is “The evidence did not support it,” please say “That one.”
     

    2) Your Report did not refer any of the crimes in the first question to Congress, the SDNY, or anywhere else. Again, tell us why. If the answer is “The evidence did not support it,” please say “That one again.”
     

    3) Despite you making no specific referrals to others for action, the Report states “The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of the office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law.” Why did you include such restating of a known fact instead of either a direct referral or nothing? Many people have read that line to mean you could not indict a sitting president and so you wanted to leave a clue to others, in Congress, to exercise some role. You could have spelled it all out — “this all is beyond my and the AG’s Constitutional roles and must/can only be resolved by Congress” would have worked. Why not?
     

    4) Many readers of the Report believe they see clues (one footnote looms as the grassy knoll of your work) the specific reason you did not indict Trump was because of DOJ/OLC guidance against indicting a sitting president. In other words, absent that specific guidance, would you have indicted the president? If so, why didn’t you say so unambiguously and trigger what would be the obvious next steps.
     

    5) When did you conclude there was no collusion/conspiracy/coordination between Trump and the Russians such that you would make no charges or indictments? You must have closed at least some of the subplots — Trump Tower meeting, Moscow Hotel project — months ago. Did you give any consideration to announcing key findings as they occurred? You were clearly aware inaccurate reporting continued, damaging to the public trust. You allowed that to happen. Why?
     

    6) But before you answer that question, please answer this one. You did make a rare pre-Report public statement saying Buzzfeed’s story claiming Trump ordered Cohen to lie to Congress was false. You restated that in the Report, where you also mentioned (Vol I, p 198) you privately told Jeff Sessions’ lawyer in March 2018 Sessions would not be charged. Since your work confirmed nearly all bombshell reporting on Russiagate was wrong (Cohen was not in Prague, nothing criminal happened in the Seychelles, etc), why was it only that single instance that caused you to speak out publicly? And as with Sessions, did you privately inform any others prior to the release of the Report they would not be charged? If only some but not all were informed, why was that? What standard did you apply to these decisions?
     

    7) A cardinal rule for prosecutors is not to publicize negative information that does not lead them to indict someone — “the decision does the talking.” James Comey was strongly criticized for doing this to Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Yet most of Volume II is just that, descriptions of actions by Trump which contain elements of obstruction but which you ultimately did not judge to rise to the level of criminal chargeability. Why did you include all that so prominently? Some say it was because you wanted to draw a “road map” for impeachment. Did you? Why didn’t you say that? You had no reason to speak in riddles.
     

    8) There is a lot of lying documented in the Report. But you seemed to only charge people early in this investigation with perjury (traps.) Was that aimed more at pressuring them to “flip” than justice per se? Is one of the reasons several of the people in the Report who lied did not get charged with perjury later in the investigation because by then you knew they had nothing to flip on?
     

    9) In regards to the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, where derogatory information on Clinton was offered (but never given) you declined prosecution, citing in part questions (Vol I, p 186) over whether such information constituted the necessary “thing of value” that would have to exist, inter alia, to make its proffer a campaign finance violation. You don’t answer the question in the Report, but you do believe information could be a “thing of value” (the thing of value must exceed $2,000 for a misdemeanor, $25,000 for a felony.) What about the withholding of information? Could someone saying they would not offer information publicly be a “thing of value” and thus potentially part of a campaign law violation? Of course I’m talking about Stormy Daniels, who received money not to offer information. Would you make the claim silence itself, non-information, is a “thing” of value?
     

    10) You spend the entire first half of your report, Volume I, explaining it was some combination of “the Russians” who sought to manipulate our 2016 election via social media and the DNC email hacks. Though there is a lot of redacted material, at no point in the clear text is there information on whether the Russians actually did influence the election. Even trying was a crime, but given the importance of all this (some still claim the president is illegitimate) and for future elections, did you look into the actual effects of Russian meddling? If not, why not?
     

    11) Everything the Russians did, in Volume I, they did during the Obama administration. Did you investigate anyone in the Obama administration in regards to Russian meddling, what was done, what was missed, could it have been stopped, and how the response was formed? Given Trump’s actions toward Russia would follow on steps Obama took this seems relevant. Did you look? If not, why not?
     

    12) Some of the information you gathered against Michael Flynn was initially picked up inadvertently under existing surveillance of the Russian ambassador. As an American person, Flynn’s name would have been routinely masked in the reporting on those intercepts to protect his privacy. The number of people with access to those intercepts is small and list-controlled, and the number inside the Obama White House with the authority to unmask names, i.e., reveal it was Michael Flynn, not AmPerson1, is even smaller. Yet details were leaked to the press and ended Flynn’s career. Given the leak may have exposed U.S. intelligence methods, and given that it had to have been done at a very high level inside the Obama White House, and given that the leak directly violated Flynn’s Constitutional rights, did you investigate If not, why not?
     

    13) The NYT wrote “some of the most sensational claims in the [Steele] dossier appeared to be false, and others were impossible to prove. Mr. Mueller’s report contained over a dozen passing references to the document’s claims but no overall assessment of why so much did not check out.” Given the central role the Steele Dossier played in parts of your work, and certainly in the portion of the investigation which commenced as Crossfire Hurricane in summer 2016, why did you not include any overall assessment of why so much did not check out inside such a key document?
     

    14) Prosecutors do not issue certificates of exoneration, and have no obligation to “exonerate” people they consider for charges. The job is to charge or drop a case. That’s what constitutes exoneration in any practical sense. Yet you have as the final line in a report that does not charge anyone “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Can you explain why that line was included, and so prominently?
     

    15) Near the end of the Report you wrote “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.” You argue elsewhere in the Report because Trump is a sitting president he cannot be indicted, so therefore it would be unjust to accuse him of something he could not go to court and defend himself over. But didn’t you do just that? Why did you leave the taint of guilt without giving Trump the means of defending himself in court? You must have understood such wording would be raw meat to Democrats, and would force Trump to defend himself not in a court with legal protections, but in a often hostile media. Was that your intention?
      

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    Deplatforming: Break Up the Teach Giants and Save Free Speech

    June 21, 2019 // 4 Comments »


     

    In an age of deplatforming and amid howls for censorship, the viability of free speech is at stake. Antitrust laws to break up the tech giants may be the last, best hope in this ideological war.

     

    The First Amendment doesn’t restrain censorship by private social media companies. Progressives today revel in their new-found power to enforce their own opinions through deplatforming. That only works because the platforms matter as near-monopolies; no one cares who gets kicked off MySpace. If you end the monopolies, you defang deplatforming. Trump is preparing to unleash the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as antitrust warriors against the tech giants. That just might save the ability to hear ideas outside of echo chambers of bullied consensus.

    For much of American history media published things (on paper, then on radio, movies, TV, art shows, the Internet, etc.) and the First Amendment as law and as a cultural touchstone protected political thought. Nice thoughts you and your grandma agreed with and vile thoughts from ideologies your grandpa fought against. As in “I disagree with what you say, but will fight for your right to defend it.”

    Then social media hit some kind of cultural saturation point around the 2016 election. People couldn’t produce and consume enough opinion, and even traditional media dumped old-timey reporting in favor of doing stories based on what others posted online. It was a mighty climax for the Great Experiment in Free Speech, no filters, no barriers, a global audience up for grabs. Say something interesting and you went viral, your thoughts forever alongside Edward R. Murrow’s, Rachael Maddow’s, and the candidate herself.

    Donald Trump then did away with near-universal agreement over the right to speak, driven by a false belief too much free speech helped him get unjustly elected. Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand, censorship to protect them. First they came for Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik, and few shed a tear. When Twitter initially dragged its feet banning Alex Jones, a “journalist” from CNN helpfully dug through Jones’ tweets to find examples of where he broke the rules. Free speech had been weaponized, using platforms like YouTube to put Alex Jones’ thoughts alongside Edward R. Murrow’s, Rachael Maddow’s, and the candidate herself.

    Jones (and soon Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Ann Coulter on campus, et al) had few friends outside his own supporters, so it was easy to condone his deplatforming. But that was only round one. Progressives discovered those first deplatformed voices were just the tip of a white supremacist iceberg, a legion of hate that sought to stomp out immigrants, people of color, the 50% of the population who were women, all shades of LGBT, and perhaps democracy itself. And what was fueling this dirty fire, allowing these men to organize (what the Bill of Rights calls “freedom of assembly” the deplatforming community calls “coordinative power”), raise money, and spread their bile (deplatformers call it red pilling)? Social media. Someone needed to do something about all this free speech before it was too late and America (re-)elected the wrong president again.

     

    Somewhere along the way progressives realized people who largely thought like them controlled key platforms in America. Offline that included college campuses. Jeff Bezos could simply buy the Washington Post to silence some voices and amplify others. Advertisers could shift corporate funds to put political thought they disliked out of business. Authors could have books pulled and lose long-standing contracts. And none were bound by the 1A. But social media was where the real action was. Twitter, with a tweet, could silence what once were inalienable rights. The sparse haiku clarity of the First Amendment was replaced with groaning Terms of Service that meant whatever the mob wanted them to mean. The freedom to speak on social media no longer existed independent of the content of speech. And thus the once loathed Heckler’s Veto, the shout-down, was reimagined as the righteousness of deplatforming, the online equivalent of actually punching Nazis to silence them. And the 1A bullies were thirsty.

    So there was nothing to prevent deplatforming journalist Steven Crowder for calling Vox writer Carlos Maza a “lispy queer Latin” on YouTube. In fact, Maza successfully campaigned across social media to get YouTube to demonetize the other journalist when the site initially hesitated. YouTube then announced an update to its hate speech policy broadly prohibiting “videos alleging a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion” and deleted the classic documentary studied in every film school, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 Triumph of the Will. YouTube also deplatformed history teachers for uploading archive material related to Adolf Hitler, saying they breached the new guidelines banning hate speech.

    The site previously sent entire genres down the Memory Hole, banning “videos promoting or glorifying racism and discrimination.” That purge deplatformed News2Share, a site which covered everything from pro-Assange protests to 2A supporters rumbling with Antifa. YouTube proudly asserts since 2017 it has reduced views of “supremacist” videos by 80%.

    Gab was threatened by Microsoft with the cancellation of its web domain because of two “offensive” posts made by a minor Republican candidate. Facebook/Instagram banned “white nationalist and separatist” content, including at one point documentaries from Prager University. It also deleted posts from veteran journalist Tim Shorrock criticizing the New York Times’ coverup of American support for previous South Korean dictatorships. Facebook allegedly now has an office dedicated to watching what its users do outside of Facebook, looking at their work as journalists, what they say off-line, what tattoos they have, to determine whether they should be allowed to participate on Facebook. Pintrest deplatformed groups and messed with searches involving anti-abortion content. Twitter in turn suspended the accounts of those who blew the whistle on Pinterest in retaliation.

    Google refused ads for a gala featuring Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, something they claimed was in violation of their policy on “race and ethnicity in personalized advertising.” Google company sees itself at the nexus of ideological war, declaring, “Although people have long been racist, sexist, and hateful in many other ways, they weren’t empowered by the Internet to recklessly express their views with abandon.”

    Google might soon add its terms of service to the First Amendment. A leaked document from the tech giant argues that because of a variety of factors, including the election of Donald Trump, what we call the “American tradition” of free speech may no longer be viable. The report lays out how Google can serve as the world’s “Good Censor,” a stern hall monitor figure protecting us from harmful content and, by extension, dangerous behavior, like electing the wrong president again. And all this comes not a moment too soon — the Southern Poverty Law Center claims it has taken “blood in the streets for tech companies to take action.” More simply put, the group just says “tech supports hate.” There are many more examples of those deplatformed.

    But why wait for someone to commit hate speech when technology allows deletion when hate is largely still a thought crime? Google developed a tool called Perspective which aims to root out “hate speech” before it spreads. The software uses machine learning to spot “toxic” content in online conversations to preemptively redirect their trajectory. The tool, designed to monitor comments section, could also be deployed against content creation in real time. As you type.

    Websites too right of center have serially lost their web hosts and gone dark. Website security company Cloudflare “woke up … in a bad mood and decided to kick [a hate site] off the Internet.” On another site, parents who started a petition questioning their local school’s transgender policy were deplatformed. I was deplatformed by Twitter. There are many more examples. Mashable claimed overall 2018 was the year “we cleaned up the Internet,” while Vice announced deplatforming “works” and celebrated censorship of fellow journalists.

    A version of deplatforming has moved off-line as well. The ACLU — the ACLU which once stood by actual Nazis because the beautiful concept of free speech was so much more important than whatever dumb stuff those Nazis said in Skokie which no one remembers anyway– started applying an ideological/political litmus test to which free speech cases it would support following Charlottesville. Some people are now deplatformed out of the justice system.

    Though the bulk of deplatforming is aimed at right of center voices, there are examples from the left, often cited as “good news” that “see, this isn’t a progressive jeramaid.” But in fact more censorship is not a good thing for free speech, however equally distributed. And this is not as much a slippery slope question as it is ideological warfare. Progressives want to eliminate the opposing ideas. They have no problem with free speech that, for example, criticizes religion, or sends drag queens to read to children in public libraries. Flag burners are welcome! Conservatives, not so much.

     

    Two visions of free speech have overtaken America. One is now widely dismissed as dangerous because it fought for a marketplace of ideas that could include hate speech, while another danced a jig because America’s new censors are ideologically sympathetic corporations currently supporting the progressive agenda. The latter group is comprised of people (some 69% of American college students believe intentionally offensive language should be banned) seemingly unable to project a future where those corporate censors’ might support a different set of views. Instead, as a mob today they gleefully point to a viewpoint as “hate speech” and let @jack purify it away.

    It is very important to underline there is no law against hate speech. Hate speech is an umbrella term used by censorship advocates to describe anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.” The upshot is that apart from some very narrow definitions of violence-inducing words, the obligation exists to the concept of free speech independent of the content of that speech. This is also one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There need be no protections for saying things that people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive; free speech is not really needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful, challenging stuff you (or your neighbor, your political party, your government) can imagine.

    The Founding Fathers, themselves now seen as misogynist slave owners except the scrubbed version of Hamilton, had left a ticking time bomb inside the Bill of Rights. You in fact could not punch nazis to silence them without going to jail. The 1A protected hate speech! There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas. Yet today Google (and Facebook, Twitter, and their successors) seem to perceive these old ideas as more outmoded than the powdered wigs the Founders wore when they wrote them.

     

    What to do? Efforts to extend the First Amendment to entities like Facebook, arguing they are the new public squares (seven of 10 American adults use a social media site), have been unsuccessful.

    Trying to classify social media companies as “publishers” has also been unsuccessful. They insist they are “platforms.” They say they are like the phone company, which lets you talk to a friend but exercises zero control over what you say.

    Being a platform is desirable for Facebook and the others as they have no responsibility for the content they print, no need to create transparent rules or appeals processes for deplatforming, and users have no legal recourse. Publishers,on the other hand, are responsible for what they print, and can be taken to court if they print something libelous or maliciously false.

    Social media’s claim to be a platform and not a publisher is based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That section however was predicated on social media companies being neutral public forums in return for offering them legal protections against being sued over content they present. Companies like Twitter now want it both ways – they want the protection being a platform like the phone company offers but after the 2016 election they also want to ideologically manipulate their content as publishers do.

    Breaking through the platform-publisher question will require years of court battles. The growth of much of the web is driven by the lack of responsibility for the content third parties chuck online. It is a complex situation when applied to everything from knitting site hosts to Nazi forums, and across international borders.

    Yet social media entities’ control over speech is so significant a more immediate solution is demanded. Google owns 90% of the search market, three quarters of mobile and 70% of desktop browsing, and along with Facebook, 50% of online ads. YouTube dominates video. Facebook makes up two-thirds of all social media, with Twitter holding down most of the rest. Large enough on their own, the platforms also work in concert. One bans say Alex Jones, most of the others follow and then whomever is last to act is chided into action by the mob and threatened with advertiser boycotts. Eventually (as with Jones) Venmo and Paypal also cut them off.

    With legal and legislative solutions ineffectual for preserving free speech online, enter the major antitrust enforcement agencies of the executive branch. The Department of Justice is preparing to investigate Google’s parent company Alphabet, while the Federal Trade Commission is doing the same for Facebook. The goal may be to break the tech giants into multiple smaller companies, as was done at the dawn of mass electronic communication in America.

    Monopolies on speech first appeared as national media appeared, in the form of radio stations linked into networks. For the first time, an opinion expressed on air in New York was broadcast everywhere. The once-mighty Mutual Broadcasting System successfully filed a complaint which led to a Supreme Court battle claiming NBC and CBS controlled the national market. NBC was ultimately forced to split into two networks, Red and Blue. Regulation followed. The 1934 Communications Act required broadcast licensees to operate in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” This translated into things like the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to cover politically important issues, ensuring various points of views are given equal time. The public-interest obligation also protects against one company controlling all the stations in a market.

