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Monthly Archives: July 2013

Yochai Benkler had a great article in the New Statesman back in March about “The Dangerous Logic of the Bradley Manning Case”. Specifically, he was talking about the danger of a guilty verdict on the charge of aiding and abetting the enemy. In a nutshell, the danger was this:

The judge, Col. Denise Lind, asked the prosecutors a brief but revealing question: Would you have pressed the same charges if Manning had given the documents not to WikiLeaks but directly to the New York Times? The prosecutor’s answer was simple: “Yes Ma’am.”

Now that Manning beat that charge, we seem to be off that hook. But still, I find intolerable the idea that a courageous man is now going to jail for performing a public service of simply mindblowing proportions, basically opening up the machinations and violent actions of the most powerful country on the planet to public scrutiny, both for its own population and the international community. The Obama administration has, as people like Glenn Greenwald have been covering extensively, engaged in a war on whistleblowers. It’s worth it, in that context, to take a moment to consider what the charge of aiding and abetting the enemy would have meant, in that campaign. And what cost would be brought to bear on democracy if the verdict had been guilty.

The past few years have seen a lot of attention to the Obama Administration’s war on whistleblowing. In the first move, the Administration revived the World War I Espionage Act, an Act whose infamous origins included a 10-year prison term for a movie director who made a movie that showed British soldiers killing women and children during the Revolutionary War and was therefore thought to undermine our wartime alliance with Britain, and was used to jail Eugene V. Debs and other politicalactivists. Barack Obama’s Department of Justice has brought more Espionage Act prosecutions for leaks to the press than all prior administrations combined since then, using the law as what the New York Times called an “ad hoc Official Secrets Act.”

If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, the introduction of a capital offense into the mix would dramatically elevate the threat to whistleblowers. The consequences for the ability of the press to perform its critical watchdog function in the national security arena will be dire. And then there is the principle of the thing. However technically defensible on the language of the statute, and however well-intentioned the individual prosecutors in this case may be, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of this case and ask: Are we the America of Japanese Internment and Joseph McCarthy, or are we the America of Ida Tarbell and the Pentagon Papers? What kind of country makes communicating with the press for publication to the American public a death-eligible offense? What a coup for Al Qaeda, to have maimed our constitutional spirit to the point where we might become that nation.

There are not a lot of ways left to aid and abet Bradley Manning now. He’s apparently in jail for the duration, unless some future president should pardon him. He has paid a high price for his public-mindedness. The only thing to do is to keep on working in his spirit to create a freer, fairer society, with more accountability for power and violence. And to hate and put down the cynical part of our discourse or ourselves that insists on thinking that last sentence was naive, juvenile or pretentious.

Google and all the open source material from historical authors available online has made sure that people my age have rediscovered the 19th century, argues history professor Paula Findlen in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Particularly, we have found the 19th century and Victorian B-list thinker. People who were next to greatness, but had some interesting things to teach us nonetheless. This is exactly what happened to me, and how I ended up skimming a lot of great 19th century literature, social sciences and philosophy with people whose names I’d never heard of:

Thanks to Google, 21st-century scholars are becoming far more accustomed to reading 19th-century books, simply because, being out of copyright, they are online. I am not referring to the classics—Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy(1860), Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867-94), or Thorstein Veblen’sThe Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)—that we keep at the center of various disciplines. Yet we now read them in a landscape filled with the obscure work of their less-well-known contemporaries. The digitization of the long 19th century (materials published between the late 18th and early 20th centuries) has made accessible and searchable scholarly work that has been neglected because it was considered too dated and too unreliable.  It was the last thing many of us looked for in the library.

This rediscovery of the 19th century as an open-source reading experience is accompanied by a subtle appreciation of the era’s intellectual merits. Consider the quantity of material—obscure novels, local histories, antique catalogs, minor journals, a sea of biographies, and those vast and terrifyingly erudite bibliographies that were a specialty of that age of scholarship …

Speaking of Marx, you should check out the great library of online leftist source material in politics, theory, economics and social science over at Marxists.org.

Over a gorgon stare of steely-eyed death*, the Chief of the Australian Army, Lieutenant-General David Morrison, tells army members who degrade women in the service exactly what he thinks of them. It’s an unlikely kind of feminism. The appeal of what he’s doing is not what he’s saying (not having colleagues post demeaning material about women online is literally the least you can ask for), but who is saying it.

In popular culture, we are used to seeing men who project this kind of masculinity, wrapped in the symbols of violence and discipline, in the role of tough guy standing up for defenseless women. Morrison flips it, saying that we need to recognize that now, women are the defense.

Two great quotes in the video. First: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”, which is a nice, short aphorism for not tolerating cynicism about injustice. But the interesting one is this:

General Morrison finished the video with a stern warning to Defence Force members that it was up to them to make a difference.

He called on innocent members to “show moral courage” and take a stand against those who displayed degrading behaviour.

“If you’re not up to it find something else to do with your life. There is no place for you among this band of brothers and sisters.”

* Full disclosure: I would love to be able to pull off that stare. Especially in negotiations with my boss.

