Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going, going, gone

I recently gave a reading in a gallery displaying the paintings, done in Italy, by Anthony Holdsworth (see One of them, portraying a run-down boarded-up farmhouse, bore the title, Questa Era Bella. This was beautiful. Holdsworth made it the title painting of the collection because it expresses his artist’s sense that Italy, that most human-scale of countries, is Americanizing so fast that the ancient, effortless beauty for which its villages and landscapes are known is being gobbled up and ruined by its rush to industrialization and commercialization. In this sense, the title fits perfectly the more general feeling I would like to portray here, the spirit that runs through human affairs, through life itself: that each moment is already gone by the time we perceive it, and that we all exist, thereby, in a constant state of nostalgia and regret over what’s going.
We are always told, of course, not to regret what’s past: as Edith Piaf sang constantly, Rien, Je ne regrette rien. But it’s neither that simple, nor, fundamentally, in the control of each of us as individuals. That is to say, each perception, especially of what we consider beautiful or precious, is always already compromised by our knowledge that its beauty is, in some way, enhanced, even created by the knowledge of its passing. That’s because when we think of what’s most beautiful and precious, it is always those things that last for moments only. A flower—aside from the vain attempts of florists to make it last—is really a momentary thing. That is what makes it beautiful and precious: the fact that we know it must quickly fade, turn brown and fall. So is a baby. We know that it is going to grow up, is going to soon be assaulted by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ but for the moments that it is innocent and takes joy in every small aspect of its world, we value it and envy it and subconsciously mourn what we know will be its passing. All things are like this. The grass of spring is glorious, as are the wildflowers that sprout at the same time because we know they are ephemeral, here for a moment, and then gone. The peak of an athlete’s performance is thrilling because its peak lasts only for a short time, and will soon be buried in aches and pains and injuries, to return no more. The pristine beauty of a landscape or a city after a snowfall aches our hearts because we know with certainty that too soon its purity will melt away, or be blackened by soot and shoes and motor oil and plows that will make piles of the filth it has become, that must be carted away. And though we like to think that only others—other things or other beings or distant landscapes or cities or civilizations are marred by this truth—we eventually must come to see that the same truth underlies our own nostalgia for our very selves. For the lives we once imagined we would always have.
The story of a classmate of mine appeared recently in my alumni magazine. Barry Corbet was one of the chosen ones, model handsome with the highest IQ of any freshman who ever entered the college. Not only that, he was a superb athlete, mountain climber, geologist and skier who spent much of his time climbing and conquering both college buildings and peaks in the Grand Tetons. After graduation, he was selected to join America’s first official team to attempt Mount Everest, along with several of his classmates, one of whom was killed in an avalanche on the second day of the ascent. Though he had paved the way for the historic attempt to reach the unclimbed West Ridge, the death of his friend affected Corbet deeply, and he insisted on yielding his right to two others in the party to make the climb to history on May 22, 1963. After that, Corbet continued his career in the mountains, branching out into acting and filmmaking as well. On one filmmaking expedition near Aspen, CO, he agreed to shoot aerial shots from a helicopter. Unfortunately, the low-flying helicopter snagged on a bump and crashed. Corbet was nearly killed and, though he survived, it was as a paraplegic who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It took him a while to pull out of the resulting depression, but he eventually decided he had to keep moving, and set out to become “the most active gimp who ever lived.” He was. Since river kayaking requires mainly upper body strength, he became a daring kayaker and a pioneer “Super Crip.” But so much stress on his upper body eventually injured the rotator cuffs in his shoulders, and he became not just a paraplegic but a quadriplegic. Yet again, Corbet fashioned a new life, first as an advocate for disabled people like himself, and then as editor of a magazine for the disabled, New Mobility. It was at this point that he took up meditation and began to see himself, and all others in a different way. Everyone, he said, “should accurately be described as TABs, or ‘temporarily able-bodied.’ Everyone will be disabled at some point—it’s just a matter of time” (all material and quotes from “Second Chapter,” by Broughton Coburn, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, July/Aug. 2013).