    The end of social media mega-companies, with none big enough to silence effectively any significant amount of free speech, would be a clumsy fix for a problem the Founders never imagined – citizens demanding corporate censorship because they didn’t like the results of the last election. It is nowhere near the comprehensive solution of an expanded First Amendment a democracy should grant itself, but in a world where progressives fail to understand the value of free speech it may provide enough of a dike against censorship to hold the waters back until reason again takes hold.

     
     

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    Julian Assange Will Die Alongside Your 1st Amendment Rights

    April 11, 2019 // 26 Comments »

    (Reprinted from December 2018 following Assange’s arrest in London April 11, 2019)

    Accidentally disclosed information confirms the U.S. is actively planning to prosecute Julian Assange. What happens to Assange will almost certainly change what can be lawfully published in our democracy. This threat to our freedoms is being largely ignored because the Assange, once a progressive journalist, is now regarded as a hero-turned-zero. At stake? The ability of all journalists to inform the public of things the government specifically wants to withhold.

    A clerical error revealed the Justice Department secretly has filed criminal charges against Assange. Court papers in what appears to be an unrelated case used cut-and-pasted language from documents prepared previously against Assange.

    Though the new information makes clear prosecution is planned if Assange can be delivered to American custody, no further details are available. Assange is under scrutiny at a minimum for unauthorized possession of classified material going back to at least 2010, when Wikileaks burst on to the international stage with evidence of American war crimes in Iraq, and exposed years worth of classified State Department diplomatic cables. More recently, Assange has been accused of trying to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election with his release of emails from the Democratic National Committee server. The emails, some believe, came to Wikileaks via hackers working for the Russian government (Assange denies this) and are deeply tied to the claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow otherwise known as “Russiagate.” Less publicized in the media but of critical concern inside the U.S. government is Wikileaks’ publication of the so-called Vault 7 materials, CIA hacking and malware tools, which revealed American technical intelligence skills and methods. Assange has hinted on at least one occasion he may have “Vault 8” materials as yet unreleased.

    When Assange is prosecuted, on trial with him will be a key question concerning the First Amendment: do journalists actually enjoy special protection against national security charges? Can they publish classified documents because the national interest creates a 1A shield to do so? Or only when the government allows it?

    Under the current “rules,” you get caught handing me a SECRET document, you go to jail. Meanwhile, I publish to millions, including any Russian intelligence officers with Internet access, and end up on Kimmel next to Taylor Swift. I whisper “I’m a freedom fighter, you know” into Taylor’s moist ear and she sighs.

    Ask Edward Snowden, in dark exile in Moscow. Talk to Chelsea Manning, who spent years in Leavenworth while journalists for the New York Times and the Washington Post won accolades for the stories they wrote based on the documents she leaked. See how many stories today cite sources and reports, almost all of which are based on leaked classified information, stuff the government doesn’t want published yet accepts as part of the way journalism and the 1A work.

    Yet despite widespread practice, there is no law rendering journalists immune from the same national security charges their sources go to jail for violating. There is no explicit protection against espionage charges written between the lines of the First Amendment. It is all based on at best an unspoken agreement to not prosecute journalists for revealing classified data, and it appears it is about to be thrown away to nail Julian Assange.

    In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers, a classified history of the Vietnam War, to the New York Times. Reporters at the Times feared they would go to jail under the Espionage Act but published anyway, even as the Washington Post wimped out. The Nixon administration quickly found a court to order the Times to cease publication after initial excerpts were printed, the first time in U.S. history a federal judge censored a newspaper.

    The Supreme Court then handed down New York Times Company v. United States, a victory for the First Amendment which allowed the Papers to be published, but an opinion which sidestepped the larger question about whether the 1A protects journalists publishing classified in favor of simply affirming the government couldn’t censor the news in advance. The Court left the door open for the government to prosecute both the leakers (by dismissing Ellsberg’s leaker case on technical grounds and ignoring his public interest defense) and the journalists who publish them (by focusing narrowly on prior restraint.) The Justices avoided saying the 1A offered a specific shield to journalists in matters of national security.

    The Pentagon Papers case has governed everything about national security journalism from that day until the moment the U.S. government finally gets Julian Assange into an American courtroom.

    On the source side, the Obama administration was especially virulent in prosecuting leakers. Trump continued the policy by throwing the book at Reality Winner. Both administrations made clear there was nothing to distinguish between taking classified documents to inform the public and taking them say with the intent to hand over secrets to the Chinese. On the other side of the equation, the journalists, the government (including, to date, Trump despite all the noise about attacking the press) has chosen not to prosecute journalists for publishing what leakers hand over to them.

    The closest step toward throwing a journalist in jail over classified information came in 2014, when Obama Attorney General Eric Holder permitted subpoenaing New York Times reporter James Risen regarding a former CIA employee. After much legal muscle tussle, the Supreme Court turned down Risen’s appeal, siding with the government in a confrontation between a national security prosecution and infringement of press freedom. The Supreme Court refused to consider whether the First Amendment includes an unwritten “reporter’s privilege” in the free press clause. The Court instead upheld existing decisions finding the Constitution does not give journalists special protections. The door was w-a-y open to throwing Risen in jail.

    But instead of becoming the first president to jail a journalist for what he published, Obama punted. Happy with the decision affirming they could have prosecuted Risen, with no explanation prosecutors asked the U.S. District Court to simply leave Risen alone. Risen’s alleged source went to jail instead for leaking classified. The unspoken rules stayed intact.

    Unspoken rules are useful — they can be read to mean one thing when dealing with the chummy MSM who understands where the unspoken lines are even if they need the occasional brush back pitch like with Risen, and another when the desire is to deep-six a trouble-maker like Assange. Julian Assange poked the Deep State — he exposed the military as war criminals in Iraq (ironically in part for gunning down two Reuters journalists), the State Department as hypocrites, laid bare the CIA’s global hacking games in the Vault 7 disclosures, and showed everyone the Democratic primaries were rigged. None of those stories would have come to light under the MSM alone. And if Assange does know something about Russiagate (did he meet with Manafort?!?), what better place to silence him than a SuperMax.

    The government is likely to cite the clear precedent from the Obama years it damn well can prosecute journalists for revealing classified information, and keep the established media happy by offering enough thin exceptions (natsec journalism groupies have already started making lists) to appear to isolate Assange’s crucifixion from setting broad precedent. Say, start with the fact that he wasn’t covered by the 1A outside the U.S., that his sources were Russian hackers seeking to harm the U.S. instead of misguided chaps like Ellsberg and Manning. Assange had no national interest in mind, no sincere desire to inform the public. He, a foreigner no less, wanted to influence the 2016 election, maybe in collusion!

    Shamefully, those stuck in journalism’s cheap seats are unlikely to side with Assange, even though they wrote stories off what he published on Wikileaks. They’ll drift along with the government’s nod and wink this is all a one-off against Julian, and those who play by the government’s unspoken rules are still safe.

    They’ll self-righteously proclaim Assange going to jail a sad but unfortunately necessary thing, claiming he just took things too far dealing with the Russkies, ignoring while the door to prosecute a journalist for national security has always been carefully left open by administrations dating back to Nixon, it is only under their watch that it may be slammed on the hands of one of their own whom they refuse to see, now, for their own misguided self-preservation, as a journalist. The Daily Beast’s take on all this, for example, is headlined a TMZ-esque “Unkempt, Heavily Bearded Julian Assange No Longer Has Embassy Cat For Company.”

    They will miss where previous cases avoided delineating the precise balancing point between the government’s need to protect information, the right to expose information, and the media’s right to publish it, an Assange prosecution will indeed create a new precedents, weapons for the future for clever prosecutors. It will be one of those turning points journalists someday working under new press restrictions will cite when remembering the good old days.

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    Mueller: End Game, Das Reckoning Gotterdammerung Fin Apocalypse

    March 25, 2019 // 3 Comments »


     

    The short version? Mueller is done. His report unambiguously states there was no collusion or obstruction. He was allowed to follow every lead unfettered in an investigation of breathtaking depth.
     
    It cannot be clearer. The report summary states “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election… the report does not recommend any further indictments, nor did the Special Counsel obtain any sealed indictments that have yet to be made public.”

    Robert Mueller did not charge any Americans with collusion, coordination or criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. The special counsel also considered whether members of the Trump campaign “coordinated,” a much lower standard defined as an “agreement, tacit or express,” with Russian election interference activities. They did not.

    Everything – everything – else we have been told since the summer of 2016 falls, depending on your conscience and view of humanity, into the realm of lies, falsehoods, propaganda, exaggerations, political manipulation, stupid reporting, fake news, bad judgment, simple bull or in the best light, hasty conclusions.

    As with Dorothy’s ruby slippers, the proof of no collusion has always been with us. There was a guilty plea from Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, on one count of perjury unrelated to Russiagate. Flynn lied about a legal meeting with the Russian ambassador. Rick Gates, deputy campaign manager, plead guilty to conspiracy and false statements unrelated to Russiagate. George Papadopoulos, a ZZZ-level adviser, plead guilty to making false statements about legal contact with Russians. Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, plead guilty to lying to Congress about a legal Moscow real estate project. Paul Manafort, very briefly Trump’s campaign chair, plead guilty to conspiracy charges unrelated to Russiagate and which for the most part occurred before he even joined the campaign. Roger Stone, who never officially worked for Trump, awaits a trial that will happen long after Mueller turns the last lights off in his office.

    Mueller did indict some Russia citizens for hacking, indictments which in no way tied them to anything Trump, and which will never see trial. Joseph Mifsud, the Russian professor who supposedly told Papadopoulos Moscow had “thousands of Hillary’s emails” was never charged. Carter Page, subject of FISA surveillance and a key actor in the Steele dossier, was also never charged with anything. After hours of testimony about that infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting to discuss Hillary’s email, and other meeting around the Moscow hotel, no one was indicted for perjury.
     
    The short version of Russiagate? There was no Russiagate.
     
    What Will Happen Next is already happening. Democrats are throwing up smoke demanding the full Mueller report be made public “rushing to judgment” on Mueller’s black and white conclusions. Speaker Pelosi announced whatever AG Barr would release as a summary of the Mueller report would not be enough even before he released the summary. One Dem on CNN warned they would need the FBI agents’ actual handwritten field notes.

    Adam Schiff said “Congress is going to need the underlying evidence because some of that evidence may go to the compromise of the president or people around him that poses a real threat to our national security.” Schiff believes his committee is likely to discover things missed by Mueller, whose report indicates his team interviewed about 500 witnesses, obtained more than 2,800 subpoenas and warrants, executed 500 search warrants, obtained 230 orders for communications records, and made 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence.

    Mueller may still be called to testify in front of Congress, as nothing will ever be enough for #TheResistance cosplayers now in charge. Overnight, Mueller’s findings, made by Mueller the folk hero, the dogged Javert, the Marine on his last patrol suddenly aren’t worth puppy poo unless we can all look over his shoulder and line-by-line second guess him. Joy Reid for her part has already accused Mueller of covering up the crime of the century.

    The New York Times headline “As Mueller Report Lands, Prosecutorial Focus Moves to New York” says the rest — we’re movin’ on! Whatever impeachment/indictment fantasies diehard Dem have left are being transferred from Mueller to the Southern District of New York. The SDNY’s powers, we are reminded with the tenacity of a bored child in the back seat, are outside of Trump’s control, the Wakanda of justice.
     
    The new holy land is called Obstruction of Justice, though pressing a case Trump obstructed justice in a process that ultimately exonerated him will be a tough sell. In a sentence likely to fuel discussion for months, the Attorney General quotes Mueller “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

    It sounds dramatic, but in fact means while taking no position on whether obstruction took place, Mueller concluded he did not find enough evidence to prosecute. Mueller in the report specifically turns any decision to pursue obstruction further over to the Attorney General; Attorney General Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein meanwhile have already determined the evidence does not support prosecution of the president for obstruction of justice.

    Mueller also specifically noted obstruction of justice requires proof of intent, and wrote since he found Trump, et al, did not conspire with Russia, there can be no intent to obstruct an investigation Trump knew could not lead to anything. The case is thus closed judicially (Mueller essentially telegraphed the defense strategy), though Democrats will likely Quixotically poke at pursuing it.
     

    This is developing as a major talking point among those seeking to dilute how clear this is. So, in simple language:

    — Mueller had to see if he had enough evidence to prosecute obstruction. He did not find sufficient evidence. The choices are sufficient to prosecute, sufficient to exonerate, or neither. He chose neither. That’s where his job ends. Insufficient to exonerate does not equal “guilty.”

    — At that point any future decisions go to the AG and DAG. They have already said there is not enough evidence to prosecute, the exact same decision Mueller made. They confirmed Mueller saying there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute.

    — Mueller then telegraphs the real point: Mueller found no collusion. Trump of course knew he did nothing wrong with Russia (dammit, that is proven now). So how can anyone show Trump intended to block an investigation he knew would find nothing wrong? You’re going to try and impeach him for supposedly trying to block an investigation he knew would find him innocent?

    –Since no intent, there can be no prosecution. The rest does not matter.

    — Ok, ok, even s l o w e r. Mueller makes clear the Trump campaign did not conspired, collude or coordinate with the Russians. It is impossible to show a corrupt motive to obstruct an investigation into a crime that did not occur.

    — Also, grownups charged, appointed and/or elected are doing their jobs. The Constitution does not require concurrence from Twitter, or for you to shout “Release the report!” that those people have already read so you can look over their shoulder and come to a conclusion based on your undergraduate degree in Spanish. The report should of course be released for historians and scholars, but not simply to second guess its conclusions on social media like dumbasses.

     

    That leaves corruption. Politico has already published a list of 25 “new” things to investigate about Trump, trying to restock the warehouse of broken impeachment dreams (secret: it’s filled with sealed indictments no one will ever see.) The pivot will be from treason to corruption; see the Cohen hearings as Exhibit One. Campaign finance minutia, real estate assessment questions, tax cheating from the 1980s, a failed Buffalo Bills purchase years ago… how much credibility will any of that now have with a public realizing it has been bamboozled on Russia?

    Will Dems really try to make the case maybe sorta fudging a loan application to a German bank years ago based on differing interpretations of “goodwill and brand value” before running for office is an impeachable offense in 2019? That is what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the rules for driving an elected president out of office?

    Then there’s the argument (which Mueller did not make) the investigation had to spare Trump because dang it, some nancyboy spoiled everything by saying a sitting president can’t be indicted. But one can’t conspire alone; even if Trump got a Get Out of Jail Free card, Mueller didn’t take down anyone around him. Same with all the perjury charges which weren’t filed over the Moscow Hotel or Stormy or any meeting(s) with Russians. If Mueller couldn’t indict Trump for the conspiracy so many insist still exists, why didn’t Mueller at least indict someone besides Trump for lying to cover it up?

    At some point even the Congresswoman with the most Twitter followers is going to have to admit there is no there, there. By digging the hole they are standing in even deeper Dems will only make it more obvious to everyone but Sam Bee’s interns they have nothing. Expect to hear “this is not the end, it is only the end of the beginning” more often most people check their phones, even as it sounds more needy than encouraging, like an ex- who doesn’t get it is over checking in to see if you want to meet for coffee.

    Someone at the DNC might also ask how this unabashed desire to see blood drawn from someone surnamed Trump will play out with potential 2020 purple voters. It is entirely possible voters are weary and would like to see somebody actually address immigration, healthcare, and economic inequality now that we’ve settled the Russian question.
     
    That is what is and likely will happen. What should happen is a reckoning.

    Even as the story fell apart over time like a cardboard box in the rain, a large number of Americans, and nearly all of the MSM, still believed the president of the United States was a Russia intelligence asset, in Clinton’s own words, “Putin’s puppet.” How did that happen?

    A mass media which bought the lies over non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and then promised “never again!” did it again. The New York Times, WaPo, CNN, MSNBC, et al, reported falsehoods to drive a partisan narrative. They gleefully created a serial killer’s emptywheel-like bulletin board covered blurry photos of everyone in Russiagate connected by strands of yarn.

    Another generation of journalists soiled themselves. They elevated mongerers like Seth Abramson, Malcolm Nance, and Lawrence Tribe, who vomited nonsense all over Twitter each afternoon before appearing before millions on CNN. They institutionalized unsourced gossip as their ledes — how often were we told the walls were closing in? That it was Mueller time? How many times was the public put on red alert Trump/Sessions/Rosenstein/Whitaker/Barr was going to fire the special prosecutor? The mass media featured only stories which furthered the collusion tall tale and silenced those skeptical of the prevailing narrative, the core failure from the Iraq War.

