September 15, 2013

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.