Barry Corbet was once a beautiful young man, a supremely able-bodied athlete. His devastating injury and a great deal of work, both physical and spiritual, led him to understand that this beauty, this ability, were more temporary than he, or anyone imagines. Shakespeare, in Richard III, puts this in a phrase uttered by Hastings, who is about to be executed in the Tower of London: “Oh momentary grace of mortal men.” We are momentary creatures, our grace, our attraction, our good fortune momentary at best. Compared to the immense skein of eons involved in life on earth, or in the evolution of the entire universe, our little lives and their successes and failures, regardless of how much we attribute to them, are brief moments in time, infinitesimal flashes of light that appear like motes in the sun, and then are gone. Mel Allen, the great Yankee announcer who reigned on the radio when I was a Yankee fan in the 1940s, had a signature call when a player hit a home run: “That one’s hit deep to left field, back, way back, It’s Going, Going, GONE!” Though Mel Allen meant it as a tribute to the thrill that is a home run, it is also, in another sense, what we are. Going, going, gone. Oddly enough, the central Buddhist sutra, the Heart Sutra, concludes with a similar phrase or mantra in Sanskrit: gate, gate, para gate, parasam gate (pron: Gah tay). The words mean something like: ‘Gone, gone, completely gone, beyond completely gone’ and, though untranslatable, refer approximately to the enlightened state far beyond human conception or expression. Or perhaps simply to all of us, who go and are beyond human conception. Our momentary grace is beyond human conception. We do not really know who or what we are. All we know is that we are temporary manifestations of something immense and mysteriously beyond. The ancient Greeks tried to come to terms with this paradox of human existence, with our knowledge of our own being-in-mortality. This knowledge, said the Greeks, is both our tragedy and our glory. Unique among creatures, we know we are going to die, which is a tragedy. But this knowledge is also our glory: we teach it to others. We humans teach each other how to die; which is to say, how to live in the knowledge of the certainty of our death, our evanescence. That is what makes us human. That is what makes human existence glorious. We know we are dying in every moment, and yet we live, if we have any wisdom at all, any culture at all (which the Greeks knew they had), with this knowledge as our glory. Our badge of courage, perhaps. The Gods, said the Greeks, have it easy (as do the animals, for the opposite reason, their ignorance). They, the Gods, are immortal and so never have to live with the knowledge of their coming demise. Easy. To live knowing that you are doomed to die, however—that takes courage, that takes grace, that is our glory as humans. We are flowers who know that our beauty is already fading, and yet...
Buddhism tries to come to terms with this same conundrum. Change is constant, and we all hate change. We all want to be permanent, permanently invulnerable, we want what is good and beautiful to last, and what is painful and ugly to pass from us quickly. We can have neither. Everything, not only what is outside us, like flowers and landscapes and animals and other humans, but what is inside us, our very organs and limbs and hair and cells and the sense of ourselves that they produce—all are changing every single moment. And while what we want is to make this change stop so we don’t have to suffer it, what Buddhism teaches is the simple but profound acceptance of this root fact. We change, we are change, we are nothing but change. And trying to hold on to any momentary grace or make it permanent is simply ignorance. Is simply suffering. Barry Corbet seems to have learned something about this, for when he knew his body was finally giving out completely, he quietly refused all attempts to keep him alive, stopped eating, and rested calm and content and without apparent regret in his now, or still going, going, gone body.
This, then, is our paradox. That which is most beautiful is that which is most fragile, most temporary. Which is us. All of us. All of our beautiful moments, from moments of supreme confidence in athletics, to moments of supreme joy in family, or individual accomplishment, or sex—all of them are shadowed by this knowledge of their passing even as we enjoy them. Even as we try to make them last as long as possible. Even as we know that this attempt to make them last is futile. Which is what, coming full circle, in fact makes them beautiful and precious. The French song, Plaisir d’amour, expresses this in music and verse. ‘The joy of love, is but a moment long.’ And the next line, ‘the pain of love endures the whole life long,’ expresses the down side, our complaint, our longing to have pleasure endure and pain momentary. Unexpressed is the corollary: the fact that pain endures and pleasure is momentary is what makes the pleasure so precious. But even that’s not quite right, because this seems to suggest that you need pain to have pleasure, and that they succeed each other in time. What is being posited here is that the beauty and the pleasure and its fading are simultaneous, more, that the beauty and the pleasure are literally constituted by the fact of their simultaneous passing. Without passing, without change, no beauty. No pleasure.
