September 23, 2013

When the State Floods the Zone, Reform Is Dead

Imagine that there is a special class of American citizens. This special class is made up of individuals from private business, in fields such as agriculture, finance, the internet, academia, and utility companies. These people have certain responsibilities and, in exchange, they are granted certain privileges. These people are dedicated to providing information that, in their view, might be related in some way to possible threats to "national security." They are encouraged to report all such information they may come across, including information about their fellow employees. Imagine that there are tens of thousands of such "special" people, spread across the entire United States.

Members of the special class are given phone numbers for the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. When they call to report "suspicious" behavior, and when they identify themselves as members of the special class, they know they "will be listened to." Were you recently angered by a decision by your boss, and did you mutter something about wanting "to give that bastard what he deserves"? Or perhaps you were chatting with one of your neighbors, and you casually and unthinkingly remarked that you'd like to see some of the politicians in Washington "get what they have coming." If a member of the special class heard such comments, you may already be known to the State, and in a decidedly unfavorable way.

For their diligent work, members of the special class are given advance "secret" warnings about terrorist threats, before the general public learns of them (and sometimes even before elected officials). These special individuals receive "almost daily updates" on threats "emanating from both domestic sources and overseas." These special people enjoy being "special." They "are happy to be in the know." In the event that communications networks are seriously disrupted, this special class will be able to get phone calls and internet messages through when most people can't.

These special individuals also have specified roles when martial law is declared. That's what the State has communicated to them: when martial law is declared, not if. These people will be "expected to share all [their] resources," and to protect any parts of the "critical infrastructure" to which they have access. In return, they will have "the ability to travel in restricted areas and to get people out."

When martial law is declared, these special individuals are granted one further power. They will be expected "to protect [their] portion of the infrastructure." If necessary, the State expects them to use deadly force to do so. Because these are very special people, the State has told them that, should they use deadly force, they will not be prosecuted.

Imagine all that. Would such a state of affairs trouble you? Do you think it would be a cause for concern that the State employed an army of "private" Americans to be its spies in businesses of every kind, perhaps including the business where you work? Would it bother you that the State has deputized tens of thousands of otherwise "ordinary" Americans to be murderers when martial law is declared -- murderers who are given an advance blank check for their killings?

But you don't need to imagine any of this. All of this is true, and this program came into existence in 1996. The program is called InfraGard, and I wrote it about more than five years ago. As of February 2012, InfraGard had more than 45,000 members; roughly 7,000 new members join each year. There are at least 86 chapters spread across the United States.

Please note the following, as it is of special importance. Information about InfraGard has been easily available for years. As I noted at the outset of my earlier post in February 2008, the InfraGard website is right in the open. The government isn't trying to keep InfraGard a secret. To the contrary, the State is enormously pleased with this program. It is more than happy to make its operations known -- and many Americans are very happy to join it. Most other Americans appear not to care about InfraGard at all -- for it is almost never talked or written about. You should find that profoundly disturbing. The State maintains a private army of tens of thousands of spies -- spies who are deputized to kill other people, possibly including you -- and no one seems to give a damn.

As a result of the recent NSA/surveillance stories, there is much debate about the NSA and its massive spying apparatus. But as the existence of InfraGard shows, the NSA is only the beginning of what should concern us. In fact, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, but it's better to face the truth as fully as we can, if the NSA ceased to exist today, it would not make any appreciable difference in the surveillance activities of the United States government. Given InfraGard's existence, which the State happily tells us about, if only we would pay attention, what other programs of this kind is the State engaged in, doubtless including many programs that the State is determined to keep secret?

And there are many other similar programs that we do already know about. Tarzie raised this critical point toward the end of a recent post. He provides a useful graphic, and he notes the other governmental entities that demand our focus, including the CIA and the Department of Justice. And the Justice Department includes the Bureau of Prisons, the FBI, and the DEA. InfraGard is nominally an FBI program, so that's where InfraGard would appear on this chart. InfraGard is also closely connected to the Department of Homeland Security, but, as Tarzie notes, the Department of Homeland Security doesn't even appear in the graphic.

For these reasons (among others), Tarzie describes the "unique focus on the NSA" as "arbitrary" and "perplexing." He's entirely correct, and the problem is far worse than that. Certainly, the discussion about the NSA is of value in one sense; shining any light at all on the nightmarish and deadly activities of the U.S. government is a good thing. However -- and it is a "however" of singular significance -- to focus on the NSA as if that agency is the only or even a major source of the problem is entirely wrong. The NSA is only one source of the rot that is spread across numerous agencies and programs, the rot that has infected our government at every level (federal, state, county, municipal, etc.) and in countless ways. But the unique and restricted focus on the NSA is also an enormous boon to the State; it is largely the result of our culture's idiotic and myopic focus on the "hot" story of the moment, devoid of history, of context, of everything that should inform our understanding of the issues involved. It creates and supports the view that, if only we "fix" the NSA, then a significant part of the problem will be solved. But that is flatly untrue. As I already noted, you could eliminate the NSA entirely this very minute, and it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference. But the heightened focus on the NSA, while ignoring all the other agencies and programs involved in similar and even identical activities, leads directly to the "solution" that will make the State writhe in ecstasy. Congress will have some hearings, and they will provide for some "oversight" and "accountability," and most people, including most of the State's critics, will herald the great triumph of "the people" and "democracy." Meanwhile, the State will continue doing exactly what it was doing before.