    The short version: There were no WMDs in Iraq. That was a lie, the media promoted it shamelessly while silencing skeptical voices. Mueller indicted zero Americans for working with Russia to influence the election. Russiagate was a lie, the media promoted it shamelessly while silencing skeptical voices.

    Same for the politicians, alongside Hayden, Brennan, Clapper, and Comey, who told Americans the president they elected was a spy working against the United States. None of that was accidental or by mistake. It was a narrative they desperately wanted to be true so they could politically profit regardless of what it did to the nation. And today the whitewashing is already ongoing. Keep an eye out for Tweets containing the word “regardless” to trend.
     
    And someone should contact the ghost of Consortium News’ Robert Parry, one of the earliest and most consistent skeptics of Russiagate, and tell him he was right all along. That might be the most justice we see out of all this.

      

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    Poor Folks

    February 24, 2019 // 21 Comments »


     
    A guy on Facebook I don’t know wrote a version of what has become a kind of set-piece article in today’s America. Here’s a portion:

    Losing The War of Attrition or How To Turn Any Normal Person Into A Broken, Angry Radical

    You are one of the millions who are employed at minimum wage. Or you are one of the millions who are euphemistically called underemployed, or you are one of the millions with no job and no prospects. You are retired- how did that happen?- or disabled- why did that happen?- and trying to survive on Social Security.

    You reach a point when you realize that getting ahead is no longer possible. After that you reach a point when you realize that holding on to what you have is no longer possible. Then you reach a point when you realize that replacing what has been lost or depleted is no longer possible.

     

    I wrote a book about this five years ago called The Ghosts of Tom Joad. No one read it. Publishers in the process of turning me down mocked me for writing about “poor people” and seemed surprised there were poor people in America who weren’t black and living in ghettos. Well, hell, then Trump happened. Because people watching a way of life — a middle class existence where the rich have more but we had some — fall away are easy targets for demagogues. Always have been. Because before we dismissed things as whataboutism we used to study them as lessons from history. Other people’s’ mistakes. History shows very clearly this economic game we’re playing ends with everyone but a small handful at the top losing badly.

    I concluded five years ago the game was already decided. Our society was already then like those photos of railroad tracks, where in the distance it seems like the two rails come together in a single point. That point is essentially feudalism, where a tiny minority owns almost everything and everyone else lives off whatever scraps they let us have. Like in the Middle Ages, where everyone farmed for the king as serfs. It’s worse than slavery, because slaves at least know they’re slaves and have the possibility, however small, of freedom. Maybe for their kids if not for themselves.
     
    We are not at the singularity, but we are inexorably headed toward it. Five additional years of data has only made that clearer; five years ago we spoke of the 1%. That number no longer matters. The new figure is .1%, an even smaller group who owns even more.

    And no, none of this is new Because Trump. Since 1980, the incomes of the very rich (the .1%) have grown faster than the economy, for about a 400% cumulative increase in wealth. The upper middle class (the 9.9%) has kept pace with the economy, while the other 90% of us, the middle class and the poor have fallen behind.

    By the way, it is these numbers which sent Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 campaign to both use $250,000 as the upper limit of the middle class. They sounded misguided, but it was sort of true. They just were still lumping what we’re calling here the “Upper Middle Class” and the “Middle Class” together. Just words. At present in the U.S. we have three-and-a-half classes: The .1%%, the 9.9%, everyone else hanging on, plus some people way at the bottom with basically nothing.

    But bad news for the 9.9% Since the they the most (the most the .1% does not yet have) they have the most to lose. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35% of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12%, exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1% rose. And do understand the people at the top are constructing walls and throwing nails off the back of the truck to make sure no one can catch up with them. The goal of .1% is to eliminate the competition, the 9.9% below them. They’ll only effectively have it all when the ratio is down to two classes, the .1% and the 99.9%

    We are kept in place via shiny objects (500 channels, more movies and Apple watches and drugs!) and curated divisions. The ever-increasingly sharp lines between say blacks and whites are a perfect tool. Keep the groups fighting left and right and they’ll never notice the real discrimination is up and down. Some groups just found down earlier and harder, but as long as a poor white man in south Kentucky thinks he has nothing in common with a poor black man in the South Bronx they will never work together, never even see the massive economic forces consuming both equally. Forces are even now hard at work to tell us the Republican party is for whites, POC head Democrat, and any third party is a Russian shill in place to hurt the candidate you favor.

    Whether your housing is subsidized via a mortgage and that tax deduction or Section 8, you’re still on the spectrum of depending on the people really in charge to allow you a place to live. I do not see a way out of this, only maybe steps that can slow it down or cause it to speed up.
     
    Very short version summary: People like you and I fell through the cracks; we weren’t supposed to end up here but the .1% hadn’t worked out the details so they got as much as they do now and we basically ended up with bigger crumbs than we should have, especially me lucking into a “career” with no real skills.

    Our own kids may do OK with what we leave for them, but only if your son is a medical doctor will he have a decent shot at our lifestyle and only because of the “cartelization” of the profession by the AMA. The rest of our kids are unlikely to have any shot at what we ended up with.

    Sorry, I’m not a more cheerful guy but these conclusions are based on a fair amount of honest study.

     
     

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    What if Political Journalism Really Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    January 25, 2019 // 11 Comments »


     

    After a week in which Buzzfeed published the false claim Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, it’s time to ask: What happens if political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization?

    Journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Founders assigned it a specific role in helping citizens carry out informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization, the goal of which is to do away with Donald Trump, not via informed debate but by any means necessary.

    The justification is America is on the precipice of 1933 so running Trump out of office is a moral duty. Trump is a Nazi, red MAGA caps the new Klan hood. Under such dire circumstances, media can no longer risk both sides being heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or chance unbiased reporting might inadvertently make Trump look good. Some journalists believe they were partially responsible for Hillary’s defeat, and live in fear some scrap of truth might accidentally abet Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. The new standard is tabloid-level journalism, so every story can be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause. Objectivity is #Collusion.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer run Elvis-is-alive articles, announce miracle cancer cures, and traffic in outrageous celebrity gossip. Sources are anonymous, conclusions spoon-fed, headlines bombastically out of line with the text. It’s OK in its place because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believes the stories. We’re spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it is fun to be fooled anyway. The concern is with the tabloidization of real news.

    The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the Moscow Project. Tabloids use assumed narratives and prejudices – a cure must be out there to save Mom if only Big Pharma would get out of the way – and in this case the narrative chain is Trump wanted to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset and so it all has to be lied about and so Trump has to be in on it.

    Lack of actual evidence has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years. Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new: its mystery sources saw the evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe said he personally saw it too.

    Same as with the miracle cure, to any objective person Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury! Trump can’t lie his way out of that! He’ll be out of office as fast as the paperwork can be processed! Impeach the MF!

    Legacy prestigious media outlets such as WaPo and the New York Times picked up the story, having learned how to hide behind the thong of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they can headline The Earth is Flat! at no reputational risk to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they (re)print.

    Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for the media and his fellow pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front, ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.” One imagines with horror those words chiseled on a journalism building Clyburn funds at his alma mater.

    The only sort of problem is Buzzfeed’s story wasn’t true. It was shut down by a statement from the Special Counsel’s office in less than 24 hours, the first such rebuke ever issued, though to be fair, James Comey also stated some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source it otherwise deified as just a “dispute,” “push back,” a “controversy.”

    Buzzfeed’s specific reaction included a clumsy jujitsu of challenging Mueller to tell them exactly what he thought was inaccurate. They perhaps understood in the tabloid world truth has a viral-length expiration date, that truth is only what people are willing to believe anyway, including that magicians really can saw women in half on stage. Falsehoods are the work of bad sources, even though we’ll try again next week with basically the same story from new sources. All that matters is an infusion saying Trump is evil and that end justifies the journalistic means.

    Advocacy journalism, tabloid style, is not about pointing out real wrongs with an occasional correction issued. It is about teeing up tales to support a political goal. Let Buzzfeed open the door for WaPo to legitimize the story. Members of Congress then bypass the fuzzy source to cite the name-brand one (“according to sources” becomes “according to the Washington Post”) until Democrats want hearings into the Buzzfeed story Mueller’s office already made clear isn’t true.

    In the same week as Buzzfeed, a selective short clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American (whom the media falsely lionized for days as a Vietnam vet), and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to watch the whole recording of the interaction to realize that was not true.

    Or the mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video when no one was. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of false breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted, get fired or fire Mueller.

    Tabloid journalism for a political ends has assumed priority over reporting facts. People are being conditioned to overreact. Name calling is commentary. Prejudice and stereotyping are offensive when aimed left, allowed when projectiled by Pulitzer-winning columnists at Trump voters. Headlines can be less true than the text. Belief trumps truth. The ends justify the means when attacking a political opponent. Too much free speech plays into the hands of the authoritarians. The term “both sides journalism” is a now a negative one. Journalists have convinced themselves serving up the correct sort of political bias is equivalent to serving the nation.

    It’s sad some measure of the truth has to come from Whoopi Goldberg on The View, who wondered why the media rushed to judge the Covington teens. “Because we’re desperate to get Trump out,” co-host Joy Behar asserted.

    Political journalism adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids is a true threat to democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    The Buzzfeed story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a significant moment of reflection, when the media remember they play a critical role in our system. Yet there are few calls against the misuse of sources, the rushes to judgment, the purposeful dropping of objectivity, the loss of seeking out other perspectives, the problem of reporting wrongly too often, the slurring of editorial into reporting.

    Still no one asks why there aren’t mainstream “Sources: Trump is innocent” stories that later need to be walked back. No one demands as much emphasis on corrections as on the original false story. Instead, the standard response to being caught wrong seems to be either dig in as with Buzzfeed, or at most to delete a Tweet or two about the Covington mess, as if in the age of the Internet that makes something to have never happened.

    It is unlikely things will change, especially when this model of journalism is also good for a business where clicks equal dollars. The sad thing is craven economic self-interest is the least worst explanation for tabloidization. Democracy dies in the darkness? It’s in danger in plain sight.

     
     

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    What if Political Journalism Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?

    // Comments Off on What if Political Journalism Can’t Snap Back from Tabloidization?


     

    What if mainstream political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization? After a week in which Buzzfeed brought the false claim Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, quickly followed by a tsunami of inaccurate but inflammatory reporting over a bunch of Covington high school kids and their MAGA hats, the media needs to do more than apologize and delete a few Tweets. It’s time for a dollop of introspection.

    Journalism is the only profession specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and the Founders assigned it a specific role, helping citizens (we have a task assigned as well) carry on an informed debate. And yet in the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush toward tabloidization. Political journalism has slipped into a kind of con job to wash away the dangers of free speech.

    The con is this: since by acclamation America is perched on the precipice of 1933 (you’re reading this somewhat tongue-in-cheek but too many people are dead serious about the historical warning) resisting Trump’s policies until he can be run out of office (emoluments lawsuit, 25th Amendment, indictment, impeachment, an election if it really has to come to that) is a moral duty. Trump and his MAGA people are Nazis, their red caps the equivalent of Klan hoods. This is for the first time in American history beyond the push-pull of politics. The survival of the Republic itself on the line, dammit don’t-you-know.

    It follows journalism in the specific and free speech more generally cannot afford to allow for both sides to be heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or allow objective reporting that might inadvertently make Trump look good. Journalists, some of whom literally believe they are responsible for Hillary’s defeat, live in fear they might abet the government-sanctioned mass lynchings of blacks and beatings of transpeople they expect to break out across America, Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin. Objectivity is #Collusion. Advocacy is #Resistance. The new standard is tabloid journalism, where every story has to be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause of freedom.

    While the tension between objectivity and advocacy isn’t particularly new (read up on The Jungle and The Way the Other Half Lives) what’s new is the near-complete way the mainstream media has created an anti-Trump narrative of Charlottesville’s everywhere controlled by Putin while condemning any outlet not on board as the Fox in democracy’s henhouse. Demonizing a perspective has gotten rougher in the age of deplatforming and weaponized “fact checking.” A new step in the wrong direction is to claim talking heads have blood on their hands for supporting disagreeable but still legitimate political positions say on restricting immigration or withdrawing from Syria. It’s a bit much, but it falls within a snappable-back range for now.

    Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer once upon a time ran Elvis-is-alive articles, or reported on aliens walking among us, or trafficked in outrageous celebrity gossip. It was OK, because absent a few blue haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believed the stories were true. The con included us as willing participants, spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it was fun to be fooled anyway.

    The greater concern lies in how alongside all this social media has tabloidized “real” news. The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s use of anonymous sources to claim documentary proof exists Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the so-called Moscow Project. Tagged on is the fact-free narrative chain of Trump wanting to build a hotel in Moscow so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset. To any objective reader, same as an Elvis sighting, Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury before Congress. Trump could not lie his way out of this, and he would go down for basically the same crime Bill Clinton was impeached over. Trump would be out of office as fast as the paperwork could be processed.

    The Buzzfeed story appeared out of nowhere, went globally viral, and was shut down by the Special Counsel himself, all within a span of hours.

    So that’s why there are no viral stories that need to be walked back claiming “Trump is innocent.” Nope, the media wants to believe he is guilty of, well, something, and they know they are peddling that belief to a willing audience. A good con also has some truth in it, otherwise the con artist’s job is much harder. Cohen actually did lie to Congress. Next step is knowing most media and many Americans want to believe Trump was involved. Not a hard sell. But it has been the lack of actual evidence that has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years, you know, actual proof, something you can hold in your hand or listen to online, not simply the now-you-see-it now-you-don’t self-serving statements from convicted perjurers, anonymous officials, and felons we love to hate.

    Enter Buzzfeed, who sets the hook with something new, and it appears given Mueller’s unambiguous press statement, wholly untrue: Buzzfeed’s sources have seen written evidence Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe even said he personally saw the documents.

    Social media rockets the story around the globe. Media outlets as once prestigious as the WaPo and New York Times have learned how to hide behind the micro bikini bottom of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they are allowed to headline “The Earth is Flat” at no cost to themselves. In 2019 they are no longer responsible for what they print. Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for all media and pols when he said “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.”

    It doesn’t hurt that this model of journalism seems to be also good for business in a market where clicks equal dollars, in the words of one NYT columnist “reinforc[ing] the prejudices of your readers.” The sad thing is craven economic self-interest in the service to social media mob-think is the least worst explanation for this phenomena of tabloidism.

    The free press the founders wrote into the Bill of Rights isn’t part of some long con, where the goal is to take the rubes for their ticket money, or give them a chuckle over Elvis. No, the serious media adopting the standards and methods of the tabloids, feeding us back what we want to hear, pretending this all is serious and real without the little wink which says “pssst, we’re in on it with you…” is a very bad thing for a democracy. As one writer put it “let’s not underestimate the damage being done… people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”

    We are being taught there is no truth beyond ever-briefer viral spasms. Falsehoods are just bad sources, we’ll try again next week with basically the same story about Trump from hopefully better sources. Because all that matters is proclaiming some moral stance — Trump is evil, really evil, not just a bad president — and that ends justifies the journalistic means. Advocacy journalism in 2019 is not about pointing out real wrongs with the occasional professional missteps caused by the haste of social media. Nope, it is about teeing up “crimes,” with any small outlet opening the door for the bigger ones to legitimize the story. Members of Congress, citing the Times or the Post, then do things like demand investigations into the Buzzfeed story even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office made clear the original story wasn’t true.

    It’s not like the Buzzfeed saga is a one-off. In the same week, a carefully edited clip of an encounter between some white Covington, Kentucky high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American, and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to first watch the whole recording to realize that was a completely false narrative. Or CBS’ lead journalist falsely Tweeting he was under an arrest warrant in Egypt. Or something as silly as a mass-proclamation conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of inaccurate breaking news somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted or get fired. The narrative has assumed priority over reality. People are conditioned to overreact as their first impulse. Somebody is going to get hurt.

    Buzzfeed’s reaction was to “stand by its reporting” and challenge Mueller to proofread their work for them and be more specific in telling them where they screwed up, beyond the Special Counsel’s clear, blanket statement the Buzzfeed article was simply not accurate. That was the first such rebuke issued by Mueller in some two years. Though to be fair, James Comey also stated in front of Congress some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong. The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source as a “dispute.” Otherwise, the standard response to being wrong is to apologize and maybe delete a Tweet or two, the damage done, the zeitgeist stirred.

    The Cohen story, followed so quickly by the Covington high school story, should be a pivot point, a significant moment of reflection for the media when they stop, take a deep breath, and remember why they really exist as a free press. Hint: they were written into existence by the Founders to play a critical role in critical thinking in our system of government. This tabloidization is already out of control, the media already largely written off as a force for good through the 2020 election cycle. One hopes after that some amount of resiliency will take hold, and the press will snap back.

