Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

What if we needed the seams? Thoughts on the portentous Facebook-NSA nexus…

June 20, 2013

It’s not my nature to be paranoid or apocalyptic, but I’m starting to feel an alarming tug in both directions. Consider for a moment, as this NYT article on the Facebook-NSA nexus does, the current array of public and private incentives to monitor and mine our activities. Then combine those incentives with the ever-improving technology allowing both public and private actors to give freer rein to their darkest impulses whilst spurring each other on to greater heights in pursuit of their converging goals.

On the “public” side—if such a reassuring adjective still applies—the government collects and stores our data the better to police and discipline us. If need be, we’ve been told it can even go “back in time” in search of deviant behaviour. Initially, the policing is carried out by algorithms but gradually—”it is not easy to become sane,” as O’Brien tells Winston Smith at the end of 1984—through a combination of fear and the desire to conform, we learn to do this work ourselves before the algorithms even need to flag us. Data mining, as someone has remarked, is not about finding a needle in a haystack, it’s about incrementally moving the haystack.

On the private side, the incentives are obvious: harvest and process our data in the name of monetizing our activities; in a twist on the just-in-time production model, provide us with products before we’ve even become aware we want them.

In both domains—of citizen or consumer—the functioning is seamless: we become equally scrutable, equally benign. But what if we needed the seams? I’m imagining a world like WALL-E where the only things left roaming the earth aren’t genial robots, but algorithms trolling for data, programming Pandora™ stations with no one left to hear the music…


This just in! Chavez didn’t think Chomsky was dead after all! (Chomsky still reading!)

October 7, 2006

As part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ebullient, unrestrained address at the UN not long ago he waved a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance at the assembled (and perhaps nonplussed) delegates. And as has been widely reported, the gesture did wonders for Chomsky’s book sales, but one of the more curious aspects to emerge from it all, at least in the New York Times coverage, was the assertion that Chavez suggested in his speech that Chomsky was dead. Yesterday the Times published this Editors’ Note that merits reading in full:

An article on Sept. 21 about criticism of President Bush at the United Nations by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran reported that Mr. Chavez praised a book by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic. It reported that later, at a news conference, Mr. Chavez said that he regretted not having met Mr. Chomsky before he died. The article noted that in fact, Mr. Chomsky is alive. The assertion that Mr. Chavez had made this misstatement was repeated in a Times interview with Mr. Chomsky the next day.

In fact, what Mr. Chavez said was, “I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago.” Two sentences later Mr. Chavez named John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last April, calling both him and Mr. Chomsky great intellectual figures.

Mr. Chavez was speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith and made it sound as if the man who died was Mr. Chomsky.

Readers pointed out the error in e-mails to The Times soon after the first article was published. Reporters reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish, but not carefully enough to detect the discrepancy, until after the Venezuelan government complained publicly on Wednesday.

Editors and reporters should have been more thorough earlier in checking the accuracy of the simultaneous translation. (Go to Article)

Editors’ Notes are something the Times only resorts to when it considers it – or Judith Miller – has made an especially egregious error (and/or, as in this instance, left uncorrected for some time an egregious error to which its attention had previously been drawn). Conspiracy theorists might be inclined to read some intent into both the original mistake, and the time it took to correct it. Certainly the error does little to help Chavez’s profile in the US. The idea that a President could endorse a scholar – and perhaps the world’s most famous extant left public intellectual to boot – while mistakenly believing him to be dead, does much to further the impression of Chavez as an unhinged wingnut (can a wingnut be unhinged?). The implication is that anyone with similar leftist views must be similarly unhinged and misinformed. [For the record, Chomsky told the Times of Chavez’s policies: “Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive. I would be happy to meet with him.”] But I’m not so sure the Times‘ error was deliberate in any direct sense. In such instances I’m generally more inclined to chalk up such “mistakes” to rank human incompetence. It is certainly the case, for example, that the Times also makes missteps that are of little help to the boosters of US global hegemony, as this correction, also from yesterday, attests to:

Because of an editing error, a caption on Wednesday about an American armored vehicle that ran into a ditch in Baghdad, attracting a crowd of children, misidentified the object in the left hand of a G.I. who was shown trying to disperse them. It was a glove, not a side arm. (Go to Article)

This does strike one as a not insignificant correction. However, to return to Chavez, it certainly seems possible that Times‘ editors, reporters, fact-checkers etc. would have had an easier time ascribing such an error to Chavez than, say, a more “credible”, more “balanced” (because less leftist) world leader. Granted Chavez is responsible for a lot of his own bad press, but it’s these kind of assumptions – the assumptions that are a central meaning of hegemony,* the manner in which the boundaries of common sense, the thinkable and unthinkable are formed – that are really in need of interrogation. But I’m not anticipating an Editors’ Note on that revolutionary topic anytime soon.