And yet, as humans we always, always try to make perceived beauty, felt pleasure, our supremely able bodies persist, survive, last. We are even now feverishly inventing plastics and prostheses and medications and computerized avatars of ourselves to outlast the fragile physical bodies which many of us have come to hate. We hire plastic surgeons to shore up our chins and our bellies and our buttocks with plastic, and starve ourselves to avoid the drooping of that flesh which has come to seem our enemy. Clinging. It is the root cause of suffering in Buddhism. The Greeks implied the same thing: fretting about our mortality, wanting to be like gods (the Romans literally tried, the emperors and their families tried to pass laws and entreat their successors to make them gods), wanting to be immortal and godlike was to ignore the real glory of being human: knowing we will die. Knowing that what decays and dies is the only thing that has real value. And the modern world in a thousand different ways is obsessed by the same ignorance: dying is terrible; decaying unto death is a fate everyone must avoid, must fight even if it causes immense pain and humiliation and a plastic world that never dies and in thus not dying creates a proliferating monstrosity that will one day put a permanent end to us all, for real.
All of which is to say that we moderns have a long way to go to reach the wisdom the Greeks and Gautama reached more than two thousand years ago. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Reading at the Buon Gusto Gallery

Pretty cool event at the Buon Gusto Gallery in San Francisco's North Beach celebrating Italian culture on Sunday, June 23. Lawrence DiStasi read a selection from his recently published  Esty: A Novel/Memoir. The gallery is currently showing a series of plein air paintings done in Italy last year by Anthony Holdsworth (see the one of the Bay of Naples below). The reading by ten poets was hosted by Jack and Adelle Foley.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Voting Rights: Who Needs Them?

It seems that what I noted in my last blog about the “poisons hatching out” has already begun. To wit, the latest outrage from the Supreme Fools, who voted in their usual 5 to 4 pattern to eviscerate the once universally-admired and most “American” Congressional action of the last century, the 1965 Voting Rights Act that ended the disenfranchisement of black voters. That act, pushed by Lyndon Johnson through a Congress still housing racists from the South, was paid for and stimulated by the blood of civil rights marchers in the very state of Alabama which brought the recent case to the Supreme Court. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that Section 4 of the law—the part designating which states, mostly in the old South like Alabama, and based on past discrimination (again like Alabama), needed federal “preclearance” for any changes in their voting laws—could no longer be upheld. The data on which their constraints was based, said Roberts, was “decades old;” the nation, after all, has black mayors in Mississippi and even a “black” president. Thus, the once-inhibited states would henceforth be free to establish any voting rules they chose. Texas, one of the liberated nine, immediately announced that it would go ahead with its voter ID and redistricting laws previously blocked by the Justice Department and the courts:

“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately,” he [the Texas Attorney General] said in a statement. “Redistricting maps passed by the legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.” (NY Times, 6/25)

These are precisely the kinds of discriminatory changes that the Voting Rights Act was meant to forestall, for what these and other rules like gerrymandering (redistricting) do is create “safe” districts for white racists. The voter ID laws (most of which follow a pattern recommended by groups like ALEC, and which 7 of the 9 affected states have tried to pass) tend to make it far more difficult for racial minorities to prove their eligibility to vote—thus increasing the chances that Republican voters in rural areas can outvote the usual Democratic majorities largely composed of black, Latino, and women voters in the cities. This is a more subtle type of disenfranchisement than the old poll taxes, but it is disenfranchisement nonetheless. The disenfranchisement, according to Spencer Overton, law professor at George Washington University, will particularly affect local offices like city councils, school boards, and sheriffs, and thus affect “important decisions related to schools, criminal justice, health and family services, and economic opportunity that directly affect our daily lives.” (NY Times, 6/25)
            The shameful vote was shared by two Italian Americans—whose parents were subject to discrimination themselves—and by the one remaining black justice, Clarence Thomas, who sits where he does thanks to the very civil rights laws he now joins his conservative colleagues to strike down. His, like theirs, is a classic case of repudiating one’s origins. Thomas, in fact, reminds one of nothing so much as the “house negro” portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s recent blockbuster, Django Unchained. This is not to say that I liked the movie; it’s an exploitation-of-violence film if there ever was one, and preposterous on its face. But Tarantino’s house slave Stephen (played by Samuel Jackson), portrays, if in highly exaggerated form, the devotion to the Massa over any empathy to his fellow slaves that Malcolm X long ago excoriated. Stephen gets his comeuppance in the end, of course, this being Hollywood, but we are not likely to see Justice Thomas getting his any time soon. Too bad. He deserves, like Stephen in the movie, to be kneecapped for his betrayal of his own people. The same goes for Scalia and Alito. They shamefully betray the pain endured by Italian immigrants like their parents (who were in fact racialized by the white America they entered a century ago) by inflicting it upon those who suffer a like pain in our time. Scalia, in fact, said that the renewable of the Voting Rights Act would be a “perpetuation of racial entitlement”—as if the Africans who were brought to this country in chains, and who still suffer outlandish racial profiling and discrimination and economic slavery, are somehow taking advantage of their oppressed state. Amazing that someone with such intelligence could be so blind to his own prejudice, so ignorant of his own people’s history, so unaware of his own sick need to identify with his oppressors. 