    Now that way of dealing with political enemies, choosing stereotypes and falsity over accurate reporting, does indeed have some echoes back to 1933.

     
     

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    New York Times Speculates the Secret Service May Murder Trump

    October 25, 2018 // 29 Comments »

    Jesus to Trump: Drop Dead

    For no real reason just two weeks ahead of the midterms and only a day after pipe bombs were sent to politicians across the country, the New York Times commissioned and published five authors to write “fiction” about President Trump and Russia that reads like a modern-day Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Here’s a sample:

     

    — One story has Trump pardoning everyone who testified against him to Mueller and then pseudo-resigning via the 25th Amendment with a promise from Pence to pardon him. The deal lets Trump live in the White House and play lots of golf while Pence is called the Acting President. Some nasty bits about how “close” Trump and Ivanka are, too;

    — One has the Secret Service helping murder Trump after an assassin sent by Putin to take out his failing agent can’t complete the hit. As the Russian’s gun jams, we read: “The Secret Service agent stood before him, presenting his Glock, butt first. ‘Here,’ the agent said politely. ‘Use mine…’;

    — One story has Trump instigate cyberwar with Russia, including flooding Russian TV with a biopic about dissident punk band Pussy Riot starring the American actress Reese Witherspoon (this is the mildest of the five);

    — Another posits Edward Snowden, still in exile in Moscow, controls the “pee tape” and ponders releasing it before the 2020 election after he failed to do so prior to 2016. This story also manages to mock Snowden’s patriotism and suggest the Russians control him via threats to his girlfriend;

    — The last features a new “dossier” surfacing which reveals Trump and Putin cooperating on money laundering. Trump calls Putin to warn him there’s a leak inside the Kremlin, and Putin tells Trump he did it because Trump failed to carry out his part of the bargain — Russia would get him elected if he wiped away the sanctions. Trump is a liability now, and Putin will give the Democrats the information they need to impeach him.

    I wanted to read these like they were bad fan fiction, you know, the kind that features a bikini-clad Princess Leia arriving on earth desperate to mate with teenage Star Wars fans. Instead, it comes off as hateful, nasty, like a snuff film, the worst impulses transferred from someone’s bad brain to a tangible medium.

    Yes, violence is bad, but if the NYT wants to give its readers a hard-on imaging the Secret Service murdering the president, I guess that’s ok nowadays. And where the stories aren’t violent porn, they are childish in making fun of Trump’s hair over and over, like a lounge lizard comic recycling bits he heard on Kimmel last week. The Russian assassin stays in a Trump hotel and we get this line of Pulitzer-prose: “The bar of soap had the hotel name stamped into both sides. He made sure to wash his ass with it.” Just what you expect now I guess from the “newspaper of record.”

    Because I know the Times is interested in always showing both sides to an issue, I’ve sent in my own fun stories for their consideration. One has Cory Booker and Kamala Harris lynched by the Secret Service after a white nationalist’s rope breaks. Another features Elizabeth Warren receiving fake DNA test data from her Chinese handlers, the same people who created the birth certificate making it look like Obama was born in Hawaii, “Operation Moana Pocahontas.” There’s a tale with Joe Biden, where he lusts after one of his sons (but not the dead one, there are limits!) The best story features Ed Snowden in possession of the actual video showing Hillary Clinton killing Vince Foster.

    The Times had previously paid off progressive hero-writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to produce a snarky little made-up “story” showing Melania is an air headed bitch, alongside some lovely hints of Daddy’s incestous relationship with Ivanka as the wife he would never have. Regardless of what you think about Trump, it is inconceivable the Times would have done this with any other president, or any other person. It is unworthy of a newspaper that otherwise pretends to do serious journalism. It is a marker for historians cataloguing how far we have fallen.

    Read it yourself.

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    Google, the “Good Censor,” is Going to Think for You

    October 24, 2018 // 7 Comments »




    Google might soon add its Terms of Service to the First Amendment.

    A leaked document written by Google argues because of a variety of factors, including the election of Donald Trump, what they call the “American tradition” of free speech may no longer be viable. The document lays out how the company can act as the world’s “Good Censor,” protecting us from harmful content and, by extension, harmful acts like electing the wrong president again.

    The document, which Google has officially characterized as research, is infuriatingly vague about whether the company has made any decisions or taken any action. So think of all this as a guidepost, like the Ghost of Christmas Future showing us the worst case scenario.

    The company is talking about changing the rules so the freedom to speak will no longer exist independent of the content of speech. What you can say could depend on Google’s opinion of whether or not it will negatively affect others. To Google, the personal liberty of freedom of speech might need to be balanced against collective well-being. The company acknowledges for the first time it has the responsibility and power to unilaterally adjudicate this battle between “free-for-all and civil-for-most” versions of society.

    We probably should be paying more attention to how they plan to do this, but because the document leaked on Breitbart, and because the initial rounds of censorship have impacted right of center, it has received little critical attention. But the significance of Google’s plans extends beyond the left-right fight; which content is censored is easily changed. If this plan is implemented, everything you will ever read online will be judged before it reaches you. Or doesn’t reach you.

    The old ideas seem as archaic to Google (Facebook, Twitter, and their successors) as the powdered wigs the Founders wore when they wrote them. People should be free to say nearly anything they want. In the marketplace of ideas good will overpower bad. If we block one person’s speech, we can soon block others, right up to when it comes to us. The collective right to free speech is more important than an individual’s reaction to that speech. There is an uncomfortable duty to protect speech irrespective of its content.

    Jefferson had a good run. Then the election of Donald Trump scared the free speech ideal out of Google. Could they have been… responsible… for helping elect a threat to democracy, the last president, someone who would shape-shift into a dictator? Should they have tried to stop him? Wouldn’t you have killed baby Hitler if you could have?

    Under such circumstances, free speech is reimagined by many as a liability which bad actors will exploit judo-style, the tools of democracy used to destroy democracy. The Google document warns “online manipulation and disinformation influenced elections in more than 18 countries, including the U.S. [as] free speech becomes a social, economic and political weapon.”

    The irony is the Internet was supposed to be, and maybe briefly was, the highest expression of what is now the legacy definition of unfettered speech. Anyone could start a website to stand alongside the .govs. One voice was as loud as anyone else’s, and search engines were the democratizing connective tissue. Google was created to organize the world’s knowledge, not help control it. Free speech flourished online. Government censors had real restrictions; we know them as borders.

    Not so for global entities like Google. What doesn’t pass through their search engines or social media travels through their servers and cloud storage. There is no more pretending any but a minority of users can use another tool, or ignore the web, and still functionally live in the real world. Google sees itself at the nexus of this historic change, saying “Although people have long been racist, sexist, and hateful in many other ways, they weren’t empowered by the Internet to recklessly express their views with abandon.” We apparently can’t handle that, and Google is, for the first time in human history, in a position to do something about it. After all, they acknowledge they “now control the majority of our online conversations” so the Internet is mostly whatever they say it is.

    At that point, Google worries, the “we’re not responsible for what happens on our platforms” defense crumbles. How much the last election was influenced doesn’t matter as much as the realization the tools are in place to do it more effectively next time. Existing laws can limit foreigners buying political ads stuffed with controversial news, but if Americans want to do the same thing laws not only don’t limit them, the legacy version of the 1A demands they be allowed to blast out hate speech and gendered bigotry. Something has to be done. Google’s document says they as the apex predator can now create online “well-ordered spaces for safety and civility.”

    There is no one to stop them. It is very clear what private companies can do vis-a-vis speech; the argument is over what they should do. Thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Google is shielded from traditional publishers’ liability and responsibility. The 1A does not apply. No one at Google stands for election. Users matter only in the aggregate of millions of clicks. Google as the Good Censor would be accountable to pretty much no one (though the Supreme Court last week agreed to hear a long-shot case that could determine whether users can challenge social media companies on free speech grounds.)

    As proof-of-concept – what they are capable of doing – the Google document cites Charlottesville. Following racial violence, Google, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare quietly ganged up to end their relationships with The Daily Stormer, “effectively booting it off the Internet.” Google noted “While some free speech advocates were troubled by the idea that ‘a voice’ could be silenced at its source, others were encouraged by the united front the tech firms put up.” Same with Alex Jones, as corporations serially kicked him off their sites. Facebook and Twitter also actively censor, with Facebook removing over 800 political pages for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” an Orwellian term Facebook claims means they were not forums for “legitimate political debate.”

    Google and the others aren’t acting in a vacuum. Some 69% of American college students believe intentionally offensive language should be banned. The ACLU now applies a litmus test to cases it defends, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC not to hear it), declaring free speech can be secondary to other political goals. As Google suggests, censorship has a place, per the ACLU, if it serves a greater good.

    The document makes clear Google understands current censorship efforts have fallen short. Decisions have been imprecise, biased, and influenced by shares and likes. Yet while acknowledging they never will please everyone, Google is emphatic it can’t escape “its responsibility for how society functions and progresses.” So the document is rich in words like transparency and fairness as it wrestles with the complexity of the task, with Google envisioning itself as more an imperfect but benign curator than Big Brother. But like a bad horror movie, you can see the ending from miles away.

    Eliminating voices to “not influence” an election is influencing an election. Once one starts deleting hate speech, there is no bottom to the list of things offensive to someone. Once you set your goal as manipulating thought via controlling information, the temptation to use that tool will prove great. Why not manipulate stock prices to fund “good” nonprofits and harm bad ones? Who should be elected in Guatemala? What’s the Google solution for that land dispute in St. Louis? It is so easy. Just placing links for one candidate above another in a test search increased the number of undecided voters who chose that candidate by 12%.

    The cornerstone of free speech – the absolute right to speak remaining independent of the content of the speech – is now in the hands of corporate monopolies, waiting for them to decide whether or not to use the power. Where the Supreme Court refused to prohibit hate speech, Google can do so. Where the 1A kept the government from choosing what is and isn’t called true, Google may decide. Journalists can take a first pass at writing news, but Google is the one positioned to determine if anyone sees it. Like some TV murder mystery, Google is perched on the edge of a terrible decision, having tested opportunity, means, and method. All that’s left is the decision to pull the trigger.




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    Ban Trump, Twitter and Free Speech

    August 23, 2018 // 59 Comments »

    In the through-the-mirror world we now live in, people who once unambiguously supported free speech now are finding plenty of things they want censored.

    Chief among those opposing ideas they want silenced are Donald Trump’s. His remarks — from the silly, labeled unpresidential, to the more extreme labeled racist/sexist/misogynist/hateful — have attracted a surprising group of otherwise intelligent people demanding he be shut up.



    Salon to Les Barricades!

    An article on Salon made the case, specifically demanding Twitter ban Trump. Here’s one representative paragraph:

    Republicans may not be willing to hold him [Trump] accountable for his dreadful behavior, but the rest of us don’t have to fall in line. Trump has repeatedly signaled his enthusiasm for dictators, which gives us serious reason to fear he may be eyeballing such powers for himself. Banning his Twitter account would be an important act of resistance.

    (Of course American presidents have supported a long line dictators — pick your faves, from Stalin in WWII to Somoza to the Assads to Saddam –without themselves becoming dictators, but no matter, we’re beyond history here.)

     

    But Twitter Has Terms of Service!

    Twitter, Facebook, etc., are private businesses and thus not subject to the First Amendment (which only restricts the government from crushing speech) and can make any usage rules they like. But in reality social media outlets have in our age become the public squares of the day, and must be seen and treated as such. For example, when they actually had the guts, good newspapers would go out of their way to print opposing viewpoints, recognizing their status as a public forum.

    So yes, yes, Twitter can ban redheaded users (sorry, gingers!) if they want to, but it would be detrimental to our broader national commitment to hearing each other out, including hearing from people we don’t agree with. No, ESPECIALLY hearing from people we don’t agree with. Of course there are also the problems that come up once you start banning people, given how opinions of what should be “allowed” can change as quickly as overnight election evening.

    So the fact that an entity can ban speech doesn’t mean it should.

    In a broader context, it is also always helpful to remember there are no laws against “hate speech” that prevent people from making rough political statements, or even stupid ones. There are laws against inciting violence “Kill all the redheads” but not against saying they suck or are monkeys.



    “You Can’t Yell Fire in a Crowded Theater”

    That paraphrase of a paragraph from a 1919 U.S. Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Holmes wrote:

    The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.

    The statement says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that is likely to cause immediate harm to others, three conditions. The speech must be demonstrably false, and it must be likely to cause real harm (not just offense or hurt feelings, a “clear and present danger”), and do so immediately.

    The interpretation of the First Amendment has been understood and adjudicated to impose a pretty high barrier to restrictions on what can be blocked or banned, and over the years has allowed flags to be burned, the KKK and Nazis to march, artists to make sculptures from their own body waste, and all sorts of political statements, at least a handful of which you would strongly disagree with and be deeply offended by.

    And so expression whose ban has been upheld over the long run has been narrow, things the vast majority society agrees are truly dangerous, such as child pornography.

    That’s the whole point — with as few limitation as necessary, protect expression people may or may not want to hear. The First Amendment is not there to protect Dancing with the Stars (though it does) but to protect the hard stuff, the hard calls.


    Schenck is Actually Evil

    And yes, Schenck itself was a crappy case that sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer, to stop free speech, not protect it, and the case was overturned. In fact, Holmes’ statement was a dictum that the First Amendment is not absolute, that restriction is lawful, along with the developing idea that restriction on speech should be narrow and limited.

    It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio that refined the modern standard for restricting speech to that “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But we talk about Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theatre” line as a kind of shorthand for all that.



    Let Him Speak — Loudly

    Justice Holmes, perhaps as an act of contrition, later wrote in another landmark case:

    The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

    So following the broad values enshrined in the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, even though it can, Twitter should not ban Trump. Let him tweet, hell, give him 20 extra characters. And let us know, judge, agree, oppose, and argue about what he says.


    PERSONAL BONUS: Writing in a mainstream publication that the president shouldn’t be allowed on Twitter? Jesus Christ, pull your shit together and get a freaking grip on yourselves. If you can’t do that, go hide under your bed and hug your stuffed animal Bobo. You want to worry about authoritarianism? It always includes shutting up people you don’t want to listen to.




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    Five Bad Arguments to Restrict Speech

    August 20, 2018 // 31 Comments »


    Without free speech people stop thinking, losing out on all but a narrowing band of ideas. Open discussion, debate, and argument are the core of democracy. Bad ideas are defeated by good ideas. Fascism seeks to close off all ideas except its own.

    Yet all of these most basic concepts of free speech in our nation are under threat, and too many of them are under threat from the left. I never thought I would write that last phrase, just as I never thought I’d need to explain five bad arguments the Left is using to restrict speech from the Right.

     

    Despicable People

    Despicable people and their ideas have always existed, though it is essentially a quick summary of the whole point of free speech to remind that at different times in our history speaking out against slavery, against war, against one president or another, have all been seen as despicable. Restrictions on free speech have been used to ban great literature, books about women’s reproductive health, and photos once deemed “pornopgraphic” now displayed as art. Someone will always find an idea or word offensive. Allowing that person to judge for all of us has never proven to be on the right side of history.

    The arrival in 2017 of neo-nazis, alt-right, white supremacists, racists, and the many flavors of ‘phobes is sadly nothing new. The current poster children for hate, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter, and Charles Murray, are no one new either (Coulter’s first book came out in 1998; Murray published his loathed book on welfare in 1984 and both have spoken publicly ever since.) What does seem to be new is that their opposition — the antifa, the anti-fascists — is now aggressively embracing many of the same tools once used to try and stop the anti-war movement, feminists, and other progressive groups in the past. The justification is Everything Is Different since November’s election, and the old rules not only don’t apply, but that wishy-washy democratic ideals of free speech are now a threat to democracy.

     

    Punching Nazis

    And so an incident at the Trump inaugural set “Is it OK to punch a Nazi for what he said?” bouncing around the media, including in the New York Times and The Nation, two venerable outlets which have otherwise long fought for free speech, and whose writers have long risked jail time in the practice of it.

    What happened was that alongside the inauguration Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer was explaining live on camera the meaning of Pepe the Frog, a silly cartoon figure somehow adopted as a mascot by the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-feminist movement Spencer promotes. An anonymous black-clad antifa protester ran into the scene and sucker punched Spencer. His free speech was ended by that act of violence.

    There followed tens of thousands of comments on the YouTube videos of the attack. The standard response was “I don’t condone violence BUT…” and then go on to condone violence. Another popular comment was to invoke Hitler, claiming violence is now justified as a leftist response to hateful speech by the right, and that if perhaps more people had punched Hitler in the early days the world would be a better place. More than a few people online also suggested punching someone in the head is in fact a form of protected free speech itself, and others seem to think whatever they label as “hate speech” is a crime. Others used phrases along the lines of “the end justifies the means” and “by any means necessary.”