*Raymond Williams offers an excellent working definition of “hegemony” from what we (or me anyway) might call a disabused Marxist perspective:

For hegemony supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely secondary or susperstructural, like the weak sense of ideology, but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the substance and limits of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure. For if ideology were merely some abstract, imposed set of notions, if our social and cultural and political ideas and assumptions and habits were merely the result of specific manipulation, of a kind of overt training which might be simply ended or withdrawn, then the society would be very much easier to move and to change than in practice it has ever been or is. [Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture (New York, 1980), 37]

Postscript: Interestingly, over on the New York Times quasi-endorsed Freakonomics blog (there’s a Freakonomics column in the NYT Magazine), much the same open-ended conclusion re: the Times‘ “mistake” is hit upon. The word “hegemony”, however, is notable by its absence:

It sounds to me like a very honest mistake. But it also suggests an interesting psychological element: we are probably more willing to identify and exploit a flaw in those whom we have already deemed very flawed.

To cite Tony Judt writing on Thomas Friedman in a recent article excoriating US liberals for their failure to oppose Bush, Freakonomics is perhaps rather proffering “pieties…road-tested for middlebrow political acceptability.” Actually, that’s more than a bit unfair to Freakonomics in this instance. Mostly I just needed an excuse to deploy that Judtian bon mot. That said, my point about the Freakonomics’ reading is that it fails to ask the (archæologically) prior question of how we ended up being convinced Chavez is “very flawed” in the first place.

meanwhile tony snow sells siding AND the global war on terror

October 6, 2006

from the New York Times, a story that pretty much speaks for itself such that creating category-tabs for it along the lines of “auto-satirical”, or, “would be hilarious if it wasn’t so endlessly tragic”, seems kind of beside the point:

“Just imagine, you’re listening to the radio, Tony Snow has been speaking to you as the spokesman for the leader of the free world, and then a commercial comes on with him trying to sell you a window,” Ms. Henderson said Thursday. “He introduced himself as Tony Snow, talked about the travails of remodeling projects, boasted about the 30-year history of this business and delivered the 800 number of the business, twice.”

 I’m particularly fond of her use of “travails”.

Times article

the day the mountain fell on wallace

September 25, 2006

I really hate to do this – hate, that is, to add anything to the e-cacophony on fox’s “interview” with clinton – but this is both so predictable, and yet so difficult to credit, that it’s here in case you missed it. (of course if you care, you likely didn’t miss it.) this is the fox reporter, Chris Wallace, describing the fear and terror he felt confronted by what fox is now calling a “crazed” clinton:

Former President Clinton is a very big man. As he leaned forward–wagging his finger in my face–and then poking the notes I was holding–I felt as if a mountain was coming down in front of me.

click here for: i_felt_as_if_a_mountain_was_coming_down_in_front_of_me

i’m still trying to decide whether this is a joke, but this question seems increasingly irrelevant, archaic even. Wallace’s comments, his aggrieved, wounded tone – he’s shocked, shocked, to imagine anyone could presume him guilty of partisanship – are the very model of disingenuousness. But, as a descriptor, “disingenuousness” may also have increasingly little purchase when it comes to US political discourse. The “disposition to secure advantage by means not morally defensible; insincerity, unfairness” (to cite the OED definition) ceases to be remark-worthy when it becomes structural to, if not constitutive of, the words being spoken.

meanwhile, here’s the clip fox is running to promo the day the mountain fell on wallace. looks pretty fair and b’d to this guy. then again, Clinton didn’t make it difficult for fox to portray him as hectoring and bug-eyed:

oh, just a farrago of benign news items…

September 21, 2006

…all read in the Times on the subway home and, cumulatively, telling you far more about the world than you ever wanted to 21train6001.jpgknow even if you already knew it. Consider each a sort of putrid world in a grain of unhappy sand. Where to begin…