            The NAACP and other groups are calling, expectedly, for Congress to write new updated rules to maintain the protections lost under Section 4. But most Congress-watchers consider it very unlikely that the current divided Congress could possibly agree on such rules. As Senator Charles Schumer of New York said, “As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance.”  
            Indeed. And as long as the current racists hold a majority on the Supreme Court, we can expect similar outrages. The hits will keep coming, the racists will keep being appointed (remember John Roberts at his confirmation hearing, talking about being a “non-activist” and impartial judge who would simply “call balls and strikes”?), the oppression and inequality will get worse, the poisons will keep hatching out. All that remains to be seen is whether the benighted public has a breaking point, or whether it will, as is its wont, simply bow its head and keep hoping the axe will get dull on others before it makes its fatal cut.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, June 21, 2013

Let All the Poisons Hatch Out

I’ve been mulling over this sentiment a lot lately. It comes from a line in the PBS adaptation of Robert Graves’ classic “I, Claudius,” when Claudius as emperor voices his intention to allow all of the accumulated evil fostered by the Roman Empire, and his own demented family in particular, play itself out in an orgy of wicked indulgence. Having seen who preceded him—Tiberius and Caligula—and what is about to follow him with Nero, we the audience understand what Claudius means. Imperial Rome shortly after the first emperor, Augustus, gave himself the title, has become a cesspool of murder, bestiality and perversion. The thoughtful Claudius presumably hopes that once Nero inflicts his apocalyptic evil upon Rome, Romans will be so fed up with emperors that they will bring back the republic. Of course, it doesn’t happen, but that’s another matter—or perhaps it isn’t. Because in a way, that’s what I once thought regarding our own Nero, Little Georgie Bush, and have been thinking again regarding our still-thriving, if slightly tottering American empire. Like the out-of-control Roman Empire, our once-democratic republic, no matter who is nominally in charge, has become a cesspool of inequality, money-grubbing, government spying, influence-peddling, war-mongering, extra-judicial murder by drone, poisonous despoliation of land, air and water, and the infliction of our mountains of toxic waste upon it all. Only this time, not just America but the whole world is involved, the whole world seems bent on following our example, and the whole world, the entire planet, is at risk from exploitation, increasing species die-offs, and of course, global warming due to CO2 pollution from the burning of fossil fuels. While most people, including myself, who write about this usually feel obliged to present a variety of possible solutions to the problem—increasingly desperate ways to moderate capitalism or evolve steady-state solutions to production, or impose limits on population growth and carbon burning—my inclination at times of late has been to say, ‘why not emulate old Claudius?’ Let all the poisons lurking in the mud hatch out, let the corporations and bankers and corrupt politicians and idiot fundamentalists continue their vicious ways, let the population expand to 9 or 10 billion with its attendant poverty, let the pollution and greenhouse gases overrun the planet and melt the icecaps and flood the oceans—until global warming puts an end to that most indomitable and destructive of all pests, homo sapiens.