Which is a sly and subtle little hack of Shakespeare’s famous St Crispin’s Day Speech, from  Henry V Act IV, Scene III. King Henry (“Harry”, among friends) is about to go out to win the day at Agincourt, the crowning achievement of his military career. He rallies his troops with one of the great sermons of military male fraternity in literature. The whole thing is just, to put it technically, crazy awesome good, which is why it never fails to make even the cheapest discs of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits. It makes me totally want to invade Poland or storm the beaches at Normandy or something. It ends on this crescendo:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

(Here’s Kenneth Branagh being all swelling violins about it):

Note all the ways that passage collapses violence, masculinity and brotherhood together. Violence and heroism as a way to both outsmart death (becoming immortal in name and memory) and a way to become fully a man. Look at all the things Shakespeare manages to do with this material in just under a dozen lines:

This story shall the good man teachhis son

The way to be a good man is to teach your son about these values, and to keep reproducing these memories. The connection between family and military is set up, and then:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;

Remember, this is the king talking: he’s proposing a brotherhood of shared experience among men in the army, even between the highest and the lowest in the land. Brought together by gender and battle.

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Note both the sly bit of classbaiting (gentlemen is an upper-class category) and how the “gentlemen” are in a traditionally female domain (the bed). Note how they “hold their manhoods” — both that they are not quite men, unlike the soldiers at Agincourt, but Shakespeare is also literally saying they’re left with their dicks in their hands. Shakespeare is full of dirty puns like that, and one of the greatest things about a liberal arts education is being able to get them.

Since forever, and especially since the television series Band of Brothers, the phrase “band of brothers” has been a vital part of military parlance and self-understanding. When Morrison adds the phrase “… and sisters” at the end, he’s tampering with 400 or so years of male self-understanding in one sentence. It’s a nice way of summing up what’s so jarring about the video, and of summing up the all-important difference between standing up for women and standing up with women.

Programming note: I’m back from vacation, and posting will resume after these short messages and an 8-hour nap. 

Following Wednesday’s horrific train crash in Spain, The Washington Post has a fantastic rundown today of safety stats for railway accidents. The takeaway is that rail is pretty much the safest way to travel, along with airplanes.

“You’re 30 times more likely to be involved in an accident while riding in a car in Europe than you are while riding in a train”, writes Post reporter Caitlin Dewey. 

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Photo: Flickr/Eolé CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

That’s the important bit, but there were some other really eye-popping takeaways as well. The first is that even though railway travel is safe, almost 4.000 people die every year in train accidents in the EU area. And almost none of them are on trains. They are people who sneak onto tracks, cars crossing the lines, people who fall onto the tracks …

But overwhelmingly, the fatalities in European train accidents are suicides. An astonishing 2.500-people-or-so jump in front of trains every year. So you can strike “train driver” right off the list of things I want to be when I grow up. That statistic really, really got to me.

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Photo: Flickr/Dr. RawheaD CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Suicide is what happens when your psyche buckles, so you can’t really be expected to leave the world in a considerate way. But still, jumping in front of a train has to traumatise train drivers across the EU. 2.500 a year: surely a significant percentage of the EU’s train drivers have the experience of hitting a suicide some point in their careers 

In addition to the safety, you get: much lower environmental impact, denser civic infrastructure, collective and public works projects, a better travel experience and freight moved at lower cost. What are we waiting for? Time to upgrade the worldwide train network and downgrade air travel.

Programming note: I’m offline on vacation for a few days. I hope all my literally tens of readers who have come here over the past week and a half will still be here when I get back. Follow me on Twitter: @PunchingSomeone, or put me in your RSS feeds.

You’ll notice that several of the people in my blogroll (538, Wonkbook, The Dish, Glenn Greenwald) are blogs that have followed a particular kind of trajectory: they start out as small independent blogs, gain a large following and then get vacuumed up by a legacy news organisation as a little department within the larger structure. 

Jay Rosen had a really interesting post about this two days ago, on the occasion of Nate Silver’s 538 blog going to ESPN. Rosen names the following features of the State-Within-A-State: 

  • Star journalist at the center with a large online following and cross-platform presence. (Six of the seven I named are male.)

  • Editorial control rests largely or entirely with the founder and personality at the center.

  • Part of a larger media company with a negotiated balance of power between the two states. (See Shafer on this.)

  • Identifiable niche or niches; no attempt to be comprehensive. (It’s all Things Digital, not all things business.)

  • Plenty of voice, attitude and personal expression allowed.

  • Mix of news, opinion, analysis without a lot of fuss about categorizing each.

  • Additional journalists are hired as the franchise succeeds and the founder gets to hire them.

The reason I follow these kinds of blogs, which exist somewhere in the no-man’s land between opinion and journalism, between institutions and personal expression, is that they add something vital to the legacy journalism institutions. Rosen is right on it: 

Brands still mean something as a guarantor of quality and huge audiences attach to them, but they are weak on voice, which creates loyalty. Loyalty moves across platforms as platforms shift. The state-within-a-state model solves for that, as Marshall suggested.