1. The Bush administration is stalling an investigation of a brazen act of state-sponsored terrorism – a pair of assassinations; one of those killed was an American – committed on US soil. This sounds decidedly odd – didn’t I hear something about a war on terror? – until one twigs to which state sponsored the terrorism: Augusto Pinochet‘s Chile:

grain of sand the first

2. The US Justice Department is forced to contradict comments from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Yesterday, Gonzales denied responsibility for the deportation of Maher Arar to Syria and said he was “not aware that [Arar] was tortured.” The Times reports the comments “caused puzzlement” as the US decision to deport the Canadian citizen is a matter of public record, and the results of a public inquiry just released in Canada confirmed Arar had been repeatedly tortured during his more than year long imprisonment. (Not incidentally, the inquiry also found no evidence linking Arar to “terrorism” despite the Mounties’ best efforts to find something, anything, to justify the faulty, unverifed “intelligence” they passed on to the Americans which likely led to Arar’s deportation in the first place.)

grain of sand the second

3. Four US government auditors launch a lawsuit against their own bosses claiming they’ve been prevented from going after tens of millions of dollars oil and gas companies have been fraudulently holding back from the government:

grain of sand the third

4. The UN says far more people have died violent deaths in Baghdad (5,106) in the last two months than was previously thought. Meanwhile, US officials claim even the earlier number revised by the UN is inflated. The UN report also describes evidence of torture on many of the bodies:

grain of sand the fourth

5. Documents reveal Grover Norquist and Ralph Reed combined have attended more than 100 meetings at the Bush White House:

grain of sand the fifth

6. And Hugo Chavez waves a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance before the UN General Assembly. There’s even a photo:

grain of sand the sixth

In fact to segue to some less dispiriting grains,

An Australian court rules the entire city of Perth belongs to Aborigines.

And a charming story about subway sounds and a cell phone call from Neil Young. It’s all very reminiscent of the Wim Wender’s movie Lisbon Story, a tale about a movie soundman who arrives in Lisbon to discover a movie with no sound, and no filmmaker, and a beautiful woman with a haunting voice sharing his mansion. Highly recommended, but in the interim read about the subway sounds and the singular pleasures of exploring a city with large headphones and a powerful microphone.


The Pope and ancient prejudices

September 20, 2006

An excellent, thoughtful piece in The Guardian from Karen Armstrong, noted historian of religions, that helps put the Pope’s recent remarks on Islam in perspective. In the process, she makes their import even more alarming. It’s worth remembering that Benedict’s “faux pas” wasn’t off-the-cuff – as Bush’s may well have been in his infamous “Crusade” comment – but considered and deliberate. Armstrong helps us to understand the ignoble genealogy of that deliberation, and along the way provides some very useful history lessons:

Until the middle of the eighth century, Jews and Christians in the Muslim empire were actively discouraged from conversion to Islam, as, according to Qur’anic teaching, they had received authentic revelations of their own. The extremism and intolerance that have surfaced in the Muslim world in our own day are a response to intractable political problems – oil, Palestine, the occupation of Muslim lands, the prevelance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, and the west’s perceived “double standards” – and not to an ingrained religious imperative.

Karen Armstrong on Islamophobia and the West

(thanks mom)

Remnick on Clinton (Bill just wants to be loved)

September 19, 2006

Even by New Yorker standards I think the article might qualify as elephantine. Perhaps this is simply one of the advantages of penning a profile for the magazine you edit, or perhaps the length is meant to underline the cultural significance, the historical moment of it all: David Remnick, leading member of the liberal bien pensant media-intellectual set, expatiating on Bill Clinton, bill-clinton.jpgpresent-day icon and former President (Sept. 18 edition; and now available on-line). Then again, we might just as easily say expiating. For, of course, Clinton is more than simply one more ex-President. The failure of his presidency – an especially bitter one when one considers what it helped pave the way for – is also the failure of the American liberals who put their hopes in Clinton (many of whom subscribe to the New Yorker).