There is a further, related reason why the "reformist" agenda focused only on one part of a far larger problem is doomed to failure, and why such a reformist agenda represents exactly what the State hopes will happen. Here we come to the phenomenon that I now refer to as the State "flooding the zone." When the State floods the zone, as it has with regard to surveillance (and in many other areas), incremental reformism is rendered almost entirely meaningless. I've explained this phenomenon before; interestingly, the focus on that earlier occasion was also surveillance, although the particular story concerned FISA. You can see the continuity in theme from the very opening of the post from 2008:
I indicated the other day that, as odious and destructive of liberty and privacy as the new FISA "compromise" bill is, there is one perspective from which the momentous to-do about this legislation is very badly misplaced. The selective focus on FISA misses the crucial larger picture in a way that ensures that the ruling class's hold on increasingly tyrannical power will never be consistently or seriously challenged -- which is, of course, precisely what the ruling class wants.
Later in the essay, I explained what I now call flooding the zone:
With regard to FISA and issues of liberty and privacy in general, let me now ask you a few questions. How long do you think it would take you to identify, read, and understand every provision in every statute, regulation and other authorization that gives surveillance powers to the government? Furthermore: Would you know each and every place to look, or how to determine what those places were? Additionally: With a staff of 20, or 50, could it be done, even if you were provided with limitless time and limitless funds?

I submit to you, without qualification or reservation, that you could not do it. No one could. Consider that most legislators in Washington aren't even aware of much of what's in the bills they so eagerly vote on. Consider the prohibitive length and complexity of legislation that comes before Congress. That's true of what is going on now. If you tried to track down every piece of legislation, every regulation, every administrative agency ruling, and every other pronouncement still in effect that allows the government to surveil and otherwise keep track of you, me, the guy down the street, the woman next door and the man in the moon, based on alleged concern with and the need to protect us all from the ravages of drugs, "illicit" sex, any and all other suspected criminal activity and, natch, terrorism, how on God's green earth would you do it? You couldn't. I further submit to you that the only reason you appear to have some precious remnants of freedom left, and the only reason you remain at liberty, is that the government hasn't comprehensively focused on all the powers it already possesses and hasn't come anywhere close to utilizing them fully and consistently. This is the moment you should fall to your knees and thank whatever gods may be for the miraculous, close to perfect incompetence of the pathetically ineffectual blockheads in Washington.
Certainly with regard to surveillance, the State has already granted itself entirely comprehensive, indeed omnipotent, powers. I guarantee you that, buried in the hideous bowels of all the laws, regulations, agency rulings, etc. and so on unto the ends of time, that give the State surveillance powers, the State has the power to spy on anything, anywhere, anytime, for any reason it manufactures, or for no reason at all. The State can do whatever it wants. And since the State now claims the right to murder anyone, anywhere, anytime, that statement is literally true: the State can do whatever it wants.

But I must clarify one of my earlier points: it is not only because no one can possibly keep track of all the relevant laws and regulations, and it is not only incompetence on the part of the ruling class, that explain why the State's already comprehensive powers have not yet been fully realized. Systemic restraints, and questions relating to the growth of the corporatist-authoritarian-militarist State, also play an important role, and I will be discussing some of these factors in upcoming articles. For our purposes here, the basic point remains: the State already possesses total surveillance powers. It doesn't need the NSA to accomplish its goals; an endless number of other agencies and programs (including InfraGard, as just one example) can fulfill those goals just as easily. Provide oversight and accountability all you want; it won't make the slightest bit of difference, except to the reformers who will shout in triumph still one more time.

I should mention one further issue. I'm writing about the numerous ways in which all of us seek to control events, how we devote enormous energy to manipulating and attempting to direct our individual lives (see here and here). For people involved in politics, the desire for control extends to trying to direct the policies and actions of the State. This is another reason that we so easily fall into an utterly unjustified and restrictive focus with regard to many issues, as, for instance, in the case with the NSA in the current surveillance debate. We would prefer to believe that, if only we can "fix" this particular problem, then the general problem will be solved, or at least a significant part of it. In this way, we delude ourselves into believing that we can control events, and even the State itself. If only it were so -- but it isn't. Make the NSA "accountable," make many of its operations more "transparent." The ruling class will be goddamned thrilled. They know that it will make no difference at all with regard to the success of their program -- and they know that they will have won once again.

