February 17, 2015

Not So Casual This Time

As Cyrano is writing his last chapter, I realize I may be writing my own final chapter at the same time. The simple fact is that there appears to be only barely detectable interest in what I do here these days, or whether I do anything at all.

I published two posts a couple of weeks ago (here and here). Each of them got five or six tweets, and a few hundred readers. In a time when a photograph of an ingrown toenail offered by some schlub in Lower Flatass, Michigan, routinely garners several thousand tweets (at a minimum), that's humiliating.

A week earlier, I'd posted an update about my personal situation. I mentioned that I was close to completely broke and asked for donations. But I made it sound sort of casual. Not a huge deal. So six people responded to my request. As a result, I've been living on fumes for the past week. Well, not fumes: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. A lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I don't have any other food and can't afford to buy any.

I had my last cup of coffee four days ago. I only drink decaf these days, as I have ever since my heart condition was diagnosed six years ago. But I do like my cup of decaf in the morning. And I like to drink (caffeine free) diet soda during the day; I drank the last of those two days ago. I almost ran out of toilet paper, but I raided my stash of quarters for laundry to buy some at the corner store.

But what causes me to lose sleep is wondering what I do if Cyrano should have some kind of crisis when I'm this broke. I have no idea what I'll do. Probably I'll take a cab to the vet, beg the vet to treat him (even if it's only to put him to sleep), and swear to the vet that I'll manage somehow to get the funds together to pay him for his services. If Cyrano should die here at home (as happened with the last three cats with whom I went through this process), I'll have a different problem. The pet crematory service I've used in the past charges about $220 to pick up the body, cremate it, and return the ashes to me in a plain wooden urn. I think if I skip the urn, it's about a hundred dollars less.

But I won't have the money for that, and the crematory service requires payment in advance. So what do I do with the body? What do very poor people generally do? I guess they wrap the body up in a garbage bag or two, and throw it away with the garbage. I suppose that's what I may have to do.

And if I do that, I may kill myself afterwards. I suppose I probably won't, but I'll certainly feel like killing myself. Imagine throwing away the body of a pet you've adored for almost 17 years with the garbage. Poverty is disgusting, which I suppose is news to no one. (I would bury Cyrano in a yard somewhere, but there isn't any such yard anywhere around here. I also suspect that burials of that kind are prohibited by some health regulation or other law. Not that I care about that. There simply are no yards in this neighborhood.)

So I have $63 in my wallet, which I hold onto in case I need to make that emergency trip to the vet. If I have to make an emergency trip to the hospital myself, I'll be calling 911, so I won't need cab money, except to come home, of course (assuming I come home).

In the midst of all this loveliness, I've been working on some new articles. They are a continuation of my exploration of Alice Miller's work and how it applies to cultural and political events. I'm doing those pieces since I think that is the one area where I can offer something new that is of some importance. But now, it seems that no one agrees with me, except for the same five or six people who continue to show up (and bless them for it). Even people who have proclaimed their immense admiration for my work don't tweet links to my new articles any longer.

And in less than two weeks, I'll have to pay next month's rent. My joy has been notably increased with the new owners' announcement to the tenants here that, beginning with this New Year, they will be strictly enforcing late penalties for rent payment, as well as aggressively pursuing eviction when rent is not paid. Additional pressure of that kind is exactly what I needed.

Christ. I don't have anything else to say at the moment. So I'll stop.

February 05, 2015

The Internet as You Know It Will Cease to Exist, Part II

This is one of the major news stories today:
Health insurance giant Anthem Inc. said hackers had breached its computer system and the personal information of tens of millions of customers and employees was possibly at risk.

The attack on the nation’s second-largest health insurer could be one of the largest data breaches in the healthcare industry, experts said. Anthem said hackers infiltrated a database containing records on as many as 80 million people.

Hackers appear to have accessed customers' names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, member ID numbers, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and employment information, Anthem said. Some of the customer data may also include details on their income.