            In this I am following not only the Emperor Claudius, but also Herman Melville’s most memorable character, Bartleby the Scrivener. You remember Bartleby. So disillusioned had he become with his lot in the Wall Street firm where he’d recently been hired as a copyist, that he one day refused to do a proofreading job the boss/narrator asked him to do; and then increasingly refused to do anything at all. He simply stared at the wall of his office, and repeated his phrase: “I prefer not to.” Soon the narrator discovers that Bartleby’s refusal has extended even to his living place: he has taken up living in the office, and refuses to move to a more comfortable spot when it is offered. Even when the narrator moves his business out of his office in a last attempt to bring Bartleby to understand the consequences of his actions, it has no effect: Bartleby continues his absolute refusal. New tenant or no, Bartleby simply stays in the building, sleeping on the stairs when he is ejected from the office, until he is finally removed by the law and placed in the Tombs, New York city’s jail. By now thoroughly absorbed in his one-time employee’s strange fate, the narrator visits him in jail, but no matter what forms of comfort or salvation he offers, Bartleby’s response is always the same. I prefer not to. This inimitable phrase is as brilliant in its brevity as it is unflinching in its finality. Don’t ask me to demonstrate human sociability or common sense or determination to save myself and thrive or even survive. I prefer not to. Nor does Bartleby ever really explain what has driven him to this pass, what has eventually driven him to refuse even minimal nourishment to keep himself alive. We and the narrator simply understand—especially when we learn at the end that Bartleby had once worked in the dead letter office of the U.S. Postal Service—that Bartleby has concluded that life simply wasn’t worth the struggle. Or perhaps that his fellow Americans weren’t worth emulating or even associating or communicating with. That life as it was practiced in success-at-all-costs America was simply a dead letter.
            This gets to some of my recent feelings. The other night I saw a documentary on the collapse of Detroit called Detropia, and it only confirmed the sense that the civilization we once thought we had here in America—the last, best hope of mankind—is fading fast. Whole areas of the once-thriving Motor City were burned out and boarded up, while others were denuded of homes and skeletal factories and life itself and were overgrowing with weeds and vacant lots. The population had plummeted to less than half of its 1.8 million people, reaching below 700,000 recently. People, mostly black people, were lost, both disgusted and terrified of what lay ahead for them, the workers that a once-proud and prosperous corporate America had abandoned. As I watched, I too became increasingly disgusted by the system that had brought Detroit and all of us to this pass (the last time I was in my once-thriving industrial hometown, Bridgeport, CT, I saw the same type of wasteland in progress, with homes in once-lovely neighborhoods boarded up, and once-bustling factories rotting in the weeds). And my disgust grew with the larger thought of what humans do to each other in the name of getting-ahead, of profit, not just in Detroit, which may be only the canary in the coalmine, but everywhere. Because according to recent UNICEF statistics, nearly half the world's population lives on less than $2.00 a day, a billion children live in soul-destroying poverty, and 22,000 of them die each day because of it. Moreover, the upwards of a billion people who lack access to adequate drinking water (this can only get worse with glaciers melting and groundwater being polluted by industrial chemicals), and who go hungry every day, could be lifted out of hunger several times over by the incomes of only 100 of the richest people who are their companions on this planet. So it is not so much that I am disgusted with my fellow human beings, though I am, and therefore wouldn’t mind taking my leave of them. It is also that I am disgusted with the apparently unstoppable human impulse towards a greed so pervasive that it is leading to planetary suicide. I am disgusted with the apparent death wish of our corporate capitalist civilization that simply cannot or will not open its eyes to see beyond the latest stock prices. I am disgusted with the priorities that place the wealth of a few corporations and their leaders over the well-being of billions of ordinary, mostly starving people. And with the insistence of those billions of starving, enslaved people to keep reproducing themselves and trudging on, bearing up beyond all reason, beyond all hope, beyond the carrying capacity of the planet.