    A popular meme was to put different songs, many calling for more violence, behind the punching video. Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, tweeted “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

    Following the Spencer attack, similar violence landed at Middlebury College, then at a rally where one protester who displayed a Confederate flag was attacked, and at the University of California Berkeley (the university was ironically home to the Vietnam War protest-era Free Speech Movement.) Institutions, including Berkeley and New York University, canceled, postponed, or scheduled into dead zones for attendance speeches by conservative speakers, citing public safety concerns.

    What grew out of the Spencer incident and those in Berkeley, Middlebury and elsewhere are a series of inaccurate and/or weak arguments from too many in favor of restricting speech. Let’s look at some, and why they do not hold up.

     

    1. The First Amendment Only Applies to Government?

    The first fallacious argument used to shut down free speech is that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution only applies to government, and so universities or other entities are entitled to censor, restrict or shut down altogether speech willy-nilly.

    Short Answer: Not really. Public funding invokes the First Amendment for schools, and free speech runs deeper than the Bill of Rights. It’s as much a philosophical argument as a legal one, not a bad thing for a nation founded on a set of ideas (and ideals.)

     

    Free speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Though cited as far back as 1689 in England, the American version of this was laid out most clearly by Thomas Jefferson, in the mighty Declaration of Independence, where he wrote of rights that flowed from his notion of The Creator, not from government, and thus were fixed.

    Jefferson’s invocation of the Creator is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something that exists before and after our time. Government thus did not give us the right to free speech and therefore cannot take it away. The First Amendment simply codifies that latter part, laying out like much of the Bill of Rights what the government cannot do. So the argument that the First Amendment does not necessarily apply to all public speaking can be both true and irrelevant at the same time, and the latter is more important. Abetting free speech is an obligation in a democracy in general, and to an institution devoted to truth and education in the particular.

    And though the fundamental argument is the controlling one, there does also exist a legal one that extends the First Amendment restrictions to institutions that accept Federal funding (which means most of them); in the 1995 case Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the Supreme Court held that the University could not fund all student publications except those addressing religious views because such a policy violated the institution’s constitutional obligation not to discriminate against particular viewpoints.

    Bottom Line: Universities are not free to restrict speech simply because they are not the government. They should be ashamed of themselves for trying to find ways to circumvent free speech instead of promoting it.

     

    2. What’s Said May Provoke Violence in the Room (A Clear and Present Danger)

    Some claim that certain conservative speakers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who purposefully use anti-LGBTQ slurs to provoke their audiences, should be banned or shut down. Their speech is the equivalent of yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theatre when there is no actual danger, provoking a deadly stampede for the exits.

    Short Answer: The standards for shutting down speech are very restrictive, and well-codified. Milo comes nowhere close.

     

    The Fire! line from a Supreme Court decision Schenck v. United States by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is often cited as justification for limiting free speech. Here’s what Holmes wrote:

    The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.

    The full decision says the First Amendment doesn’t protect false speech that meets three conditions: 1) the speech must be demonstrably false; 2) it must be likely to cause real harm, not just offense or hurt feelings, and 3) must do so immediately. That’s the “clear and present danger.”

    This interpretation of the First Amendment has been adjudicated to impose a high barrier to restrictions on what can be blocked or banned, and over the years has allowed flags to be burned in front of veterans, Nazis to march among Holocaust survivors, artists to make religious sculptures from their own body waste.

    Schenck was what jurists call bad law, in that it sought to use the Espionage Act against a Socialist pamphleteer, to stop free speech, not protect it (in other words, the pamphleteer was determined to be a clear and present danger in wartime and rightfully arrested.) The case was eventually overturned, and in truth Holmes’ statement was originally intended to mean the First Amendment is not absolute, that restriction is lawful, along with the developing idea that restriction on speech should be narrow and limited.

    It was the later case of Brandenburg v. Ohio that refined the modern standard for restricting speech to that “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” But we talk about Holmes’ “fire in a crowded theatre” line as a kind of shorthand for all that.

    Justice Holmes, perhaps as an act of contrition, later wrote in another landmark case:

    The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

    Bottom Line: The Supreme Court has set a very high bar against restricting speech based on the idea that what is being said leading to violence. Concerns, offense or general threats alone are insufficient to justify silencing someone as a solution.

     

    3. What’s Said May Provoke Violence Outside (Public Safety)

    The idea that a university or other venue cannot assure a speaker’s safety, or that the speaker’s presence may provoke violent protests, or that the institution just doesn’t want to go to the trouble or expense of protecting a controversial speaker has become the go-to justification for canceling or restricting speech. Berkley cited this in canceling and then de-platforming (rescheduling her when most students would not be on campus) Ann Coulter, whose campus sponsors are now suing, and New York University cited the same justification for canceling an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos.

    Short Answer: Canceling a speaker to protect them or public safety is the absolute last resort, and some risk to safety is part of the cost to a free society for unfettered speech.

     

    The most glaring misuse of this argument is when such a justification is applied only toward one strain of speech, say unilaterally against conservative speakers and not against others. The conclusion can only be danger comes from unpopular ideas based solely on their being presented on a left-leaning campus. The argument of restricting a speaker “for their own safety” who is otherwise willing to take on certain risks to make their voice heard can thus be applied in a biased manner. Restricting speech for safety needs to be content neutral.

    Public safety has been long (mis)-used to silence otherwise protected speech. Recently the town of Urbana, Illinois arrested someone burning an American flag (an act long-held to be a form of protected speech) claiming he was in danger from bystanders. Such thinking has in the past been used to deny permits for civil rights marches, with law enforcement saying they could not protect the protestors. Both sides in the abortion debate have used this argument as well outside clinics.

    While institutions do have an obligation to public safety, that obligation must be balanced against the public’s greater right to engage with free speech. Though there exists opinion on the proper balance, the answer is rarely to ban speech outright simply to maintain order.

    One landmark case from 2015 provides some of the clearest guidance yet:

    When a peaceful speaker, whose message is constitutionally protected, is confronted by a hostile crowd, the state may not silence the speaker as an expedient alternative to containing or snuffing out the lawless behavior of the rioting individuals. Nor can an officer sit idly on the sidelines — watching as the crowd imposes, through violence, a tyrannical majoritarian rule — only later to claim that the speaker’s removal was necessary for his or her own protection. Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege [of free speech] cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of that right.

    The case involved a group called the Bible Believers who used crude langauge (“Turn or Burn”) at an LGBTQ gathering. The judges continued in their opinion allowing the Bible Believers to speak:

    We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested; or allowing the Bible Believers to speak from the already constructed barricade to which they were eventually secluded prior to being ejected from the Festival.”

    “If none of these measures were feasible or had been deemed unlikely to prevail, the officers could have called for backup… prior to finding that it was necessary to infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.

    The understanding that law enforcement, or any institution, can turn first to shutting down speech that requires physical protection, has failed the courts’ tests in cases are diverse as Occupy and where a Christian group brought a pig’s head on a stick to a Muslim Arts festival.

    In sum, the court has long recognized that content-based regulation of speech in a public forum (the “health and safety” restrictions) is permissible only “to serve a compelling state interest” and only when the regulation “is narrowly drawn to achieve that end.”

    Bottom Line: An institution cannot cite avoiding public disruption as the initial or sole reason to restrict speech. The problems of having Ann Coulter speak on campus are outweighed by the obligation to protect free speech. Maintenance of the peace should not be achieved at the expense of the free speech. Getting rid of the speaker is expedient but unconstitutional. There are plenty of laws that legitimately protect against violence on their own.

     

    4. Speech Can or Should Be Restricted Based on Content (Hate Speech)

    There are no laws against “hate speech.” A speaker can call people names, and insult them by their race, sexual orientation or religious beliefs. What many people think and say is hateful. It is carefully thought out to inspire hate, to promote hate, to appeal to crude and base instincts. Indeed, that is their point. But there is no law or other prohibition against hate speech. Even restrictions on “hate speech” meant to prevent violence, often cited as the justification to restrict such speech, are by design extremely narrow.

    Short Answer: You cannot restrict hate speech. Free speech means just that, with any limited restrictions content-neutral.

     

    The Brandenburg case test precludes speech from being sanctioned as incitement to riot unless (1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action; (2) the speaker intends that their speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and (3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the speech. A hostile reaction of a crowd does not transform protected speech into incitement. Listeners’ reaction to speech is thus not a content-neutral basis for regulation, or for taking an enforcement action against a speaker.

    A second type of speech that is categorically excluded from First Amendment protection and often erroneously labeled hate speech are “fighting words.” This category of unprotected speech encompasses words that when spoken aloud instantly “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” No advocacy can constitute fighting words unless it is “likely to provoke the average person to retaliation.” Offensive statements made generally to a crowd are not excluded from First Amendment protection; the insult or offense must be directed specifically at an individual.

    The upshot is that apart from some very narrow definitions of violence-inducing words, the obligation exists to the concept of free speech independent of the content of that speech. This is also one of the most fundamental precepts of free speech in a democracy. There need be no protections for saying things that people agree with, things that are not challenging or debatable or offensive; free speech is not really needed for the weather and sports parts of the news. Instead, free speech is there to allow for the most rude, offensive, hateful, challenging stuff you (or your neighbor, your political party, your government) can imagine.

    This is why, in the midst of Berkeley seeking to ban Ann Coulter from campus, Elizabeth Warren said “Let her speak. If you don’t like it, don’t show up.” Same for Bernie Sanders, who said “What are you afraid of, her ideas? Ask her the hard questions. Confront her intellectually. Booing people down or intimidating people or shutting down events — I don’t think that that works in any way.”

    More? The ACLU also supports Coulter’s right to speak. And so the ACLU supports the rights of all groups, to include Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan, to speak.

    It should make a college age ACLU donor proud to know her $25 contribution helps both Black Lives Matter and the Klan to stand up and say what they think, but it apparently does not.

    The president of the Newseum goes as far as arguing some people have developed an “alternate understanding” of free speech, with students in particular believing “offensive” speech is or should not be protected, particularly when the offense is directed at groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

    Ulrich Baer, vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, and professor of comparative literature at New York University, wrote plainly “Universities invite speakers not chiefly to present otherwise unavailable discoveries, but to present to the public views they have presented elsewhere. When those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good. In such cases there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public.”

    Baer is worth quoting at length, because his views capture the view of many progressives toward the now-threatening concept of unfettered speech:

    The idea of freedom of speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks. It means balancing the inherent value of a given view with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognized members of that community. Free-speech protections — not only but especially in universities, which aim to educate students in how to belong to various communities — should not mean that someone’s humanity, or their right to participate in political speech as political agents, can be freely attacked, demeaned or questioned.

    He ends without irony this way:

    Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute. When its proponents forget that it requires the vigilant and continuing examination of its parameters, and instead invoke a pure model of free speech that has never existed, the dangers to our democracy are clear and present.

    Baer could not be more wrong. There is no legal or other justification for banning speech based on who it may offend or threaten, in fact, quite the opposite. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared unpopular ideas should have their opportunity to compete in the “marketplace of ideas.” Free speech is not an ends, it is a means, in a democracy.

    Justice Louis Brandeis held that people must discuss and criticize ideas, that free speech is not only an abstract virtue but also a key element that lies at the heart of a democratic society. Even the fact that speech is likely to result in “violence or in destruction of property is not enough to justify its suppression.” Brandeis concluded “the deterrents ordinarily to be applied to prevent” violence and disruption “are education and punishment for violations of the law, not abridgment of free speech.”

    Bottom Line: There is no justification for restricting speech so that people are not offended. Speech may offend, indeed that may be its point, but bad ideas are then defeated by better ideas.

     

    5. Free Speech Should Not Be Subject to the Heckler’s Veto

    Another argument used by some progressives is that the so-called Heckler’s Veto is in itself protected speech. Someone may have a right to speak, but someone else has the same right to shout them down and prevent them from being heard.

    Short answer: Free speech is not intended to mean whomever can literally “speak” the loudest gets to control what is said. The natural end of such thinking is mob rule, where Speaker A gets a bigger gang together to shout down the gang Speaker B controls.

     

    While protestors have an obligation not to abuse their rights of free expression by harassing or intimidating speakers in ways that unduly interfere with communication between a speaker and an audience, there does exist a balancing process.

    Agreed upon is that numerous legitimate ways exist to challenge speakers, including engaging them or ignoring them entirely. In contrast, using a Heckler’s Veto to keep unpopular speakers from expressing their views not only stifles a particular idea, but threatens to chill public discourse generally by discouraging others with controversial ideas from sharing them. Who wants to stand up only to be shouted down by a mob?

    The most insidious use of the Heckler’s Veto is to have audience members create a situation that compels law enforcement to shut down a speaker for them, abusing their own freedom of speech to get the government to shut down someone else’s. The law allows for law enforcement to act this way, but also makes clear it is wrong for “regulations to allow a single, private actor to unilaterally silence a speaker.”

    It is also quite sad to note the same tactic used at Middlebury College to silence speaker Charles Murray was employed during the civil rights movement when whites threatened violence if civil rights marches were permitted to take place. The tactic is also used by abortion foes to try and shut down clinics. The Supreme Court concluded the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten or act out disruption, rather than to sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, that was not what happened in Middlebury College, as Murray was run out of town for his own safety and the mob won.

    Bottom Line: Balancing the rights of the speaker, those who wish to hear them, and those who wish to protest is complicated. But simply shutting down one party entirely, or allowing one party to block the rights of the others, is wrong.

     

    Flipping the Argument

    It is hard today to be seen as defending the nasty words of a guy like Richard Spencer when one is defending his right to speak independent of what he says. It is easy for some in Trump’s America to claim the struggle against fascism overrules the old norms, that freedom must be defended and that defense justifies violence. Flipping an argument makes it easier to see the fallacy. So:

    So this guy beat the air out of this Black Lives Matter woman; she was spewing out hate speech, really racist stuff, and the guy acted in what he perceived as self-defense. Then some people who opposed Trump’s travel ban started calmly laying out their views on a street corner, and the same guy, who believes deep into his soul that Muslims are a threat to democracy and allowing them into America is a step toward fascism, got a bunch of his buddies together and by sheer force of numbers shouted down the pro-Muslim people, forcing them to run away for fear for their safety.

    Justification? The dude was pretty clear he was just exercising his First Amendment rights, that it was wrong for those protesters to have a platform and hey, he isn’t the government and the First Amendment only applies to the government. Sure violence is bad in isolation, but in defense of freedom, well, by any means necessary. While he was beating on the activists, he shouted he “understands the moral and practical limitations of wholly free discourse.”

    You get it.

    Free speech protection covers all the things people want to say, from the furthest left to the furthest right. You can burn a flag, display a nude body, fill a fish tank with urine and call it art, put on a KKK uniform and march past a Black church, and say whatever Richard Spencer says. Free speech means a lot of things, including that I can write this article, and you can say what you want about it and me. It is messy as hell, and it is our essential defense against fascism and control, whether from the left or the right.

     

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    1A Victory: SCOTUS Again Confirms ‘Hate Speech’ is Protected

    August 19, 2018 // 20 Comments »



    In the world we awoke to on November 8, 2016, a myth took hold among many progressive people that so-called “hate speech” — speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability — is not protected by the First Amendment. Even Howard Dean contributed to the falsehood.

    The Supreme Court just made it very, very clear that is wrong. Offensive and hateful speech is as protected as any other. It is vital to protect all speech, for the road of prohibiting speech one disagrees with is a slippery one. There is a right to offend; deal with it, snowflakes.




    A recent case, Matal v. Tam, focused on an all-Asian band called The Slants, who wanted to trademark their group’s name. “Slant” of course is one of a dictionary full of racist terms used to offend Asians, and the group wanted to push the word into the world’s face to disarm it, as gay men have done with the slur queer.

    The United States Patent and Trademark Office said no, the group could not trademark the name The Slants because of the disparagement clause, which denies federal trademark protection to messages that may offend people, living or dead, along with “institutions, beliefs or national symbols.” This same reasoning denied the Washington Redskins’ trademark renewal of their team name in 2014, seen as disparaging toward Native Americans.


    No more. The Supreme Court just ruled the government cannot use trademark law to stop people from promoting an (potentially offensive) name. That constitutes the government prohibiting free expression, a clear violation of the First Amendment.

    The First Amendment protects offensive speech, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in this unanimous decision. “The proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” he said, quoting the classic 1929 dissent from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    (Trump-era snowflakes usually misapply Holmes’ famous line — not shouting fire in a crowded theatre — to justify banning offensive speech by claiming it incites violence. They’re wrong; it doesn’t work that way at all. The whole thing is laid out here.)

