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by danps

Opacity and creeping exclusion at Occupy

5:00 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Opacity - Translucency - Transparency (image: William Cromar/flickr)

Opacity - Translucency - Transparency (image: William Cromar/flickr)

This was published with considerable feedback from several bloggers at Corrente: DCblogger, affinis, lambert and okanogen. My sincere thanks to all of them for their help.

Occupy has seemed to be in a bit of a winter hibernation. There are still encampments, meetings, decisions, protests, and so on, but it seems like there has been a relative lull in its activity level. This is fine; you can’t stay cranked all the way up to 10 all the time. A little pause to regroup, rethink and recharge is a good thing. There is a chance that the some occupations that emerge might have a very different character than the one that began to recede from public consciousness towards the end of last year, though.

Some recent developments have prompted me to refer back to my experience with the No on SB5/Issue 2 campaign in Ohio last year. For instance, there was tremendous outreach by supporters and organizers to the general population, and the umbrella group We Are Ohio went to great lengths to accommodate anyone who showed an interest in being part of the effort. Those who could only participate on a limited basis were given the opportunity. Whether it was a walk list for education or phone banking for those who couldn’t get around so easily, anyone who wanted to help was found a way to do so in whatever capacity they could. A low barrier to entry is very mass movement friendly.

The fact that SB5 centered around an issue and not a candidate made it very different from the usual election year political campaign, too. On the surface it might not have looked much different from a Vote For Me effort; the logistics of mounting it, connecting with voters, and turning out support were all probably lifted from some strategist’s playbook. But the spirit animating it was very different. It SB5 was driven by those who cared most about the issue, with elected officials generally falling in behind. As a direct democracy action it gave citizens the chance to work for an issue they cared about and, if successful, vote on the issue in the next election.

Putting together an effort like that (and winning, of course – which we did) is far more satisfying than working to elect someone who, given the labyrinth any proposal usually must travel to become enacted, will at best be able to offer the change and whip up support for it. That kind of open, issue-oriented campaign is not just a template for other direct ballot actions like tax hikes on the rich or card check for union membership (to name just two issues that have been paid extravagant lip service by politicians and somehow – darn the luck! – continue to resist being enacted anywhere). It is something activists in general could learn a lot from. Read the rest of this entry →

by danps

The Pneumatics of Washington DC

3:42 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

The BP oil spill has been covered up as much as possible from the very beginning, but the nature of it seems to have changed recently. It started as an attempt to downplay the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf, apparently with the belief it would be stopped relatively quickly and its effects kept offshore and under water. Barry Eisler imagined a political flak’s approach: "We’re just guessing. So I want us to guess lower. We’ll introduce the lower number into the public’s mind to ease the entire incident into their consciousness. Once they realize there’s a spill, we can gradually walk the number up without unduly shocking people." Whatever the real thinking was, his fictionalized logic squares perfectly with what actually happened.

As the magnitude of the disaster has expanded, though, so has the response. What looked like an attempt to collude with a negligent corporation to limit damage to its reputation, if not the environment (via), has morphed into an all-encompassing effort to shut down reporting on the fallout (via). (When former security contractor Adam Dillon went public with his concerns about BP’s actions it prompted a little change, though with unspecified caveats.)

In addition to the lockdown on media access to the worst of the spill sites, there now seems to be an effort to cripple scientific investigation into the effect of the disaster on the Gulf. As Dan Froomkin reported, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is collecting a vast wealth of data on the impact. Unfortunately it has chosen not to share any of it with scientists, though it is doing so with BP. This gives the government the appearance of privileging the irresponsible party who unleashed this disaster on the public over the disinterested researchers who just want to figure out what exactly is going on.

The mushroom approach is of a piece with a larger narrative. As Glenn Greenwald astutely observed on another matter:

Most of what the U.S. Government does of any significance — literally — occurs behind a vast wall of secrecy, completely unknown to the citizenry. While a small portion of that is legitimately classified, these whistle blower prosecutions and other disclosure controversies demonstrate that the vast majority of this secrecy is devoted to avoiding embarrassment and accountability….Secrecy is the religion of the political class, and the prime enabler of its corruption. That’s why whistle blowers are among the most hated heretics. They’re one of the very few classes of people able to shed a small amount of light on what actually takes place.