This drive to persevere and reproduce in the face of planetary misery and incapacity doesn’t endanger only other human beings, either. It endangers all other beings on the planet as well, lesser (in our view) beings like animals and fish and fowl and insects whom we have busied ourselves for several hundred years pushing beyond the limit of their range and extincting as if we, we humans, were the only beings on the planet. As if we, we humans, were the only beings who matttered. It is at the core of our sickness, this notion that only humans deserve to live, and then only human beings, like ourselves, of the “right sort,” or the right color, or the right belief system or city or nation, and that the only place for all other beings is in unlivable ghettos or marginal islands or zoos or “nature preserves” that we set up for them to live a truncated and impoverished and unbearable existence. It is the height of pride and arrogance—one that we always pretend to eschew but really don’t—and it deserves the comeuppance that is surely coming. Though part of my renunciation, my willingness to ‘let all the poisons hatch out,’ would be to have nothing to do with that comeuppance. All I would be agreeing to do is to express my intention to accept its playing out and eventual, natural consummation. People are determined to survive and reproduce and hope and invent always inadequate because selfish solutions, so who am I to advise them to stop? Let them. Carry on brave humans. Carry on. Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.
            Of course, some might ask if it doesn’t grieve me that the poisons that emerge will be painful to billions of innocents, my own kin included. My answer is that it surely does. But there seems no help for it. Not to mention the fact that pain for billions is an ineluctable part of our current system; that pain inflicted on others, particularly dark others or remote others, seems not to prick the conscience of most humans—and in particular not the conscience of those in power—one bit. It is a major portion of what humans do, and enjoy doing: inflicting pain and domination and exploitation on helpless others. And not accidentally, either; with full intention and malice aforethought (an email in Jeff Madrick’s Age of Greed on how Wall Streeters see their own business strategy said it well: “Lure the people into the calm and then totally fuck ‘em.”) Always, of course, finding sophisticated justification for it in “natural laws” and the privileges and duties of those chosen to dominate over lesser beings, those so gifted they need no other beings.
And so, what other response will do, other than to accept it, let natural processes (many of which we have hopelessly compromised) hatch out, and observe, for as long as one is alive to observe, what happens. And grieve for it.
This is not, by the way, to say that I think the planet itself is in danger. Nor do I think that most life on the planet is in danger of expiring along with us. No. The planet will adapt, the planet will survive. Life will survive and blot out all trace of us (see Alan Weisman’s 2007 best seller, The World Without Us), perhaps to even generate a new species to replace us—though I hope not for several million years. The planet, after all, needs a rest. Especially from us. A rest from our plunder. A rest from our domination. A rest from our sick cleverness and arrogance and ignorance. The only thing that might be useful for us to leave behind is some sort of easily accessed record that a new species might be able to learn from. Though perhaps that will be easy enough for future archeologists to find even without our help—we will have left such an indigestible mess behind. No matter. Any new species, if it turned out to be anything like us, probably wouldn’t pay attention in any case. ‘Ah, those stupid homo sapiens,’ they might conclude; ‘how fortunate that we’re not like them. How fortunate that we have evolved differently. How fortunate that we understand that exploitation must be done with care, and balance, and the right amount of attention to those one dominates, and a proper provision for waste disposal. How fortunate we are to be so superior.’
Ah yes. And it will all begin again. In the awful contemplation of which, how could one not prefer the Bartleby option? How could one not ‘prefer not to?’
Although it must also be admitted that, given the grimly repressive nature of the so-called civilization we have spawned, and the urgent need of those in power to maintain the illusion that they care for each and every one of those in their charge, that they care for “life” and the precious sanctity of each embryo, given all that, even the Bartleby option may no longer be allowed. I mean, look at the poor bastards in Guantanamo who have resorted to a hunger strike. Can Big Brother allow them to do that? Can they be allowed to have control even over their own willingness or unwillingness to take in nourishment, to live or not live? Not on your life. Our noble caretakers, so concerned for the law and procedure and the “right” and “proper” way to end a life, insist on keeping such prisoners alive by force-feeding (as they do in hospitals), even if such force-feeding amounts to torture. And it does. Even if the end state of such force-feeding is a living death. And it is. But after all, isn’t torture unto living death preferable to dead death? Isn’t the living death of endless imprisonment or enslavement preferable to dead death? Isn’t concerned coercion unto living death preferable to the terrible publicity, the terrible example for the children, the terrible danger of despair, the terrible exposure of the entire system that “preferring not to” would result in?