    “The danger of viewpoint discrimination,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in The Slants’ case, “is that the government is attempting to remove certain ideas or perspectives from a broader debate. That danger is all the greater if the ideas or perspectives are ones a particular audience might think offensive, at least at first hearing. To permit viewpoint discrimination in this context is to permit government censorship.”

    The ACLU called the decision a “major victory for the First Amendment.”



    And… mic drop.

    The marketplace of ideas needs to be broad and deep, and awful people must be free to spew terrible words, into it, so they can be exposed and bad ideas shoved aside by good ones. That’s how the Founders intended the system to work, that is how it has worked through over 200 years of controversy, and the Supreme Court made it clear this week Trump, Howard Dean, Milo Yiannopoulos or your favorite nazi have no place in trying to change things.



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    Corporate Censorship Brought Us the America I Always Feared

    August 13, 2018 // 4 Comments »

    When I was in Iran earlier this year, the government there blocked Twitter, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. In America, Twitter purges users, deciding for a whole nation what they can not see. It matters little whose hand is on the switch, the end result is the same. This is the America I always feared I’d see.

    Speech in America is an unalienable right, and goes as deep into the concept of a free society as any idea can. Thomas Jefferson wrote of the right flowing from his notion of a Creator, not from government. Jefferson’s 18th century invocation is understood now as less that free speech is heaven-sent and more that it is something existing above government. And so the argument the First Amendment applies only to government and not to all public speaking (including private platforms like Twitter) is thus both true and irrelevant, and the latter is more important.

    The government remains a terrifying threat to free speech. An Espionage Act prosecution against Wikileaks’ Julian Assange will create precedent for use against any mainstream journalist. The war on whistleblowers which started under Obama continues under Trump. Media are forced to register as propaganda agents. Universities restrict controversial speakers. The Trump administration no doubt will break the record (77%) for redacting or denying access to government files under the Freedom of Information Act.

    But there is another threat to freedom of speech now, corporate censorship. It is often dressed up with NewSpeak terms like deplatforming, restricting hate speech, or simply applying Terms of Service. Corporations always did what they wanted with speech. Our protection against corporate overreach used to rely on an idea Americans once held dear, enshrined as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it.” The concept was core to a democracy: everyone supports the right of others to throw ideas into the marketplace independent. An informed people would sort through it all, and bad ideas would be pushed away by better ones. That system more or less worked for 240 years.

    For lack of a more precise starting point, the election of Donald Trump did away with near-universal agreement on defending the right to speak without defending the content, driven by a belief too much free speech helped Trump get elected. Large numbers of Americans began not just to tolerate, but to demand censorship. They wanted universities to deplatform speakers they did not agree with, giggling over the fact the old-timey 1A didn’t apply and there was nothing “conservatives” could do. They expressed themselves in violence, demanding censorship by “punching Nazis.” Such brownshirt-like violence was endorsed by The Nation, once America’s clearest voice for freedom. The most startling change came within the American Civil Liberties Union, who enshrined the “defend the right, not the speech” concept in the 1970s when it defended the free speech rights of Nazis, and went on to defend the speech rights of white supremacists in Charlottesville.

    Not so much anymore. The ACLU now applies a test to the free speech cases it will defend, weighing their impact on other rights (for example, the right to say the N-word versus the rights of POC.) The ACLU in 2018 is siding with those who believe speech can be secondary to other political goals. Censorship has a place, says the ACLU, when it serves what they believe is a greater good.

    A growing segment of public opinion isn’t just in favor of this, it demands it. So when years-old tweets clash with 2018 definitions of racism and sexism, companies fire employees. Under public pressure, Amazon removed “Nazi paraphernalia and other far-right junk” from its online store. It was actually just some nasty Halloween gear and Confederate flag merch, but the issue is not the value of the products — that’s part of any free speech debate — it’s corporate censorship being used to stifle debate by literally in this case pulling things out of the marketplace.

    Alex Jones’ InfoWars was deplatformed off download sites where it has been available for years, including Apple, YouTube (owned by Google), Spotify, and Amazon, for promoting “hate speech.” Huffington Post wondered why more platforms, such as Instagram, haven’t done away with Jones and his hate speech.

    That term, hate speech, clearly not prohibited by the Supreme Court, is an umbrella word now used by censorship advocates for, well, basically anything they don’t want others to be able to listen to or watch. It is very flexible and thus very dangerous. As during the McCarthy-era in the 1950s when one needed only to label something “Communist” to have it banned, so it is today with the new mark of “hate speech.” The parallels are chilling — it was in the McCarthy-era Hollywood created its infamous blacklists, actors and writers who could not work because of their political beliefs.

    Twitter is perhaps the most infamous platform to censor its content. The site bans advertising from Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik. Twitter suspends the accounts of those who promote (what it defines as) hate and violence, “shadow bans” others to limit their audience, and tweaks its trending topics to push certain political ideas and downplay others. It regularly purges users and bans “hateful symbols.” There are near-daily demands by increasingly organized groups calling on Twitter to censor specific users, with Trump at the top of that list. The point is always the same: to limit what ideas you can be exposed to and narrow debate.

    Part of the 2018 problem is the trust people place in “good companies” like Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter. Anthropomorphizing them as Jeff, and Zuck, and @jack is popular, along with a focus on their “values.” It seems to make sense, especially now when many of the people making decisions on corporate censorship are the same age and hold the same political views as those demanding they do it.

    Of course people age, values shift, what seems good to block today might change. But the main problem is companies exist to make money and will do what they need to do to make money. You can’t count on them past that. Handing over free speech rights to an entity whose core purpose has nothing to do with free speech means they will quash ideas when they conflict with what they are really about. People who gleefully celebrate the fact that @jack who runs Twitter is not held back by the 1A and can censor at will seem to believe he will always yield his power in the way they want him to.

    Google has a slogan reading “do no evil.” Yet in China Google will soon deploy Dragonfly, a version of its search engine that will meet Beijing’s demands for censorship by blocking websites on command. Of course in China they don’t call it hate speech, they call it anti-societal speech, and the propaganda Google will block isn’t from Russian bots but from respected global media. In the U.S. Google blocks users from their own documents saved in Drive if the service feels the documents are “abusive.” Backin China Apple removes apps from its store on command of the government in return for market access. Amazon, who agreed to remove hateful merch from its store in the U.S., the same week confirmed it is “unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world” using its AI and facial recognition technology to spy on their own people. Faced with the loss of billions of dollars, as was the case for Google and Apple in China, what will corporations do in America?

    Once upon a time an easy solution to corporate censorship was to take one’s business elsewhere. The 2018 problem is with the scale of platforms like Amazon, near global monopolies all. Pretending Amazon, which owns the Washington Post, and with the reach to influence elections, is just another company that sells things is to pretend the role of unfettered debate in a free society is outdated. Yeah, you can for now still go through hoops to download stuff outside the Apple store or Google Play, but those platforms more realistically control access to your device. Censored on Twitter? No problem big guy, go try Myspace, and maybe Bing will notice you. Technology and market dominance changed the nature of censorship so free speech is as much about finding an audience as it is about finding a place to speak. Corporate censorship is at the cutting edge of a reality targeting both speakers (Twitter suspends someone) and listeners (Apple won’t post that person’s videos made off-platform). Ideas need to be discoverable to enter the debate; in 1776 you went to the town square. In 2018 it’s Twitter.

    In the run up to the midterm elections, Senator Chris Murphy, ironically in a tweet, demanded social media censor more aggressively for the “survival of our democracy,” implying those companies can act as proxies for those still held back by the First Amendment. We already know the companies involved can censor. The debate is over what happens when they do.

    A PERSONAL NOTE: Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell. This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge government lies. Twitter sent an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.” I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow it. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s why all censorship is wrong; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking out, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.

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    Twitter Suspends Me Forever

    August 7, 2018 // 26 Comments »



    Some readers are aware I have been permanently suspended from Twitter as @wemeantwell.

    This followed exchanges with several mainstream journalists over their support for America’s wars and unwillingness to challenge the lies of government. After two days of silence, Twitter sent me an auto-response saying what I wrote “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice.”

    I don’t think I did any of that, and I wish you didn’t have to accept my word on it. I wish instead you could read what I wrote and decide for yourself. But Twitter won’t allow that. Twitter says you cannot read and make up your own mind. They have in fact eliminated all the things I have ever written there over seven years, disappeared me down the Memory Hole. That’s what censorship does; it takes the power to decide what is right and wrong away from you and gives it to someone else.

    Hate what I write, hate me, block me, don’t buy my books, but please don’t celebrate handing over those choices to some company.

    I lost my career at the State Department because I spoke out as a whistleblower against the Iraq War. I’ve now been silenced, again, for speaking, this time by a corporation. I am living in the America I always feared.








    UPDATE: I’ve made a mistake. I was wrong to criticize the government, wrong to criticize journalists, wrong to oppose war. In fact, after much reflection, I have come to understand that I Love Big Brother.



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    Thomas Jefferson’s Ghost Visits the White House

    July 4, 2018 // 33 Comments »

    jefferson.resized

    (Replaying an old favorite blog post for this July 4th…)

    “Who the hell are you?” said a startled Barack Obama, clad only in his Kenyan flag boxers.

    “Easy Barack, chill. Wait, sleeping alone? Awkward. Anyway, I’m Thomas Jefferson, or at least his ghost. Every once in awhile I get bored haunting the attic at the White House and come down to visit, see how the wonderful democracy we created is doing. Add any new rights to our Bill of Rights recently?”

    “Um, it sort of hasn’t gone that way. Except maybe for the Second Amendment, lots of solid growth there,” said Obama.

    “Yes, yes, even upstairs we’ve heard the gunshots. You realize we intended that so Americans would be ready to serve as citizen-soldiers when called up to form militias, right? We never wanted a large standing army, and figured if every stout yeoman farmer retained a musket that would pretty much cover it. I’ll check my notes, but I am pretty sure we never intended the Second to end up arming unhindered homophobic maniacs, or angry white guys who hate abortion in the name of a Christian God, with bazookas.”

    “Sure, Tom, we may have made a misstep or two, but we had a couple of Democrats stage a sit in on the House floor to demand gun control,” said Obama.

    “Hmmm. Sitting down when they should be standing up for something? And why weren’t you with them, Barack?”

    “Um, I had Hamilton tickets, couldn’t make it.”

    “Oh, jeez, Hamilton, again. Where the hell’s my musical? Anyway, how are the rest of the Amendments doing?” Jefferson said.

    “Well, Tom, we had to make a few… adjustments. Time of war and all.”

    “Good God, did a foreign army invade Boston? Damned Canadian troops cross the border? British Men o’ War in New York harbor? What is this war?”

    “Well, 15 years ago some guys killed about half as many Americans who have died in the wars we started since then. That’s kinda it, really,” said Obama. “Been basically riffing off that ever since.”

    “And?”

    “And so we pretty much trashed the Fourth Amendment and now spy on all Americans 24/7. The First Amendment, especially the right to free speech part, that hasn’t held up well, either,” said Obama. “And you have to take your shoes off at the airport but none of us remember why that is anymore.”

    “But Barack, a well-informed citizenry, secure in their persons and papers, who can assemble to speak truth to their government is essential,” Jefferson said. “Actually, that’s kinda the whole thing.”

    “Sure, we have free speech zones at all the big events now, and CNN holds TV townhalls with pre-selected questions. Got that covered. But don’t ask me about due process. I kinda kill American citizens abroad with drones now. Yeah, so there’s that. You know what a mic drop is, Thomas?”

    “OK, OK, I glanced at a newspaper on my way down here, and at least there is some good news. I see that you finally corrected the biggest mistake we made with the Constitution, and got rid of slavery. Indeed, I see now that most Americans are even saying how much Black Lives Matter. That is a very nice sentiment,” Jefferson said.

    “Thomas, maybe you better sit down and I’ll explain…”

     

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    Review: Michael Hayden’s “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies”

    May 19, 2018 // 21 Comments »



    Former NSA and CIA head Michael Hayden’s new book The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies wants to be the manifesto behind an intelligence community coup. It ends up reading like outtakes from Dr. Strangelove.

    Hayden believes Trump cannot discern truth from falsehood, and that Trump is the product of too much fact-free thinking, especially on social media (“computational propaganda” where people can “publish without credentials”) being used by the Russians to destroy the United States. Hayden wants artificial intelligence and a media truth-rating system to “purify our discourse” and help “defend it against inauthentic stimulation.” He believes in the “fragility of civilization” as clearly as he believes there is a “FOX/Trump/RT” alliance in place to exploit it. Under Trump “post-truth is pre-fascism, and to abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” Hayden claims Trump has a “glandular aversion” to even thinking how “Russia has been actively seeking to damage the fabric of American democracy.”

    Seriously.

    Salvation depends on the intelligence community. Hayden makes clear, ominously quoting conversations with anonymous IC officers, that no one else is protecting America from these online threats to our precious bodily fluids. He warns “the structures we rely on to prevent civil war and societal collapse are under stress.” The IC on the other hand “pursues Enlightenment values [and] is essential not just to American safety but to American liberty.”

    Hayden writes he reminded a lad fresh to the IC “Protect yourself. And above all protect the institution. American still needs it.” He has a bit of advice about the CIA: “We are accustomed to relying on their truth to protect us from foreign enemies. Now we may need their truth to save us from ourselves.” The relationship between Trump and the IC is, Hayden threatens, “contentious, divisive, and unpredictable” in these “uncharted waters for the Republic.”

    The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies is blowing ten dogs whistles at once. Arise ye patriots of Langley and Fort Meade!


    Yet for all his emphasis on truth, Hayden is shy about presenting actual evidence of the apocalypse. You are left to believe because Hayden says you must. To disbelieve is to side with Putin. The best we get is executive summary-like statements along the lines of “There is clear evidence of what I would call convergence, the convergence of a mutually reinforcing swirl of Presidential tweets and statements, Russian influenced social media, alt right websites and talk radio, Russian ‘white’ press like RT and even mainstream U.S. media like Fox News.”

    With that established, Hayden informs us when the IC tried to warn Trump of the Russian plot, he “rejected a fact-based intel assessment… because it was inconsistent with a preexisting world view or because it was politically inconvenient, the stuff of ideological authoritarianism not pragmatic democracy.” Comrade, er, Candidate Trump, says Hayden matter-of-factly, “did sound a lot like Vladimir Putin.” The two men, he declaims, are “Russian soulmates.”

    Hayden figures if you’ve read this far into his polemic, he might as well just splurge the rest of his notes on you. Trump is “uninformed, lazy, dishonest, off the charts, rejects the premise objective reality even existed.” Trump is fueled by Russian money (no evidence in the book because the evidence is in the tax returns, Hayden says, as if Line 42 on Trump’s 1040 would read “Putin Black Funds $5mil” and the IRS which does have the tax returns overlooked that.) Trump is an “unwitting agent” of Putin, which Hayden tells us in Russian is polezni durak, so you can see he knows his Cold War lingo. We hear how Wikileaks worked with the Ruskies, how Trump Jr. worked with the Ruskies, about Ruskies inside Trump Tower where they could see the Big Board, how the whole brewhaha over #TakeAKnee was Russian meddling, and how Jill Stein existed to “bleed off votes from Clinton,” every Mueller fan-fiction trope tumbling from the pages like crumbs left over from an earlier reader.


    That’s what The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies reads like as a polemic. It also fails as a book.

    There are pages of filler, jumbled blog post-like chapters about substate actors and global tectonics. Hayden writes in a recognizable style that might be called Bad Military, where everything must eventually be tied to some Big Idea, preferably with classical references Googled up to add gravitas.

    So it is not enough for Hayden to state Trump is a liar, he has to actually label Trump the end of the entire body of Western thought: “We are in a post-truth world, a world in which decisions are far more based upon emotion and preference. And that’s an overturning of the Western way of thought since the Enlightenment.” Bad things are Hobbesian, good things Jeffersonian, Madisonian or Hamiltonian. People Hayden agrees with get adjectival modifiers before their names: the perceptive scholar ____, the iconic journalist _____, the legendary case officer ____. It makes for tiresome reading, like it’s Sunday night at 4am and you still have nine undergrad papers on the causes of the Civil War to grade kind of tiresome.

    Hayden is openly contemptuous of the American people, seeing them as brutes who need to be lead around, either by the Russians as he sees it now, or by the IC, as he wishes it to be. Proof of how dumb we are? Hayden cites a poll showing 83% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats don’t believe the IC analysis that Russia meddled in the 2016 election when they damn well should. Part of his proof Russian bots are at work on Twitter influencing conservative minds is the hashtags #God and #Benghazi trended together.