Once the State has flooded the zone, the State has placed itself far beyond "reform." I realize this is a notably unpleasant, unwelcome and unpopular truth. Unhappily, for all of us, it is the truth.

September 21, 2013

Dying for Control (II): An Exhausted Culture, Founded on Psychological Manipulation

Part I: Neurosis and Terror as National "Policy"

One of humankind's greatest tragedies is that all of us are taught to be experts at psychological and emotional manipulation. I say "all of us"; there are a few, extremely rare and blessed exceptions, perhaps one in five or ten thousand. Because the exceptions are so few in number, "all of us" captures the truth of the matter that concerns me. From the time we are infants and young children, we are taught to be constantly vigilant for signs of approval or disapproval from others -- and particularly from the authority figures in our lives. In the cases of virtually all of us, the initial authority figures are our parents. As we grow older, the crucial importance of always maintaining a keen awareness of emotional signals from others is reinforced in numerous ways: in school, then later in our work lives, and with regard to the culture generally. The lesson is an especially deadly one: we are taught not simply that we must always be on the lookout for signs of approval and disapproval, but that manipulating approval or its lack is our primary means of survival. Because this lesson becomes fundamental to our method of functioning, most personal relationships exhibit manipulation in various degrees.

For the overwhelming majority of people, the practice of manipulation is directed both at those we regard as authority figures (which, when we become adults, will include politicians and representatives of the State in general, as well as the State's enforcement arms, most notably the police and the military), and at those we regard as roughly equal to or below ourselves in the pyramid of authority. The basic mechanism is directed both upward and downward. We are particularly sensitive to signs of disapproval from those above us in that pyramid -- our boss(es), government officials, policemen, etc. And many of us find satisfaction of various kinds in manipulating those on the same level or below us in the pyramid of authority. In "Losing Control," I discussed one aspect of the television series, Mad Men, that was communicated very perceptively. (My evaluation was based on the early seasons of the series; I haven't yet seen the more recent seasons.) I wrote:
The series shows in awful detail the endless calculation, the flattery and cajoling of the bosses (and even of equals and those lower on the corporate ladder), the constant manipulation, the perpetual anxiety of wondering how others are judging us and what they'll do about their judgments. No matter where these people are in the organization, they all have these same concerns: there is always someone else who must find them pleasing and valuable, who they desperately hope will choose to help rather than harm them. The same dynamics frequently play out in the characters' personal lives. Beneath the more superficial, localized emotions they experience, on a much deeper psychological level, all these people are absolutely exhausted. Pursuing control in this way is exhausting.
The fact that all of us are taught manipulation (and, therefore, control of others to varying degrees) as a crucial means of survival helps to explain one pronounced aspect of our culture: the overwhelming sense of lethargy and passivity, where vital, spontaneous signs of life are suffocated beneath a gray ooze of unrelieved exhaustion. Sustained passion on behalf of any cause, personal or political, is all but impossible beneath the tremendous weight of perpetually being on the lookout for emotional signals from those with whom we interact, and especially being on guard for any sign of disapproval from those above us in the pyramid of authority.

Constant vigilance of this kind has another result: growing resentment, and even rage. Trying to survive by means of manipulation and control is endlessly demanding; the consequences of making errors in our calculations can be devastating. Even though we are all taught manipulation as a way of life, most of us also sense that trying to survive in this manner ought to be entirely unnecessary, that it is carries enormous emotional costs, and that it is a burden we should not be forced to carry. As a result, we feel tremendous anger that we must fulfill these ceaseless demands day after day, year after year. That growing reservoir of anger finds its outlet in many forms: in self-destructive behavior, in unhappy, sometimes tortured personal relationships and, in the political realm, in periodic outbursts about the manufactured controversy of the moment. With regard to that last item, note that the tone of such controversies is always strongly negative, with fierce condemnations of their opponents offered by all sides. Our "debates" are simultaneously devoid of meaningful content and filled with judgments of damnation. These are some of the consequences of relying on manipulation and control as tools of survival.