Think about it, for I believe it’s something a whole lot of us may well have to decide—and soon.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Big Brother on Steroids

About a year ago, I wrote a blog called “Big Brother Wants More,” describing a bill then being discussed in Congress called CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, authored by Michigan Republican Mike Rogers. What Rogers wanted CISPA to do was provide a shield from lawsuits to U.S. companies (mostly in telecommunications) that furnish information to the government about any ‘suspect’ they find. The bill passed the Republican-led House but, as far as I can tell, died in the Senate. No matter; the revelations this week from whistleblower Edward Snowden about the extent of the spying the NSA is already doing, and the amount of information routinely coming from telephone companies like Verizon and internet companies like ALL of them from Microsoft to Google to Yahoo to Facebook, pretty much makes Rogers’ bill obsolete. That’s because, according to the stories published by Glenn Greenwald in London’s Guardian, the NSA already has “backdoor” access to all overseas phone calls going through Verizon (and the others as well), and, through another program called PRISM, server access to all email, Skype, Facebook, phone and other traffic going out over the internet. The NSA and FBI, through their spokespeople and the heads of Homeland Security and Cybersecurity in the U.S., plus Congressional shills like Diane Feinstein and the aforementioned Mike Rogers, all insist that the data being collected on Americans is “legal,” and besides does not contain actual conversations or words but only “metadata.” This is simply a red herring. Big Brother doesn’t need to listen to your actual words; as long as he has the records of every call you make and every email you send, and keeps them forever—which is what the system calls for—you are permanently in the database, always available, always under suspicion. As Birgitta Jonsdottir, the radical member of Iceland’s Parliament (she has just promised to aid Edward Snowden in seeking asylum) said yesterday on KPFA, regardless of who in a foreign country the NSA targets, the program implicitly focuses on not just the calls made by the target, but the target’s calling partners, and the calling partners of those partners. In effect, this means that simply targeting one person’s calls or emails automatically makes available tens, hundreds, or thousands of others who are in touch with him and his contacts, innocently or not. As Barton Gellman of the Washington Post put it on June 6,

            Even..with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially. (emphases mine).

What we have, then, is new and now documented revelations that the NSA and the FBI and god knows what other U.S. government agencies are routinely spying on Americans and everyone else in the world, all of whom use giant American telecommunications companies.
            What we are also learning is that this has been going on for a long time—which many of us had learned earlier from writers like James Bamford, James Risen and Dana Priest—but that right after 9/11 the Congress voted to flood the spy agencies with so much money that they have had to work overtime to try to spend it. One of the ways they’ve done this, of course, is to build scores of new facilities. Another is to contract with private corporations, many of which sprang up like rotten toadstools after 9/11 to get in on the spying bonanza, to use up the money. Booz Allen Hamilton, the $5 billion corporation for whom Edward Snowden worked (as did the current head of U.S. intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr.), is one of these; the telecom companies mentioned above also feed at this same trough. But to get some idea of the scale of all this, consider what Dana Priest and William Arkin revealed in their recent series in the Washington Post, “Top Secret America.” The figures are literally mind-boggling. First, “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.” One of the locations still being built, according to James Bamford, is a super-computer in Oak Ridge, TN that is so large it occupies an entire warehouse. It will be the fastest computer in the world—a necessity when one considers the billions upon billions of data pieces that NSA and the rest are now gathering, and which something has to try to make sense of. Second, around 854,000 people in these organizations hold top-secret security clearance, of which Edward Snowden was apparently one. Third, “in Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.” That’s the equivalent of almost three (3) Pentagons. Fourth, many of these agencies do the same work, “creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands…track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.” Fifth, all this generates some “50,000 intelligence reports each year—a volume so large that many [reports] are routinely ignored.” Sixth, “every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.” (all quotes from “Top Secret America.”)