His use of ecclesiastical language is perfect. In fact, the dynamic inside the Beltway bears the strongest resemblance to a particular subset of faith. Most religions throw open their doors to any and all who care to convert. Broadly speaking, if you are willing to learn the basics and live by the major tenets you can become a fully participating member.

There are some, though, like Gnosticism, that postulate secret knowledge not necessarily available even to members. Among the congregation there is a small group who have learned very special things. They have access to the innermost sanctum, and that separates them from everyone – true believers included. (See also secretive societies like the Freemasons.) Unlike faiths that offer full salvation/enlightenment from day one, these groups require years of training and sacrifice in order for the holiest doctrines to be revealed, and there is no promise that they ever will be.

That is the dynamic that seems to best characterize politics at America’s national level. Citizens do not know much of what is happening, but not because such things are unknowable. Data is being collected, records are being kept, it all is getting taken down. But our leaders seem to have come to see themselves as the keepers of holy mysteries. They derive their power not from their training, experience or competence but because they guard that which has been revealed. The more miserly they are in rationing it, the more it enhances their prestige. In that sense the biggest threats are, as Greenwald notes, those who would bring light to the masses.

In other words, the challenge is not to persuade NOAA administrators on the facts but to subvert their will. They are not keeping data on the catastrophe secret because they sincerely believe the best response for the Gulf and the country is to only allow BP look at it. They are doing so out of a quasi-religious belief in keeping dark knowledge from the uninitiated.

by danps

The Unfortunate Necessity of Wikileaks

7:45 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

The whistleblower site WikiLeaks has been on the periphery of the news lately because of the arrest of Bradley Manning. Manning was the source for April’s video of a US military attack in Baghdad that killed civilians, and he was arrested after allegedly leaking thousands of State Department cables as well. WikiLeaks does not rely on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests or cooperation from governments generally; anyone can anonymously submit documents and if the editors find them newsworthy they will publish them. Glenn Greenwald has written several posts on the site and its founder Julian Assange, and offered the following defense of its mission:

The need for independent leaks and whistle-blowing exposures is particularly acute now because, at exactly the same time that investigative journalism has collapsed, public and private efforts to manipulate public opinion have proliferated….Aside from the handful of organizations (the ACLU, the NYT) with the resources and will to engage in protracted FOIA litigations against the government, one of the last avenues to uncover government and other elite secrets are whistle blowers and organizations that enable them.

Even among that handful organizations there is sometimes a deep reluctance to use those resources. WikiLeaks alleged that the Washington Post had the Baghdad video for a year and never published it; the New York Times knew of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program but did not publish it until after the 2004 election. On big stories the most respected outlets have a troubling tendency to play along with the powerful even at the expense of deceiving the audience.

The links above are several years old because debunking lies and misinformation is a long, tedious process. Here, though, is an example from this week of largely uncritically passed along talking points from the government that I expect will be slowly dismantled. One of the problems in taking apart such claims is this: A planted story is used to serve some immediate purpose, in this case propping up support for an unpopular war. If it does so for the next few months it will have served its purpose, and its fate beyond that point is of no concern to those peddling it.

If a stinging rebuke from some future inspector general comes out, or a Congressional investigation reveals some kind of unsavory collusion, no matter. In fact, the Pentagon military analyst program showed that the government can plainly break the law without consequences. There is a culture of impunity in Washington; since the wheels of justice have ground to a halt there are no long term risks, only short term ones.

Even those are under withering attack, though. The Obama administration has taken an exceptionally hard line towards whistleblowers generally, and Nick Baumann outlined (via) a whole laundry list of its civil and human rights failures. In the face of all of that it is not hard to understand why WikiLeaks is so unpopular inside the Beltway, and also why it is so important: It bypasses a sclerotic legal system radically oriented towards the powerful. Again, the value of a FOIA is greatly diminished when requests cannot be disposed of in a timely manner. If they can be dragged through the courts year after year then they lose their news value. They still will have historical value, but attempting to use them for any contemporary purpose is almost Quixotic.