I explained in detail how we are taught psychological manipulation in "Creating the Next Generation." The centerpiece of that analysis is a story that a mother proudly offered as an example of her successful (in her view) childrearing practices. I chose the story precisely because it is utterly ordinary; stories like this happen millions of times every day, all over the world. But if we understand what is actually happening in the story, it is a tale of horror and terror inflicted on an innocent and defenseless victim, a young child. The story involves a commonplace occurrence: the child has been splashing in the bathtub, and he has gotten water all over the bathroom. I discussed how a parent in such a situation could begin by acknowledging that splashing water is fun. In my view, that is where the parent should begin. Splashing water is fun! Have you forgotten that? This mother obviously has. The parent could then easily explain why a very wet bathroom can be dangerous, and why it needs to be cleaned up. The child in the story appears to be around seven or eight; it is not difficult to explain these issues in terms he would understand. By pointing out the facts of the situation, the child can be led to draw the indicated conclusions himself; with a little further prompting, he will see how to adjust his behavior in the future. (If these issues are of interest to you, I strongly recommend reading the earlier entry in its entirety. This subject is a complex one, and it is profoundly distorted for most people because they have accepted and internalized these extraordinarily damaging lessons.)

The mother tells us that she realized she had a "teachable moment," so she "knelt down and spoke to" her son:
But she doesn't speak to him about any of the issues I mentioned above -- that a wet floor might be dangerous, that leaving wet walls might cause damage, that the towels and bathmat need to be replaced with dry ones -- and instead she tells this young child the following: "I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him 'Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?'"

This is the crux of the problem, and the source of profound damage. It is crucial to understand what is happening here. Note the nature of the shift that has occurred: the mother's concern is no longer with the wet floor or the wet towels and bathmat, or with the damage that might result if the water isn't cleaned up. The mother's concern -- and what she demands this young boy focus on -- is her own feelings. The mother was "very disappointed." The mother "really didn't like what he did." And "what he did" was "bad." And there is still more, and it is still worse: what the boy did was "bad," he knew it was "bad" (at least, he did according to his mother), and he did the "bad" thing anyway.


She is demanding obedience, not by discussing the inconvenience and possible dangers of failing to clean up the water (which would be damaging enough, if obedience remains the primary lesson being taught; see this essay for more on the nature of obedience), but by demanding that the child obey by adapting his behavior in accordance with his mother's needs and feelings.
The final part of my description of obedience in that last linked essay is critical for our discussion here:
Obedience is the opposite of voluntary, uncoerced agreement: the understanding and agreement of the person in the inferior position are not required, and are often not sought at all. The person in the inferior position may profoundly disagree with the reason(s) offered for the demand, if any. When the person in the inferior position obeys, he does so because of his certain knowledge that if he does not, he will be punished in some form: psychologically, legally, socially, or in some other way. Thus, the primary (although not the sole) motivation that ensures obedience is negative in nature: it is not the promise of a reward (even though certain rewards may be offered), but the assurance that he will not suffer consequences that are painful in varying degrees, i.e., that he will not be punished.
By the time most people are adults, they have internalized this mechanism completely, and it is an automatic part of their functioning. One result is that most adults will not require much or any prompting to ensure their obedience: they "know" (in an emotional sense) the price of disobeying. At the end of "Creating the Next Generation," I told a true story involving a person who had emailed me. He expressed admiration for a post I'd written and confessed that he didn't have the courage to write such a post himself, even though he thought everything I had said was true. And the reason he wouldn't write that post is that he was afraid his peer group "would regard" him as "having lost [his] mind." I noted: "So he remained silent, just as the boy in our story is learning to be silent. He was, in his own words, 'a coward.'"

It is critical to see the through line in development between the lesson being taught the young boy in the mother's story and the behavior of the adult blogger who wrote to me -- an adult who was so terrified of incurring the disapproval of the group whose acceptance he so desperately sought that he would "not even dare to write a blog post -- a blog post, mind you -- that might cause those others to view him unfavorably." Here is how I explained the pattern:
It is in this manner, among others, that a child is taught not to analyze the arguments being offered and the facts marshalled on behalf of those arguments, but to devote his primary attention to the feelings and attitudes of others. If he wishes to procure or maintain the approval of those others who are especially significant to him -- and for the young child, there is no one of greater significance than his mother (and/or other primary caregivers) -- then he must make his behavior conform to that demanded by those others. But the demands presented to the child don't concern the facts: that a wet floor is dangerous, or that wet towels must be replaced with dry ones. The demands are presented, as in this story, by means of his mother's moods and emotions. To survive, he must do everything possible to make sure his mother isn't "disappointed" or "unhappy." For the child, the most powerful signal will be any sign of his mother's disapproval; his greatest terror will be his mother's fury.