            The thing about all of this spying is that most of it circumvents the most basic of our rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures” embodied in the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It may be useful to restate that centerpiece of American democracy here:

            The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This means that in order for government officials to even enter your home and look at your private possessions, they must have a Warrant—obtained from a judge—specifically stating what it is they are looking for, and giving probable cause for why they think a crime might have been, or is about to be committed. Note the specificity here: they can’t enter because they just have a “gut feeling” that you might be involved in a crime; officials, that is, can’t just enter and look over everything in hopes of finding something incriminating. They have to provide a reasonable justification for their search (reasonable enough to convince a judge) and be looking for specific evidence of a specific crime. It should go without even saying that trolling through billions of phone calls and emails and skype or facebook or twitter conversations and comments is not specific and does not offer any reasonable evidence of a crime either committed or about to be committed. And especially if your records have come up “incidentally” in connection to some chain of someone else’s calls or contacts is a reasonable or probable cause lacking. It is for this reason that Sen. Rand Paul has already stated his intention to go to the Supreme Court to challenge the random capturing of the communications of millions of American citizens in the programs recently revealed. It is unconstitutional. Period.
            As noted above, however, the shills for government spying—our so-called representatives allegedly protecting our rights—have been out in force defending the “legality” of all this spying. Feinstein, head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, assured the public on June 6 that warrantless searches were “perfectly fine” because the information was only “meta”:

            “Our courts have consistently recognized that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in this type of metadata information and thus no search warrant is required to obtain it,” she said, adding that “any subsequent effort to obtain the content of an American’s communications would require a specific order from the FISA court.” (quoted by Jane Mayer, “What’s the Matter with Metadata,” New Yorker June 6, 2013.)
Feinstein added that 11 judges of the FISA court, meeting in secret, had authorized all this data collection and Congress had authorized it. (Concerning Edward Snowden, she called what he did “treason,” meaning she thinks his prosecution should seek the death penalty.) This would seem to suggest that Diane Feinstein, despite her position, doesn’t understand what metadata means or why it’s probably more dangerous than actual phone conversations. Susan Landau, a mathematician and Sun Microsystems engineer, pointed out why this is so in the same Jane Mayer article noted above. “It’s much more intrusive than content,” Landau said, explaining that vast amounts of information can be gleaned from studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.” Patterns of phone calls from key business executives “can reveal impending corporate takeovers.” Phone calls to a series of physicians—a gynecologist, an oncologist, close family members—can indicate the precise nature of a personal crisis. Especially where reporters are concerned, the pattern of phone calls can reveal exactly who is giving information to whom and when, revealing all-important sources. All of this data, even without actual conversations has, according to Landau, already helped reduce the amount of time it takes U.S. Marshals to capture someone from 42 days to two days.
            When it comes to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, and a few years ago, Bradley Manning—even now being tried for "aiding the enemy" for his release, to Wikileaks, of a treasure trove of documents and the infamous video showing U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq murdering innocent civilians, including two Reuters reporters and a good Samaritan father and his children trying to aid one of the wounded reporters—and before that William Binney and Thomas Drake for exposing the NSA program they designed and that they knew was threatening to “create an Orwellian state,” the Obama administration has become more draconian in its response than any administration in history. The administration and its spokespeople, of course, claim they are only trying to keep the American people safe. What they are really trying to do, however, as several observers have noted, is to keep themselves and their tattered reputations and bloated institutions safe from embarrassment. That is what all the prosecutions are about, that is what all the hand-wringing is about, that is what the desperate attempts to whitewash the massive violations of American privacy are about. America is being revealed as a police state, at least, and a totalitarian one, at worst. Hopefully, the measures to intimidate whistleblowers will all be in vain, and the whole apparatus will come tumbling down. But don’t hold your breath. It’s going to take some informed opposition, some courageous opposition, and an American public that is more attentive to its vanishing rights than to the latest celebrity scandal. And it may take the demolition of the capitalist system itself—as Bamford noted when he said, ‘there could never be a Church Committee today; too much money is at stake for both the corporations involved, and the Congresspeople who get their coffers filled by these corporations.'
            Meantime, let your alleged representative know what you think about this massive evisceration of fundamental American rights. Let him or her know that it is not OK with you, that you are not willing to exchange your privacy and constitutional rights for some over-hyped, supposed “war” on terror. Let him or her know that the scandalous collusion between the all-powerful state and the corporations that make billions serving (or is it stealing?) in a digital-military complex has long had a name, and it is not a kind one: fascism.
            And do everything possible to make sure that courageous whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are not railroaded into endless incarceration for doing what every American should be doing: pointing out that the Emperor and the Empire he manages has been stripped of even a semblance of clothes.

Lawrence DiStasi