    In our odd times, Hayden is a Hero of the Resistance. Seemingly forgotten is Hayden, as head of the NSA, implemented blanket surveillance of American citizens in a rape of the Fourth Amendment, itself a product of the Enlightenment, justifying his unconstitutional actions with a mish-mash of post-truth platitudes and still-secret legal findings. Hayden also supported torture during the War on Terror, but whatever.

    This book-length swipe right for the IC leaves out the slam dunk work on weapons of mass destruction. Any concern about political motives inside the IC is swept away as “baseless.” Gina Haspel, who oversaw the torture program, is an “inspired choice” to head CIA. Hayden writes for the rubes, proclaiming the IC produces facts, when in reality even good intel can only be assessments and ambiguous conclusions.


    That people so readily overlook Hayden’s sins simply because he rolls off snark against Trump speaks to our naivety. In that men like Hayden retain their security clearances while serving as authors and paid commentators to outlets like CNN speaks to how deep the roots of the Deep State reach. That some troubled Jack D. Ripper squirreled deep inside the IC might take this pablum seriously is frightening.




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    Review: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is Mostly About Making Jim Comey Rich

    April 25, 2018 // 17 Comments »

    Jesus to Trump: Drop Dead

    Despite the lofty title, in A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership James Comey comes across in turns petty, smug, sanctimonious, bitter, and most of all, pandering.


    Comey feeds the rubes exactly what they paid the carnival sideshow barker in front at Barnes and Noble to hear: the pee tape, the jokes about small hands, the comparisons of Trump to a mob boss, and enough Obama-worship to fill a week’s worth of Maddow.

    Where Comey could have shined — clarifying historical events from the Bush and Obama eras, shedding real light on the FBI’s interplay with the Clinton campaign, verifying or denouncing parts of the Russiagate narrative — he stops purposefully short. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is a quick grab at the money, something that in the old days would have been on pay-per-view cable or tucked away inside a second-tier men’s magazine.


    Comey tells us Trump is obsessed with the pee tape, desperate for the FBI to investigate-to-exonerate. “I’m a germaphobe,” Comey quotes Trump, emphasizing the president claimed he only used the Russian hotel room to change clothes. The then-Director of the FBI was apparently non-committal to his boss, but in his book safely removed by a year and the publishing process Comey writes “I decided not to tell him the activity alleged did not seem to require either an overnight stay or even being in proximity to the participants. In fact, though I didn’t know for sure, I imagined the presidential suite of the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow was large enough for a germaphobe to be at a safe distance from the activity.”

    Classy, and it sets the tone for the two men’s encounters over loyalty pledges, Mike Flynn, and all things Russia. Trump says something neatly packaged and impeachment-worthy, conveniently only in a conversation he and Comey are privy to. Comey, rather than seek clarification, always assumes the worst, keeps his thoughts to himself, but remembers to document every word in writing. Everything about James Comey is presented so that you get the message that everything he is — straight-arrow bureaucrat, warrior-poet of the people, apostle of law and order, defender of the Constitution — is what Trump isn’t. It’s my word against his, you know who you believe, might as well be the title of the book.

    You were expecting insight? Trump never laughs, Comey writes, a clear tell to a soul-seer POTUS harbors “deep insecurity, an inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others.” Comey describes Trump as shorter than he expected with a “too long” tie. The eyes, by the way, are “expressionless.” Comey says the president’s hands were “smaller than mine.” Jim, we get it — Trump is short, wears his ties long to compensate, has tiny hands — brother, just represent: I’m a bigger man than the president!


    The Clintons are always in the background. Comey teases there is classified but unverified info on Loretta Lynch that “casts serious doubt on the Attorney General’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation” but unlike in the case of Trump, where classification and proprietary have the value of a paper bag in the rain, Comey reveals no details.

    Elsewhere, Comey creates his own standard, well outside the law, for why the investigation into Clinton’s exposure of classified material on her personal unclassified server did not lead to prosecution: she gosh golly just didn’t intend to do anything criminally wrong, he says, taking the term “willful” in the actual law and twisting it to mean “evil intent.” Comey says prosecution would have required a specific smoking gun message from someone telling Clinton sending classified material via unclassified channels was wrong. He has nothing to say about whether that message might have been in the 30,000 emails Clinton deleted, only shrugging his shoulders to say there was nothing to justify prosecution as far as anyone looked. Why, he adds, they even asked Hillary herself.

    And as long as he’s making up the law, those memos Comey wrote of conversations between two government employees, on Federal property, regarding national security-related official government business? He “regards” them as personal property, so their contents didn’t have to be classified and thus could not by definition be leaked. He did not, however, include them in his book and they remain hidden from the public.

    Comey writes he felt confident reopening the Clinton email probe days before the election because he ­assumed Clinton would win, and if the new investigation was revealed after her victory it might make her seem “illegitimate.” He says the same thing about keeping Russian meddling quiet, certain it wouldn’t matter when Hillary became his boss a few months later. The irony of Comey setting out to legitimize the expected Clinton presidency ended up hurting her aside, what is disturbing is the blatant admission a partisan calculus was part of the decision making in any way at all.


    It’s a heck of a thing to admit in writing, and shows how empty Comey’s constant claims to integrity lie. Should any serious prosecution emerge from the mess of the Trump presidency, Comey’s credibility as a witness is tainted, and his value to the American people he claims to serve thus diluted. Comey will see his testimony whittled down by defense lawyers even now cross-indexing statements in the book with the public record. And who knows what Seth and Trevor and Rachel will pull out of him?

    Most people tangled up in Washington beheadings get around these problems by waiting until after the dust has settled to write their books. That was the case for the Watergate gang, Oliver North, and Monica Lewinsky. The problem with Comey waiting is that there’s very little new here. If your impeachment fantasy includes the pee tape, or if you believe it is made-up, Comey has nothing to enlighten you either way.

    Instead, this is like reading a 13-year-old’s diary about why she hates boys, or a bunch of angry Tweets dragged out over 304 pages. Comey doesn’t appear to have any political ambitions, and he doesn’t seem to be using the book to audition for a talk show job. It’s not even good “score settling” in that it’s just mostly the same stuff you’ve heard before.


    And that’s all a shame, because there is a better book Comey could have written. Comey was witness to the legal wranglings inside the Bush administration over NSA’s illegal domestic spying on Americans, and was in the hospital room when Bush White House officials tried to bully ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft into reauthorizing the Stellar Wind surveillance program. Comey was there for the debates over torture, and under Obama, the use of the Espionage Act to punish journalists and whistleblowers. None of that was morally repugnant to him at a Trump-like level, and he never resigned in protest to protect his honor. Why, Jim?

    Bu instead of insight into all that we get a quick overview that adds little to the known facts. Comey’s narratives are designed only to show leaders in each instance acted honorably enough for Comey’s taste, as opposed to Trump. Comey’s visceral hatred of Trump as a liar and a boor prevents Comey from writing an honorable memoir of his decades inside government, and instead drives him to present a version of events where history is only of value when it can be slaved to making Trump look bad in comparison. It’s a thin shell for anyone who knows more about these events than Colbert or Meyers spoon out.

    There’s a reason why circus sideshows got out of town after a few days, before the rubes figured out the “Alien from Mars” was just a rabbit with some fake teeth glued on. It’s pretty clear Comey’s higher loyalty lies only to making a quick buck for himself with a near-substance free book, before anyone realizes it’s all a fraud.


    Update: Amazon dropped the pre-order price three bucks the day after for Comey’s book was formally released…)


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    FARA: Freedom of the Press, But On the Government’s Terms

    March 31, 2018 // 21 Comments »



    A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate if Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA.)

    This has broad implications for our First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and in how the rest of the world views us.


    The lawmakers claim Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. Al Jazeera would join Russian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and the China Daily in registering as foreign state propaganda outlets. DOJ has also been asked to look into a range of other Chinese media.

    Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the U.S. The network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

    The Foreign Agents Registration Act was never intended to regulate journalism. The legislation in fact includes finely-worded exemptions for approved journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they create. The law was created in 1938 in response to German propaganda, specifically Nazi officials and those they employed to make pacifist speeches in then-neutral America and to organize sympathetic German-Americans. By requiring those working for the Nazis to register, and report their finances and spending, U.S. counterespionage authorities could more easily keep track of their activities.

    FARA law doesn’t even prohibit straight up propagandizing, though it seeks to limit the influence of foreign agents by labeling their work, apparently to help out Americans who otherwise would not be able to tell the difference on their own. The law specifically says “Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.” Indeed, the Atlantic Council claims these actions “do not suppress freedom of speech; instead, it serves the First Amendment by supplementing information available to the public.”

    Here’s a use of FARA in line with the law’s original intent: the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, whose job is to lobby Americans on behalf of a foreign government, in this case, to take vacations in Abu Dhabi, is a FARA registrant. You know who is up to what when the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority says they have decent beaches you should visit. Other typical registrants might include an American lawyer hired by Saudi Arabia to lobby Congress in favor of more arms sales. Being a foreign agent is happily legal and very popular with former Congresspeople and government bureaucrats; you just need to announce your employer.


    But FARA can also serve a more nefarious purpose, as a Catch-22 prosecution (a “compliance statute”) for those the U.S. wants to declare as foreign agents but who resist; if the feds want to taint you as a foreign agent, you either agree and register, or face jail.

    That is what happened in the case of RT and Radio Sputnik. Following the 2016 election, frightened officials demanded the Russian news organizations register as propaganda agents. RT’s editor-in-chief maintained her network was an independent news outlet, but chose to comply rather than face criminal proceedings, adding “we congratulate the American freedom of speech and all those who still believe in it.” Critics then swung RT’s snarky comment on free speech into “proof” it unfairly criticizes America.

    The use of FARA to allow the government to declare which foreign media outlets produce “news” and which produce “fake news” and propaganda is “a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. “We’re uncomfortable with governments’ deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”


    As the Justice Department wields the FARA weapon against journalists, here’s what they will face.

    Designation under FARA requires a media outlet label its reporting “with a conspicuous statement that the information is disseminated by the agents on behalf of the foreign principal,” a nutritional label for journalism. It also means the outlet must open its finances to the Department of Justice. It means Americans who choose to watch that media, or participate in its talk shows, or who work legally for those outlets, open themselves to accusations of “treason” (one political staffer was fired after being interviewed by Radio Sputnik.) It adds credence to the muddy cries of “fake news” used to shut out dissenting opinions. It gives credibility to groups like PropOrNot, which lists websites it “determines” are Russian propaganda, and Hamilton 68, which does the same for Twitter.

    Subjecting journalists to FARA sends a message about America. It encourages foreign governments to impose restrictions (Russia has already passed a law requiring outlets like CNN to register as foreign agents.) It uses the full authority of the American government to declare Al Jazeera, a network which reaches 310 million people in more than 160 countries, has no equal place within a free press because its broadcasts are “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel.” In the specific case of Al Jazeera, it seemingly extends America law to cover anti-Israeli propaganda as well. As with attempts to claim Wikileaks is espionage and not journalism, this use of FARA says the U.S. will use its laws to harass those with “un-American” opinions.

    The use of FARA to restrict foreign journalists also adds to rising sense among too many already frightened Americans that our freedoms are being used against us. “The U.S. is at a huge strategic disadvantage when it comes to the New Media Wars because our information environment is so open and rich,” said one former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. Perhaps too many dissenting voices isn’t a good idea. The Internet is just too much freedom for the First Amendment to responsibly allow. Maybe the government should become more involved in what we say, hear, watch, and read, as Facebook and Twitter (who banned RT from advertising) do now, you know, for our own protection. Our open society is a vulnerability, not a strength.


    The roots of our most basic rights flow from the freedom of the press written into the First Amendment. The press must be unfettered in reporting so citizens can make informed decisions when voting, protesting, and petitioning their government. Government should play no role in designating good journalists from bad, licensing who can report, or otherwise interfering with access to a broad range of ideas. Sorting out the marketplace of ideas — opposing opinions, bias exposed and hidden — is supposed to be our job as an informed citizenry anyway.



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    Justice Stevens is Wrong: Repealing the Second Amendment in Post-Constitutional America

    March 27, 2018 // 15 Comments »




    It is not a healthy sign for a democracy when the people ask that rights be taken from them by the government.

    Former Justice of the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens is calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment in an Op-Ed in the New York Times. And make no mistake; the article is not for restrictions on rights (which can have their place) but for the elimination of an “inalienable” right, stripping the 2A from the Constitution. Stop what you’re about to say — this is about something more fundamental than guns alone.

    Stevens argues guns are dangerous things and the Second Amendment is, in his words, “a relic of the 18th century.” He advanced similar thoughts in 2008, when dissenting in the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Supreme Court held the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms on an individual basis, even for those unaffiliated with a militia (thus an “individual” right not a “collective” right.) Stevens claimed in his dissent “There is no indication Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”

    Justice Stevens instead sees the Second Amendment as a “propaganda weapon of immense power” for the NRA. His renewed call to repeal the 2A is based mostly what he saw on TV this weekend, a march in Washington in favor of something-something-gun control-somehow Stevens believes represents a “clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons.” He maintains as long as the 2A exists, the NRA will simply use its declaration of the inalienable right to bear arms to “stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation.” The bulk of the Supreme Court rejected his ideas back in 2008, when Stevens tried to vote down the right to bear arms in District of Columbia v. Heller. It doesn’t make any more sense now.


    Now of course the 2A will not be repealed; a nation that can’t make up its mind on the proper legal age to purchase a handgun will never reach a consensus to amend the Bill of Rights. People like Stevens calling for its repeal likely believe they are clever negotiators, setting a marker way out there, thinking it makes bargaining towards some middle easier. Same for using the PTSD-encrusted Parkland kids as emotional, meaty symbols, labeling those who oppose “gun control” as literal murderers, alongside members of the NRA, the Republican party, and any other politician who accepts NRA money.

    The problem is demonizing everyone who owns a gun for whatever reason is never going to promote meaningful change. Those people vote, they certainly don’t see themselves as demons or people who would condone the killing of children, and they won’t trust reforms to people who label them as demons. Under those circumstances, the only “answers” are repeal or keep things as they are, the kind of solution Prohibition failed at with alcohol.

    In the ten years since his original dissent and today’s New York Times Op-Ed, Stevens hasn’t come up any better argument other than the presence of the 2A itself enables the NRA to block incremental change. That will almost certainly drive away any gun owners who might otherwise be willing to talk about some sort of restrictions. Going to the table demanding all or nothing usually yields you nothing. Stevens has also just played directly into the hands of the NRA, who have maintained all along “reforms” are just sneaky waypoints toward banning all guns. Justice Stevens’ critique is fundamentally wrong, as its premise is that not everyone is to be allowed rights, that they are gummy, not inalienable. He argues extra-Consitutionally some choices (the Parkland ones of course) exist above rights.


    Historians may well look back on Stevens’ article as a marker the United States has entered its third great era. The first, starting from the colonists’ arrival, saw the principles of the Enlightenment used to push back the abuses of an imperial government and create the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The next two hundred some years, imperfect as they were, saw those principles progress, putting into practice what an evolving government of the people might look like. The line was steady — greater rights, more freedom, encoding away the ability of government to restrict how people could chose to live.

    We are now wading in the shallows of the third era, Post-Constitutional America, a time when we are abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges. Those ideas — enshrined in the Bill of Rights — are disarmingly concise, the haiku of a People’s government. Now, deeper, darker waters lay in front of us, and we are drawn down into them.

    The very idea of even discussing willfully removing rights guts the heart of who we are. Rights inside our form of society are inalienable, existing organically, and are not granted by government and should not be able to be taken away. Such extraordinary privilege comes with the responsibility of tolerance; that is why the 1A protects all speech, including some quite purposely hateful and racist. It is meant to be that Americans can hate the idea of abortion, or same sex marriage, and still support someone’s else’s right to different choices with all their heart. I don’t own a gun, but you can.

    Some will argue guns are different, they kill. The same argument can be applied to abortion of course, and to speech designed to stir people to war. Some, like Stevens, say the 2A, which speaks of a “well regulated militia” the Founders intended as a substitute to a standing army is archaic language. It is. The idea a handful of people with personal weapons poses much of a tactical challenge to a standing army in the 21st century is as outdated as the Third Amendment, which prohibits the government from quartering troops in private homes.


    But the Constitution is a living document, and has changed mightly over the last two centuries to greatly expand rights implicitly and explicitly left out in the 18th century-limited minds of the men who wrote it, particularly in regards to slavery, universal suffrage, and discrimination in all its forms. “Speech” has been constantly redefined in broader and broader ways that would astound the Founders. But the broad pattern has always been toward expansion of rights carefully moderated by restrictions as limited as they must be (no shouting fire in a crowded theatre.)