This is perhaps one means to account for the unexpected tone of Remnick’s piece. Certainly there are some more than obligatory nods to Clinton’s post-presidential philanthropy and its not altogether self-serving motivations, but on the whole the portrayal of Clinton is uncharitable to the point of being mean-spirited, even vindictive. The use of italics, for example, is always discretionary when recounting speech and Remnick never seems to pass over an opportunity to make Clinton sound gushing and worthy of mockery. “Oh Hillary just loves giraffes” is a typical Clinton comment mediated by Remnick. There is also no shortage of snide authorial asides and non sequitur conversational snippets from Clinton that, again, appear designed to make him out as something of a buffoon. In general, the impression one has of Clinton after reading the article is of the kind of person you’d hate to be stuck sitting beside on a plane (as Remnick often was; although these planes were owned by hedge-fund managers), a logorrheic blowhard whose knowledge is as broad as it is shallow.

But I’m not questioning the veracity of Remnick’s account. It may all be true – and likely is; I don’t, for example, need much convincing that Bill has a boundless appetite for the adulation of others. Indeed, we should perhaps be grateful for Remnick’s honesty. (Here’s a recent intelligent portrait of Remnick in The Guardian.) It’s just the snideness of his treatment that leads me to venture there’s more at work in this piece than simply a journalistic desire for verisimilitude. Something about it smacks of a long-awaited score-settling. Not that Bill didn’t have it coming.

les classes sociales pas mort (homogamy)

September 10, 2006

One of the chief questions that exercise the good social theorists (and which the others, aka apologists for the status quo, would rather see exorcised) is how power relations are reproduced in a given society. Once we dispense with the anodyne notion that we all start life from the identical starting line with identical chances of winning the race, we’re forced to consider what gets passed on from generation to generation, how domination and classes function, how much mobility, permeability, between classes really exists. Certainly money is central here, but it’s not the entire story. There is capital also in a much more diffuse sense; the so-called cultural capital (see Bourdieu) that affords the legatee a kind of unerring sense for how to get ahead, an ability to navigate social situations, an unquestioned feeling of at-homeness in a given milieu (say that of an elite academic institution or a corporate boardroom). This is partly how to account for the stubborn fact that, statistically, people born into a given class are far more likely to stay within that class than, say, ascend into a class above them.

This posting was sparked by my reading of a recently published French sociology journal article,* taking on the third way “flat” world thesis of a social world where class is supposedly becoming an increasingly less salient means of understanding daily life. The author introduced me to a new word – homogamie, or homogamy in English. Selon the OED, it’s a biological term – (a) homogamous condition; fertilization of a flower by its own pollen or by that of another flower on the same plant. As often happens, the biological term migrated to the social sciences (and often such migrations come with unacknowledged costs, i.e. reducing society to a depoliticized “natural” biological mechanism). Homogamy came up as the French author, armed with a battery of stats, demonstrated how class continues to dictate many life choices, perhaps even more so now than before, and that like continues to marry like, people from working class backgrounds tend overwhelmingly to marry other people from similar backgrounds, and people from the liberal and professional classes, for example, tend to an overwhelming degree not to marry people from the working class. To borrow a citation from the OED definition: 1947 Evolution I. 270/2 “The concept of homogamy or associative mating states that within a population the most similar individuals will mate with each other.” The children of such associative mating are then ever more likely to grow up and stay within that association, reproducing the same power relations that contributed, along with cupid bien entendu, to their parents getting married, either not questioning their privileges, or not imagining such privileges to be within their ken.

None of this is a straitjacket of course, but class matters and efforts to suggest it’s an outmoded discourse – bearing in mind, as Tony Judt points out, that the Left itself bears a lot of responsibility for this discrediting – tell us more about the agenda of the person making the argument than the phenomenon itself. Anyone doubting this could consult the most recent staggering numbers on income inequalities in the US and conservative attempts to gloss them, a theme of numerous Paul Krugman columns.

*Chauvel (Louis), « Le retour des classes sociales ? », Revue de l’OFCE, n°79, octobre 2001, Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Economiques/Presses de Sciences Po, p. 315-359.

truly, a great read

September 9, 2006

marx.giftake the time for this one, though it won’t require overmuch. vintage tony judt, and for those of you who’ve been following along, this time perhaps offering a slightly more balanced appraisal of the foibles of the left. (can i say “our” left? we all are on the same side here, n’est-ce pas?) deeply informed intellectual history, superbly written – agile, lively, considered, all of that. a fair bit to say too about that old question of “where are we today?”