So his major concern, and very often his only concern, will be to watch with great care for signs of approval or disapproval. As the years go on, the merits of the arguments on any subject will hold less and less significance for him. The continued approval of those individuals he particularly values will be among his greatest concerns, and among his greatest sources of anxiety. His greatest fear will be the disappointment, especially the very strong disapproval and even condemnation, of those others of special significance to him.
Politics represents the nauseating rock bottom of this pattern. Even the casual observer of political debates on any subject of domestic or foreign policy knows all too well that one area is ruled almost entirely out of the bounds from the start: the relevant facts. In this connection, I was interested and amused to see two recent articles (here and here) about a new research study. What was the startling discovery that the writers found so "depressing"? Simply this: that partisanship "can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”

I'm amused because there is nothing remotely "new" about this identification. In fact, this dynamic is as old as the human race itself and has been true for as long as there have been human families and societies -- which is to say this has been true forever. One of the earlier instances occurred when the caveman with the bigger club issued grunts to the caveman with a smaller club, who had dared to snort his disagreement about whether to cross this particular river or kill that particular animal. The first caveman waved his bigger club and emitted sounds which roughly translated to: "We're going to do what I want, you asshole, because my club is bigger and I'll bash your brains in otherwise!" At which point, the second caveman made some sounds to indicate: "Oh, of course, you're right. Don't know what I was thinking. Sorry. Please don't be mad." Funny, politics -- both domestic and foreign -- are conducted in exactly the same manner today. Perhaps "funny" isn't the word I was looking for.

Besides, there is the famous Asch experiment (among many others), which I wrote about exactly five years ago: "Studies in Conformity, Generating Consensus, and Why You Are Not Adults." And, for pity's sake, my darlings, the Asch experiment was conducted in 1951. The subjects were asked to identify which of several lines was the same in length as another line. The other "subjects" (who were actually participants in the experiment) gave what were obviously wrong answers. Many of the true subjects of the experiment denied the evidence of their own eyes -- and agreed with the wrong answers:
To Asch's surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed to the majority at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the 12 trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean subject conformed on 4 of the 12 trials. Asch was disturbed by these results: "The tendency to conformity in our society is so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black. This is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct."


Apparently, people conform for two main reasons: because they want to be liked by the group and because they believe the group is better informed than they are.
I went on to note:
The pathetic truth is that most people fear genuine independence more than they fear death itself. So desperate are they for "acceptance" and so fearful of being thought "peculiar," they will deny the evidence of their own eyes and mindlessly repeat the lies and ignorance of others. When it comes to a subject like economics or foreign policy, they think: "Oh, that's so hard! I can't understand that. I'll just listen to what the 'experts' say. They know best."

If events of the last seven years have demonstrated nothing else at all, they should have made absolutely clear that "experts" are often the very last people you should look to for guidance.
These are the lessons we are all taught, and that only a very small number of people manage to resist successfully: to throttle any sign of a genuine, vital thought or feeling of our own; to obey the authority figures in our lives without question or hesitation; and to attempt to survive by making ourselves constantly aware of even the subtlest emotional signals from others, especially those whose favor we regard as crucial to our success. For this mode of functioning -- which is the mode of functioning of most people -- the facts relevant to any particular question or controversy do not matter. What matters, what is of life and death importance in psychological terms, is the view of the group(s) with which we have allied ourselves. And if those we regard as authorities (or "experts") tell us line A is the same length as line D, even when it plainly is not, we will agree with the authorities. We will set aside the evidence of our own eyes, we will ignore what we know with absolute certainty to be true, to avoid the disapproval of those whose acceptance represents our sense of identity and self-worth, and those who are more powerful.

We have learned our lessons well, and we understand to the depths of our being what the young boy in the mother's story understood. A young child, in fact, depends on his parents for survival, for life itself. Most of us carry the lessons into adulthood unchallenged. We understand that the strong disapproval of that group with which we identify, and especially the ultimate punishment: banishment from the group, means the death of the false self we have constructed. For most people, in psychological terms, approval is life; disapproval is death. It thus follows that profound exhaustion is one of the primary hallmarks of our culture, just as it follows that most people seek to distract themselves with an endless series of activities and gadgets. To be alone, and to be still, might be to encounter an original thought, one that would perhaps call the edifice of our lives into question. Most people will do anything to avoid that possibility.

There are, of course, those who thrive on manipulating others and who become unusually expert at it. These are the people who ascend to the higher levels of "success" in business, academia, journalism, and other fields -- and these are the people who become politicians. I'll turn to this category of individual in the next installment, when we will explore some of the methods of manipulation used by those in positions of power. And then I will explain why the State can be thought of as your nightmare lover.

September 15, 2013

Various Horrible Stuff

After having been absent from the blog for a while, I published a new article earlier today. As that post indicates, it is only the beginning of a discussion of a complicated subject. I expect there will be at least two more articles in that series. (In connection with the new piece, I encourage people to read "Losing Control" about WikiLeaks, since it provides an introductory analysis of some relevant issues.)

It's been a very difficult time, and things continue to be far from pleasant. The summer had mostly been wonderfully cool -- but then, in the second half of August, it got very hot. Then it cooled off a bit, and now it's hot again. Heat does terrible things to my health, so I'm in very bad shape right now. And the IRS crap goes on. (Background provided in links here.)