This is it exactly. A lot of traditional journalism has a kind of negative rhetoric, a passive, authorless voice. I grok why that kind of work is necessary, but for many kinds of story — indeed, for the stories that matter the most to me — I look for different kinds of voices. People who can both provide me with facts but also embedding those facts in viewpoints, opinions, a web of possible interpretations. Doing journalism like this doesn’t even necessarily mean the death of traditional journalism. Quite the contrary, as several of the first bloggers have pointed out, and as Glenn Greenwald spectacularly demonstrated with his NSA scoop. 

Jay Rosen, who I find myself more or less parroting in what I just wrote, has a good way of explaining the history and behaviour of this kind of journalism (well, some parts of it, at least) in another great post he did recently about the Greenwald/Snowden case: “Politics Some/Politics None“.

The professional stance that proscribes all political commitments and discourages journalists from having a clear view or taking a firm position on matters in dispute (you can call it objectivity, if you like, or viewlessness, which I like better) is one way of doing good work. A very different professional stance, where the conclusions that you come to by staring at the facts and thinking through the issues serve to identify your journalism… this is another way of doing good work.

 

They are both valid. They are both standard. (And “traditional.”) They are both major league. 

I swear, I’m going to stop posting about the Weiner thing in a second, but Dan Savage’s short comment to Andrew Sullivan’s piece was excellent.

Kids today: each and every one of them is creating a smutty digital trail that could be used against them one day—unless we defuse these ticking dick pic time bombs now.

(…)

I’m not saying New Yorkers have to elect Weiner. But we do have to get the fuck over him, we have to get the fuck over it, just like we had to get over pot.

* (No it wasn’t.)

Funny story: “Ticking Dick Pic Time Bombs” was actually the name of a band I played lead guitar for in high school.*

The New York Times ran an editorial this morning saying that Anthony Weiner should drop out because of the sexting thing. And in the middle of an otherwise sober enough (I guess) editorial, they drop this piece of WTF:

It’s difficult not to feel for Ms. Abedin. The couple deserved privacy as they worked through their problems — and they had it, until they re-emerged in public life and Mr. Weiner decided he was a good fit to run New York City. Mr. Weiner and Ms. Abedin have been saying that his sexual behavior is not the public’s business. Well, it isn’t, until they make it our business by plunging into a political campaign.

Wait, what was that? Let’s get that one more time in slow motion: “Mr. Weiner and Ms. Abedin have been saying that his sexual behavior is not the public’s business. Well, it isn’t, until they make it our business by plunging into a political campaign.”

Is it just me or is candidate Weiner’s name totally gay?

Did it just get hypocritical in here? The New York Times is apparently saying that if you run for public office, your sex life is a matter of public interest. Please. What is a matter of public interest is a candidate’s political positions and his personal abilities to administrate those positions in a public office.

* I want to make clear that I still have very little idea what Anthony Weiner stands for. All I know is that he is a vaguely leftie Democrat from New York. This is not a political beef. This is about trying to stop the hypocrisy around sex.

The rest of the editorial is strong enough, I guess, arguing that Weiner’s pattern of lying and evasion blah blah blah. And yes, yes, I get that this doesn’t exactly make him look like Mr. Trustworthy, and anyone voting for him should seriously consider that. But I have a certain understanding for his problem. He is a skilled politician realising that the price of admission for being in the kind of public office at the level he is used to running it is that his private life ceases being private, that he needs to be publicly shamed and that his already-fraught marriage gets caught in the tension. I understood perfectly why Bill Clinton lied, and I understand why Anthony Weiner might have bent the truth.*

And there’s the real rub. If he was actually willing to barter for his sex chats in real political or economic favours, it’s a matter of public record. That’s the part that should be addressed and explained in full by the candidate. There wasn’t a single question about it in the press conference. And I know, I watched the whole thing.

So as for asking him to drop out, the NYT is, in the end really just being moralistic and high-handed. There are two simple tests of trust that Anthony Weiner can pass that makes the NYT’s recommendation unnecessary. One is whether he has the trust of his wife, Ms. Abedin. He passed that one already, as far as we can tell (there may be some backroom deal we don’t know of). The second is the test of a public election. If he doesn’t have the public’s trust, well, we’ll have some pretty reliable numbers on how little trust he has.

*

Update: I see that Andrew Sullivan is making basically the same point I am, but with a way better title: “Breaking: Man Gets Off Online“. And better writing, obviously.

On the question of lying, the NYT’s harrumph this morning is a valid one. Once a politician has deceived people, he gets a second chance. When he deceives them a second time on the same issue, he loses whatever public trust he might have hoped for.

But I see no reason why that trust should not be tested where it should be: at the ballot box. Weiner should not, er, withdraw prematurely. He should do us all a favor, if his wife agrees, and plow on until we can all smoke a collective cigarette. In this new Internet Age someone has to be the person who makes sexting not an excludable characteristic for public office. If it becomes one, then the range of representatives we can choose from in the future and present will be very, very different in experience and background than the people they are supposed to represent.