    It is wrong and frightening and anti-democratic to see calls for the elimination of a full amendment from the Bill of Rights, and doubly so that such appeals resonate with so many Americans acting now out of fear and emotion. It bespeaks a fundamental change in how Americans came to be America, and opens the door wider to a Post-Constitutional United States that seems to say “You want inalienable rights? You can’t handle inalienable rights.”

    The Founders feared a King would become jealous of the People’s power and want some back. They never anticipated in 2018 the people might demand it be taken from them.




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    Gina Haspel — As if Nuremberg Never Happened

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    Nothing will say more about who we are — across three administrations, one who demanded torture, one who covered it up, and one who seeks to promote its bloody participants — than whether or not Gina Haspel becomes Director of the CIA.


    Gina Haspel tortured human beings in Thailand as the chief of a CIA black site in 2002. She is currently Deputy Director at the CIA. With current director Mike Pompeo slated to move to Foggy Bottom, President Donald Trump proposed Haspel as the Agency’s new head.

    Haspel’s victims wait for death in Guantanamo and cannot speak to us, though they no doubt remember their own screams, Haspel’s face as she broke them, what she said about freedom and America as they were waterboarded. We can still hear former CIA officer John Kiriakou say “We did call her Bloody Gina. Gina was always very quick and very willing to use force. Gina and people like Gina did it, I think, because they enjoyed doing it. They tortured just for the sake of torture, not for the sake of gathering information.”

    Kiriakou exposes the obsessive debate over the effectiveness of torture as false: torture works, just not for eliciting information. Torture and the people like Gina Haspel who conduct it seek vengeance, humiliation, and power. We’re just slapping you now, she would have said in that Thai prison, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we’re capable of? The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, creating his own terror.


    Haspel won’t be asked at her confirmation hearing to explain how torture works, but these men could.

    I met my first torture victim in Korea, where I was adjudicating visas for the State Department. Persons with serious criminal records are ineligible to travel to the United States, with an exception for political crimes by dissidents. The man I spoke with said under the U.S.-supported military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee he was tortured for writing anti-government verse. He was taken to a small underground cell. Two men arrived and beat him repeatedly on his testicles and sodomized him with one of the tools they had used for the beating. They asked no questions. They barely spoke to him at all.

    Though the pain was beyond his ability to describe, he said the humiliation of being left so utterly helpless was what remained of his life, destroyed his marriage, sent him to the repeated empty comfort of alcohol, and kept him from ever putting pen to paper again. The men who destroyed him, he told me, did their work, and then departed, as if they had others to visit and needed to get on with things. He was released a few days later and driven back to his apartment by the police. A forward-looking gesture.

    The second torture victim I met while stationed in Iraq. The prison that had held him was under the control of some shadowy part of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. In there masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said they neither asked him questions nor demanded information. They did whip his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar ordinarily used to reinforce concrete.

    It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What destroyed him was the feeling of utter helplessness. His strength had been his ability to control things. He showed me the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves.

    Haspel blinded one of her victims. Another was broken as a human being so thoroughly he would, at the snap of his torturer’s fingers, simply lie down to be waterboarded. Haspel accused a victim of faking his psychological breakdown: “I like the way you’re drooling. It adds to the realism. I’m almost buying it.” As head of the black site Haspel had sole authority to halt the questioning but she made the torture continue.

    Gina Haspel is the same person as those who were in the rooms with the Korean, and the Iraqi.


    Gina Haspel is nominated to head the CIA because Obama did not prosecute anyone for torture; she is the future he told us to look forward toward. He did not hold any truth commissions, and ensured almost all of the government documents on the torture program remain classified. He did not prosecute the CIA officials who destroyed video tapes of the torture scenes.

    Obama ignored, as with the continued hunting down of Nazis some 70 years after their evil acts, the message that individual responsibility must stalk those who do evil on behalf of a government. “I was only following orders” is not a defense against inhuman acts. The purpose of tracking down the guilty is to punish those with blood on their hands, to discourage the next person from doing evil, and to morally immunize a nation-state.

    But to punish Gina Haspel “more than 15 years later for doing what her country asked her to do, and in response to what she was told were lawful orders, would be a travesty and a disgrace,” claims one of her supporters. “Haspel did nothing more and nothing less than what the nation and the agency asked her to do, and she did it well,” said Michael Hayden.

    Influential people in Congress agree. Senator Richard Burr, chair of the Senate intelligence committee which will soon review Haspel said “I know Gina personally and she has the right skill set, experience, and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies.” Lindsey Graham expressed “She’ll have to answer for that period of time, but I think she’s a highly qualified person.” Bill Nelson defended Haspel’s actions, saying they were “the accepted practice of the day” and shouldn’t disqualify her.

    Dianne Feinstein signaled her likely acceptance, saying “Since my concerns were raised over the torture situation, I have met with her extensively, talked with her… She has been, I believe, a good deputy director.” Susan Collins added Haspel “certainly has the expertise and experience as a 30 year employee of the agency.” John McCain, a victim of torture during the Vietnam War, mumbled only that Haspel would have to explain her role.

    Nearly alone at present, Senator Rand Paul says he will oppose Haspel’s nomination. Senators Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich have told Trump she is unsuitable and will likely also vote no.


    Following World War II the United States could have easily executed those Nazis responsible for the Holocaust, or simply thrown them into some forever jail on an island military base. It would have been hard to find anyone who would not have supported brutally torturing them at a black site. Instead, they were put on public trial at Nuremberg and made to defend their actions as the evidence against them was laid bare. The point was to demonstrate We were better than Them.

    We today instead refuse to understand what Haspel’s victims, and the Korean writer, and the Iraqi insurgent, already know on our behalf: unless our Congress awakens to confront the nightmare and deny Gina Haspel’s nomination as Director of the CIA, torture has already transformed us and so will consume us. Gina Haspel is a torturer. We are torturers. It is as if Nuremberg never happened.


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    Politics, Justice, and the Surveillance State

    March 12, 2018 // 5 Comments »




    The role pervasive surveillance plays in politics today has been grossly underreported. Set aside what you think about the Trump presidency for a moment and focus instead on the new paradigm for how politics and justice work inside the surveillance state.


    Incidental collectionis the claimed inadvertent or accidental monitoring of Americans’ communications under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Incidental collection exists alongside court-approved warranted surveillance authorized on a specific individual. But for incidental collection, no probable cause is needed, no warrant is needed, and no court or judge is involved. It just gets vacuumed up.

    While exactly how many Americans have their communications monitored this way is unknown, a significant number Trump staffers (no evidence of incidental surveillance of the Clinton campaign exists) were surveilled by a White House controlled by their opposition party. Election-time claims the Obama administration wasn’t “wiretapping” Trump were disingenuous. They in fact gathered an unprecedented level of inside information. How was it used?

    Incidental collection nailed Michael Flynn; the NSA was ostensibly not surveilling Flynn, just listening in on the Russian ambassador as the two spoke. The intercept formed the basis of Flynn’s firing as national security advisor, his guilty plea for perjury, and very possibly his “game changing” testimony against others.

    Jeff Sessions was similarly incidentally surveilled, as was former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose conversations were picked up as part of a FISA warrant issued against Trump associate, Carter Page. Paul Manafort and Richard Gates were also subjects of FISA-warranted surveillance; they were surveilled in 2014, the case was dropped for lack of evidence, then re-surveilled after they joined the Trump team and became more interesting to the state.

    Officials on the National Security Council revealed Trump himself may also have been swept up in surveillance of foreign targets. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claims multiple communications by Trump transition staff were inadvertently picked up. Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners. Some reports claim after a criminal warrant was denied to look into whether or not Trump Tower servers were communicating with a Russian bank, a FISA warrant was issued.

    How much information on Trump’s political strategy a Democratic White House acquired via surveillance, as well as the full story of what might have been done with that information, will never be known. We do know Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats saw enough after he took office to specify the “intelligence community may not engage in political activity, including dissemination of U.S. person identities to the White House, for the purpose of affecting the political process of the United States.”

    Coats likely had in mind the use of unmasking by the Obama administration. Identities of U.S. persons picked up inadvertently by surveillance are supposed to be masked, hidden from most users of the data. However, a select group of officials, including political appointees in the White House, can unmask and include names if they believe it is important to understanding the intelligence, or to show evidence of a crime.

    Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice told House investigators in at least one instance she unmasked the identities of Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, also made a number of unmasking requests in her final year in office.

    But no one knows who unmasked Flynn in his conversations with the Russian ambassador. That and subsequent leaking of what was sad were used not only to snare Flynn in a perjury trap, but also to force him out of government. Prior to the leak which took Flynn down, Obama holdover and then-acting attorney general Sally Yates warned Trump Flynn could be blackmailed by Moscow for lying about his calls. When Trump didn’t immediately fire Flynn, the unmasked surveillance was leaked by a “senior government official” (likely Yates) to the Washington Post. The disclosure pressured the administration to dump Flynn.

    Similar leaks were used to try to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign, though only resulted in him recusing himself from the Russiagate investigation. Following James Comey’s firing, that recusal ultimately opened the door for the appointment of Special Counsel Mueller.

    A highly classified leak was used to help marginalize Jared Kushner. The Washington Post, based on leaked intercepts, claimed foreign officials’ from four countries spoke of exploiting Kushner’s economic vulnerabilities to push him into acting against the United States. If the story is true, the leakers passed on data revealing sources and methods; those foreign officials now know however they communicated their thoughts about Kushner, the NSA was listening. Access to that level of information and the power to expose it is not a rank and file action. One analyst described the matter as “the Deep State takes out the White House’s Dark Clown Prince.”

    Pervasive surveillance has shown its power perhaps most significantly in creating perjury traps to manufacture indictments to pressure people to testify against others.

    Trump associate George Papadopoulos lied to the FBI about several meetings concerning Clinton’s emails. The FBI knew about the meetings, “propelled in part by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch.” The feds asked him questions solely in hope Papadopoulos would lie, commit perjury, even though there was nothing shown to be criminal in the meetings themselves. Now guilty of a crime, the FBI will use the promise of light punishment to press Papadopoulos into testifying against others.

    There is an element here of using surveillance to create a process crime out of a non-material lie (the FBI already knew) where no underlying crime of turpitude exists (the meetings were legal.) That that is then used to press someone to testify in an investigation that will have significant political impact seems… undemocratic… yet appears to be a primary tool Mueller is using.

    This is a far cry from a traditional plea deal, giving someone a light sentence for actual crimes so that they will testify against others. Mueller should know. He famously allowed Mafia hitman Sammy the Bull to escape more serious punishment for 19 first degree murders in return for testifying against John Gotti. No need to manufacture a perjury trap; the pile of bodies who never saw justice did the trick.

    Don’t be lured into thinking the ends justify the means, that whatever it takes to purge Trump is acceptable. Say what you want about Flynn, Kushner, et al, what matters most is the dark process being used. The arrival of pervasive surveillance as a political weapon is more significant than what happens to a little bug like Jared.




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    Oh Hell Yes the Nunes Memo Matters (But Not Why You Think It Does)

    February 10, 2018 // 7 Comments »

    California Congressman Devin Nunes’ memo details how the Department of Justice secured a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Many feel the memo raises questions about bias inside the FBI, and the legal and ethical use of a Trump opposition research dossier as justification for a FISA warrant. Others claim the memo is irrelevant, a dud.

     

    When you wave away all the partisan smoke, what is deeply worrisome is the Nunes memo confirms American intelligence services were involved in a presidential campaign and remain so in the aftermath. No more conspiracy theories. So forget what you “agree” with, and focus on what happened during the 2016 campaign.

    The FBI conducted an investigation, the first ever of a major party candidate in the midst of a presidential battle, and exonerated Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing over her private email server, a government-endorsed “OK” for her expected victory. No real investigation was conducted into the vast sums of money moving between foreign states and the Clinton Foundation, dead-ending those concerns to partisan media.

    A month before voting the Obama administration accused the Russian government of stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee. The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said the leaked emails (which reflected poorly on Clinton) “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.” The FBI swung again and said well maybe there was something to see in Clinton’s emails, buried on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. The CIA/NSA meanwhile leaked like cheap diapers throughout the campaign. Trump owes money to Russia. Trump’s computers communicate with Russia. The Russians have sexy kompromat on Trump. That the newly-elected president is literally a tool of Russian intelligence became a common element in the national conversation (John McCain on the Nunes memo release: “We are doing Putin’s job for him.”)

    Leave aside the question of what in all of the above is actually true. Maybe Clinton’s private email server exposed no secrets. Maybe Trump’s real estate ventures have dirty Russian money in them. Or maybe not, it is doubtful any of us will ever know. What is important is each of those actions by the intelligence community affected the course of the election. They may not have always shifted votes in the intended way, or there theoretically may have been no intention per se, but the bare naked fact is unlike any previous presidential election the intelligence community played an ongoing public role in who ended up in the White House, and now, for how long the elected president remains there.

     

    And of course the intelligence community was deep in the Steele dossier, the focal point of the Nunes memo. Christopher Steele is a former British intelligence officer with a long history of close work with his American counterparts. He was commissioned first by a conservative website to develop dirt (“opposition research”) on candidate Trump. Funding swiftly shifted to Clinton surrogates, who saw the thing through to being leaked to the FBI. Steele’s product, the dossier, is a collection of second-hand gossip, dangling suggestions of entanglements between Trump and shadowy Russians, and of course, the infamous pee tape. Nothing in the dossier has been confirmed. It might all be true, or none of it. We will likely never know.

    The FBI nonetheless embraced the dossier and morphed it from opposition research into evidence. Per the Nunes memo, the Steele dossier, and a “collaborating” article actually derived from the same information leaked by Steele to the author, then became part the legal justification for a FISA surveillance warrant issued against Trump associate Carter Page. A product of unclear reliability created and promoted via the opponent’s campaign abetted by the western intelligence community justified the demand to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

    Much will be made of how influential, or not, the Steele dossier was in obtaining the original FISA warrant, and whether or not its use was legal at all. The Nunes memo states recently “retired” FBI No. 2 Andrew McCabe confirmed no FISA warrant would have been sought without the Steele dossier; McCabe denies saying that during still-classified and still-unreleased testimony. Senior DOJ officials knew the dossier’s politics but left that information off their FISA application. Does any of that matter?

    We will never know. The Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act court works in secret. The standards are secret, the results and decisions are secret. None of us knows what matters to a FISA judge in rendering a decision to spy on an American campaign associate. Someone can release the so-called “underlying documents” (they’re typically dozens of pages long) DOJ used for the FISA application but without knowledge of FISA standards, those documents won’t be of much help. The apparatus of spying in America, including the FISA court, is widely supported and authority to spy was just extended with support from both parties.

    If you want to assert the FISA warrant on Page was apolitical, issued only to collect on his possible role as a Russian agent, and no strategy, financial, or campaign information was collected, or that if it was it was simply discarded, well, that’s a beneficent view of human nature, never mind a bizarrely generous level of trust in government. Yet even if the intent was righteous and the people involved lawful, the information is stored. Which person or agency has control of it today is not necessarily who will control it in the future; information is forever.

     

    Remember, too, the Nunes memo addresses only one FISA warrant on one person from October 2016; investigations into Trump, et al, had been ongoing well before that. We do not know, for example, what information formed the basis of the July 2016 investigation into Trump staffer George Papadopoulos the Nunes memo mentions; it may have been passed from the Australians via U.S. intelligence. Michael Flynn’s conversations with Russian persons were “inadvertently” monitored and later “unmasked” (and leaked) by Obama administration officials. Jeff Session’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were collected and leaked. The Nunes memo tells us then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr unofficially funneled additional material from Steele into DOJ; Ohr’s wife worked for the company that first commissioned the dossier. As yet unsubstantiated reports say Trump officials were monitored by British GCHQ with the information shared with their NSA partners, a common arrangement on both sides to get around domestic laws limiting such work on one’s own citizens, such as when a FISA warrant can’t be obtained, or one does not want to leave a paper trail.

     

    If you’re fine with the U.S. government using paid-for opposition research to justify spying on persons connected to presidential campaign staff, then nothing further I can write will help you understand how worrisome this disclosure is. Except maybe this. Switch the candidate’s name you hate with the one you like. That means President Trump surveilling staff from the Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign after a dossier commissioned by the Republican party links them to China. You’d trust Trump, and every future president, with that, right?

    The involvement of the intelligence community as in the 2016 presidential campaign, clumsy and disorganized as it appears to have been, will be part of the next election, and the ones after that. If you’re in search of a Constitutional crisis, it lies waiting there. After all, when we let George W. Bush create, and Barack Obama greatly expand, the surveillance state, what did we think it would come to be used for?

     

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