About that: the PayPal account can be safely used for the moment, and that will be true through this coming week. After that, depending on what happens with the IRS, it may not be usable for a while, perhaps even a long while. I have to provide a bunch of information to the IRS, and I don't know what they'll conclude once they have it. They may let up and make things somewhat easier for me, or they may not. I'll just have to wait and see.

To the extent possible, and to the extent wonderfully generous readers wish to donate, I'd like to use this last period of PayPal viability (possibly for a while, anyway) to put a little aside for the next few months. Since I don't know how awful or not those months will be, a financial cushion of any size at all would be enormously helpful; it might turn out to be an absolute necessity. It would also lessen my anxiety to a considerable degree, no small matter at the moment. So if you'd like to donate via PayPal, I'd be enormously grateful. (And I'll continue to get all donations out of the PayPal account as quickly as I can, so that I get the funds rather than the IRS -- although the IRS continues to say they won't swoop back in at least for the next short period of time.)

Of course, if you prefer to donate by mail, that's always available. (If you don't have my address, please write to me: arthur4801 at yahoo dot com. And I apologize if I've missed any earlier inquiries.)

I have to spend the next few days preparing all this crap for the IRS, so I expect the next post to appear Wednesday or Thursday-ish. Many thanks to all, as always.

Dying for Control (I): Neurosis and Terror as National "Policy"

Just a few minutes after J. died, they cut his head off in the driveway. Be horrified, if you must, but it was what he wanted and what he himself had planned. J. was one of the most brilliant people I've known in my life: fearless intellectually, and fearless in action. He would do battle with anyone about any issue that passionately engaged him, and he cared deeply about many things. He deeply loved all human potentialities for pleasure, joy and love, and he loved nothing more than individual liberty.

When he was dying of AIDS (when almost everyone I knew was dying of AIDS), J. decided he would try to outwit his final foe: death itself. This was when cryogenics was much in the news. Be frozen, and attain immortality! J. thought it was worth a shot. That "worth" proved to be very costly. J.'s partner made a handsome living, but it wasn't sufficiently handsome to buy a full-body freezing. J. would have to settle for the head, but, after all, the head is where "you" are, isn't it? Even that was very expensive. But J.'s partner was absolutely devoted to him, as J. was to him. His partner would do anything possible to see J. off on his final (?) journey in the way J. wished. And so it came to pass: J. died, the cryogenics people took his body outside to their van parked in the driveway, and they cut off his head. J.'s frozen brain now patiently waits for the miracle of resurrection by defrosting.

I never had occasion to speak with J. about his plan during his last months. I wonder how that conversation might have gone. In his typical fashion, J. would probably have cajoled and expertly pressured me into telling him what I truly thought. If he had succeeded, I'm sure I would have started laughing at some point. And J. probably would have laughed along with me. "Yes, I know it's assuming an awful lot ... but just maybe ... I mean ... it could actually work, if everything happened just the right way ... don't you think?" And I would simply have said: "Sweetheart, if it's what you want ... and, yes, I suppose it might work at that ..." But I don't actually believe that, and J. would have known I didn't. Think about all the factors that would have to occur in "just the right way": his brain would have to be frozen in a manner that permits "successful defrosting" (whatever the hell that means); the freezing would have to continue without any interruption (of more than -- how long? I dunno, but not long), for one hundred, two hundred years, maybe longer; people in the future would have to discover means of successfully resuscitating frozen heads, and the right people would have to know about J.'s frozen head and where it was; and, of course, once the head was defrosted -- then what? Is it maintained in a petri dish in a laboratory? Transplanted onto a new body? And so on and so on.

It's absurd, so I would have laughed. J. had a keen eye for the absurd. He would have understood my laughter, and he could also be extraordinarily stubborn. He would have gone ahead with his plan anyway. And I understand that: fear of the abyss, fear of nothingness makes even brilliant people grasp at refrigerated straws.


That's a true story. One aspect of the story highlights an issue that receives far too little attention: the drive of most people for control. J. had an unusually fine and incisive mind. He understood far better than most people the folly of control in political terms. He knew that the desire for political control easily leads to dictatorship and finally to totalitarianism, when the demand for control proceeds to its fullest and most consistent expression. But that understanding deserted him when the ultimate personal value, his own life, was in peril. Faced with his quickly approaching death, J. sought to control -- and defeat -- his mortality. So he controlled those aspects of the terrible problem that he could: he saw to it that his freezing was paid for, and he agreed that those entrusted with the upkeep of his soon-to-be popsicle person should hack his head off. Unfortunately for J., his ability to control events ended there. Thus, this particular story represents a comparatively benign instance of the desire for control. In fact, J. could control nothing once he was dead. So the story is a sad, rueful one, and it reminds me most of all of how much I miss him and wish he were still with us. In addition to being brilliant, he was terribly funny, and he had a wonderful laugh. He made me laugh a lot.