Keep in mind also that government claims of sensitivity have not held up well. The Baghdad video was classified, but after its publication no one claimed any vital national security interest was compromised. That is because none was. The state secrets privilege itself came into being as the result of a Supreme Court decision where we found out, decades later and entirely by accident, the secret in question was merely embarrassing to the government. In short the privilege was founded on a lie.

Under these circumstances, the importance of a site like WikiLeaks seems almost self-evident. If we cannot trust the government to refrain from trying to brainwash its citizens, cannot trust the mechanisms designed to keep it in check, and cannot trust the institutions that are supposed to keep it honest, then broadly speaking we have two choices: We can resign ourselves to having to trust our public officials to do the right thing and own up to it when they don’t, or we can welcome unauthorized and unorthodox alternatives as they pop up.

WikiLeaks may be supported here.

by danps

Defining Transparency Down

4:14 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

While the different players and events in last year’s financial crisis seem somewhat blurred now that some time as passed, the collapse of Washington Mutual (WaMu) was the biggest bank failure in American history at the time. It was (unsurprisingly) a particularly huge event in Washington state, where the bank was headquartered, so naturally folks there still have an interest in finding out more about what exactly was going on as a major player in its economy disappeared from the face of the earth.

Looking forward may be all the rage in the capitol, and major media outlets may be more comfortable presenting fawning portraits of those directly responsible for the meltdown up to and including Fed Chairman Helen Keller Ben Bernanke, but out in the hinterlands there are local organizations like the Puget Sound Business Journal, and journalists like Kirsten Grind, who are interested in poking through the wreckage.

In the course of an extensive investigation Grind attempted to answer a very basic question: Why was WaMu so hastily forced into liquidation? The immediate retort from various haughty champions of the status quo usually goes something like this: WaMu had massive subprime loan exposure. The writing was on the wall, and considering the turmoil financial markets were in the last thing regulators wanted was to wait until the body actually hit the pavement. Showing an active and energetic Fed that was willing to jump in was better than doing nothing and risking a full blown panic.

Fine, fair enough – as far as it goes. The problem is, it does not go very far. We do not know what WaMu’s subprime exposure was, nor do we know if that exposure was enough to make it insolvent. (It also does not seem to square with current circumstances. Wells Fargo looks to be catastrophically exposed to commercial real estate right now, but no one is arranging a shotgun wedding.) In fact, there is a scarcity of actual facts about WaMu – hence the need for an investigation! If it really was so bad, let the details come out so these assertions are supported by evidence. Such skepticism was once considered a necessary component of journalism and not the mark of a wild eyed conspiracy theorist.

Grind filed FOIA requests with the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) for emails with WaMu officials that she hoped would explain the seizure. The OTS flatly rejected the request, but the FDIC’s response was breathtakingly arrogant: It released, CIA-style, hundreds upon hundreds of almost completely redacted emails. Grind also reports "Both agencies have declined repeated requests to answer questions about how they decided to close WaMu."

In 1993 Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" to describe the process of "re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the ‘normal’ level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard." The same dynamic seems to have been happening in our government since 9/11. For instance, we are defining depravity down: Once upon a time we did not torture. Then we only tortured if there was a ticking time bomb. Now it is acceptable to torture for "vital information" even if there is no ticking time bomb; the unprovable argument that it saves lives has become sufficient.

Look also at federal agencies’ stance towards transparency and the public: First there had to be wholesale redactions because of national security concerns; then they were needed to suppress inflammatory disclosures that could cause hostility towards soldiers in a war zone; now it is being used to keep potentially embarrassing news from coming to light. The fact that the stakes are so much smaller in this case is what makes it so remarkable. It is not even arguably about life and death, but the stonewalling occurs anyway.

The holidays are coming and health care reform is dominating the news at the moment, so the FDIC’s actions have been largely overlooked. Taken at face value it makes sense. The contemptible treatment of a FOIA request from a Seattle business publication does not by itself deserve screaming headlines or urgent attention. It does, however, highlight the continued trend by the federal government of a high handed stance towards us. There is an air of impunity about it, a sense that we deserve to be kept in the dark and cannot know what is being done in our names. Despite the change in party leadership in DC, it is not reversing or slowing down; it is in fact getting worse. And it is driven by a fundamental belief that people serve government, not the other way around.