But the pursuit of control in the political realm is far from a laughing matter. To the contrary, it represents one of humanity's greatest sources of tragedy and suffering. As I once remarked: "The determined, unrelenting pursuit of the illusion of control is responsible for as much particularized human tragedy and general devastation, sometimes encompassing entire continents, as any other factor." That is the opening sentence from one of my essays about WikiLeaks from three years ago. In that article, I discussed the pursuit of the illusion of control in both personal and cultural/political terms. The word "illusion" is of special importance; as I discussed, we are able to control far less than we would prefer to believe. This is especially true in the West, where the pursuit of control is crucially tied to the Idea of Progress (see the earlier piece for details).

In both the personal and the political realms, the pursuit of control means the pursuit of power -- and the pursuit of power means the pursuit of power over other human beings. Those who wish to rule, wish to rule people. You may regard this as a painfully obvious point. Nonetheless, it is astonishing how few people appreciate the awful implications of this simple fact. One of the myths fostered by the State is that human beings -- the same human beings who are all too frequently guided in their personal lives by greed, revenge, jealousy, spite, and a host of other singularly unpleasant and destructive motives -- suddenly become selfless saints when they work on behalf of the State itself, and on behalf of "the people." This myth is critically necessary to the establishment, continuation and expansion of the State. But if you reflect on the matter even briefly, you will see that it cannot possibly be true. How is it that those who toil for the State suddenly shed every aspect of their psychologies which are the bedrock of all the rest of their lives -- and indeed the bedrock of their persons themselves?

Soylent Green may or may not be people (and honestly, who gives a damn?), but the State most definitely is people. And people's psychologies are their constant companions, everywhere they go, and in all they do. To avoid annoying accusations that I have made arguments that nowhere appear in my writing, I emphasize that, of course, many other factors influence the development of cultures and the behavior of States. Complex issues of economic and political organization, particulars of cultural history, the behavior of other, often competing cultures and States, matters of geography and resources -- all of these and more play critical roles. I have discussed many of these issues in numerous articles over the years. My objection is to the fact that psychology is so frequently ignored altogether. I was not even looking for examples to support my view that psychology is of crucial significance, but one story in particular over the last week illustrates my argument in what I found to be rather startling fashion. (There are many more than one such example, even in the past week, and I will be discussing some of them in upcoming articles.)

A number of people have noted the article in Foreign Policy about Keith Alexander: "The Cowboy of the NSA." Early in the piece, we are offered the following summary of the behemoth that Alexander, with much assistance from many others, has constructed. As you read this, I suggest you try to make real to yourself the utterly stunning scope and comprehensiveness of this effort -- and that you frequently remind yourself that it is also utterly insane:
[Alexander] has served longer than any director in the NSA's history, and today he stands atop a U.S. surveillance empire in which signals intelligence, the agency's specialty, is the coin of the realm. In 2010, he became the first commander of the newly created U.S. Cyber Command, making him responsible for defending military computer networks against spies, hackers, and foreign armed forces -- and for fielding a new generation of cyberwarriors trained to penetrate adversaries' networks. Fueled by a series of relentless and increasingly revealing leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the full scope of Alexander's master plan is coming to light.

Today, the agency is routinely scooping up and storing Americans' phone records. It is screening their emails and text messages, even though the spy agency can't always tell the difference between an innocent American and a foreign terrorist. The NSA uses corporate proxies to monitor up to 75 percent of Internet traffic inside the United States. And it has spent billions of dollars on a secret campaign to foil encryption technologies that individuals, corporations, and governments around the world had long thought protected the privacy of their communications from U.S. intelligence agencies.

The NSA was already a data behemoth when Alexander took over. But under his watch, the breadth, scale, and ambition of its mission have expanded beyond anything ever contemplated by his predecessors. In 2007, the NSA began collecting information from Internet and technology companies under the so-called PRISM program. ... The NSA gets access to the companies' raw data--including e-mails, video chats, and messages sent through social media--and analysts then mine it for clues about terrorists and other foreign intelligence subjects. Similar to how Alexander wanted the NSA to feed him with intelligence at INSCOM, now some of the world's biggest technology companies -- including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple -- are feeding the NSA. But unlike Hayden, the companies cannot refuse Alexander's advances. The PRISM program operates under a legal regime, put in place a few years after Alexander arrived at the NSA, that allows the agency to demand broad categories of information from technology companies.

Never in history has one agency of the U.S. government had the capacity, as well as the legal authority, to collect and store so much electronic information. Leaked NSA documents show the agency sucking up data from approximately 150 collection sites on six continents. The agency estimates that 1.6 percent of all data on the Internet flows through its systems on a given day -- an amount of information about 50 percent larger than what Google processes in the same period.
The primary rationale for this "intelligence" cancer, which constantly metastasizes in the manner of the most nightmarishly aggressive alien organism in a terrifying scifi film, is the "protection" of the United States and its citizens from all manner of threats, including "terrorism." But that cannot possibly be the actual reason, even if you consider the matter for only a few moments.

We know, for example, and the last 12 years have provided a series of examples of this truth, that we can have far more information and data than is useful, at least useful for the stated purpose of identifying and deterring "threats." While all the NSA's programming geniuses are devising ever more elaborate methods for screening and searching these mountains of data, foreign troops could march into the U.S. and take over all the major cities. I exaggerate, but not by much: consider this story about the failures of the NYPD's extensive surveillance program. This will give you the flavor:
[T]he book [about "the NYPD's Secret Spying Unit"] also tells the story of Bryant Neal Vinas, an American-born Latino who converted to Islam. Because of his Latino surname, the NYPD, and even the FBI, missed Vinas when he flew to Lahore, Pakistan.

"The NYPD were in his mosque, they were actually surveilling a group called the 'Islamic Thinkers' that he had joined, and they missed him completely," said Goldman. Vinas went on to become a terror consultant "to the upper echelon of al Qaeda, I mean it was an amazing journey."
The NYPD -- and the NSA -- collect more and more data, they become more and more powerful, and they entirely miss real threats that are immediately under their noses. For another similar recent example of the fraud and farce that is "intelligence," see my discussion of the State's exercise in martial power in Boston.

To state the central fact baldly: the amount of data that the NSA now amasses is almost entirely useless with regard to the NSA's stated goals. Yet they are undeterred: they want still more data. Make no mistake. Their ultimate aim, the final goal of all this hysterically frenzied activity, is to know everything about everyone. This is the chimera of "control" run amok. Their profoundly damaged psychologies permit them to believe that if they know everything, they will be able to direct events in the way they wish: what they wish to happen is all that will happen, and nothing else at all will ever occur.

This has nothing to do with "policy," about national security or any other subject. This is severe neurosis, and it is the expression of badly damaged human beings whose overriding emotion is terror: of the world, of life, of everything and anything which happens and which is not subject to their direct orders.

Most of the writers who discussed the Foreign Policy article about Alexander didn't focus on the passage I set forth above. They highlighted a different passage, which provides further information about the particular kind of damaged psychology involved. Here is that excerpt:
When he was running the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, Alexander brought many of his future allies down to Fort Belvoir for a tour of his base of operations, a facility known as the Information Dominance Center. It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a "whoosh" sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather "captain's chair" in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

"Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard," says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.

Alexander wowed members of Congress with his eye-popping command center. And he took time to sit with them in their offices and explain the intricacies of modern technology in simple, plain-spoken language. He demonstrated a command of the subject without intimidating those who had none.

"Alexander is 10 times the political general as David Petraeus," says the former administration official, comparing the NSA director to a man who was once considered a White House contender. "He could charm the paint off a wall."
These pathetic people are the political leaders of the United States. I implore you to remember that these damaged, terrified individuals possess the power to destroy you, me, and millions of other people -- and I remind you that they have, in fact, murdered a great many people, and mostly entirely innocent people, over the last decade. It is almost impossible to grasp that people who have powers we once attributed to gods reveal themselves to be arrested adolescents, devoid of a genuine sense of independence and worth, who derive their world view and their operating political philosophy from science fiction movies and cool gadgets. And seriously, what the fuck? Alexander hired a Hollywood set designer -- paid for with your tax dollars -- so that when he went to work, he'd go onto the set of one of his favorite movies? The doors even make a "whoosh" sound?!?!? And all the VIPs love this shit and are "wowed" by it??? WHAT THE FUCK.

So remember: when these deformed monstrosities increasingly destroy your lives and deprive you as fully as they can of any opportunity for happiness and joy, they do so because Jennifer won't go out on a date with them, and their acne got worse, and Mom grounded them for a month. They can't control things, and they are pissed! Tragically, they now possess immense power -- and they want revenge.

This is only the beginning of a consideration of some of the psychological issues involved in these matters. Now there is much talk of increased "oversight" of the NSA (ha! "oversight"!), and people even express excitement about the "debate" that has begun. Some people also take great comfort from the Obama administration's temporary retreat from an attack on Syria. It is entirely possible that the State will make certain concessions and will appear to retreat from some of its more extreme policies and actions; that is, in fact, precisely what I expect the State to do. But you should not take comfort from that. To the contrary, any such concessions and retreats should make you warier than you have ever been -- and you should be prepared for still worse to come. With regard to this issue, it would be useful to think of the State as your manipulative lover from hell.

I'll explain what I mean next time.