At this point, it appears that the data stolen do not include medical information or credit card numbers, according to the company.
I don't think anyone can be at all confident that medical information and credit card numbers (and perhaps still more personal data) were not compromised; Anthem obviously isn't all that sure itself ("At this point, it appears..." -- the language of professional weasels).

One of the more astonishing aspects of this story is that "the information involved was not encrypted in [Anthem's] database." The lack of encryption is altogether baffling and mind-crushingly dumb because Anthem has gotten into trouble of this kind before, and has been assessed fines precisely because of security weaknesses. Just goes to show: you can't count on large bureaucracies to do anything, except fuck up. (Well, and oppress, brutalize and kill people, but let's not go into all that for the moment, mmkay?)

Effectively buried in the middle of the story is this:
Suspicious activity was first noticed and reported Jan. 27. Two days later, an internal investigation verified that the company was a victim of a cyber attack, the company said. The unauthorized access to the vast database goes back to Dec. 10.
Get a load of that timeline. The first unauthorized access occurred almost two months ago. But no one noticed anything at all until January 27. And then it took two more days to verify that the company had been hacked.

So, a few thoughts. What Anthem admits makes the company appear to be run by some of the clumsiest amateurs in the world. Give them this month's prize for Outstanding Stupidity. And even though their admissions establish them as colossal dunderheads (Dumb and Dumber, indeed), I don't believe their story, except (possibly) in its most general outlines.

I don't believe it for several reasons that apply to all stories of this kind. Anthem has to acknowledge what happened in some form; if they tried to cover it up, they would eventually be in even worse trouble. But the company's leading executives will do everything in their power to save face, which means they will minimize the impact of the cyberattack in every way possible. When I say they're saving face, I mean they're trying to salvage what remains of their reputations, and of their future employability. (Would you hire the clowns in charge of this operation?) In situations like this, I always assume that the truth is far, far worse than anyone admits.

In a related story, and surprising absolutely no one who followed the story of the Sony hack, it is finally being reported that Amy Pascal is "moving on" from her position as co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Pascal was provided with the requisite face-saving deal (lots of face-saving in these stories, and Sony may also want to avoid a protracted battle over contractual obligations and the like): she's becoming a full-time producer, which is what Hollywood does to executives when it wants them to die. Pascal's bosses undoubtedly have some concerns about the hack itself, but of far greater significance, especially in image-conscious Hollywood, is that Pascal's emails revealed her and those with whom she exchanged messages to be sophomoric, asinine jerks. (And racist, too, let's not forget that detail. And honest to Christ: begging Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for meetings, so she can begin the "healing process." Pascal's life is like a truly shitty Hollywood movie, which will have to suffice as consolation.)

But we can't have the general riff-raff thinking that Hollywood people are stupid (racist) jerks! Hollywood people are special people, much smarter and better than everyone else. The general public can't learn that the people running Hollywood are the"adult" (I use the term loosely) version of the kids you hated in high school (you know, the shitheads who ran everything and made your life hell). Granted, Hollywood being concerned about its image is not unlike Jack the Ripper claiming to suffer sleepless nights because he's been accused of employing unsanitary practices, and being messy on top of it. Still, there you go.

Okay, what I really want to talk about is this. The story about the Anthem hack provides a brief summary of the major hacks in recent years (Target, Home Depot, the State of California, etc.). Hacks aren't news any longer; they're a regular feature of a world which has become alarmingly dependent on the internet. I say "alarmingly," because it's the internet -- that is, there's only one. That is very, very weird. It's the opposite of a decentralized, distributed system. In the United States, the internet is controlled by a handful of telecom companies -- and the State, of course. Can't forget the State. Worldwide, more companies are involved (but still not a large number), and more States. So the internet is basically at the mercy of a limited number of very large corporations and States. You can't make up a nightmare worse than that.

And since more and more information is available on the internet, more and more people will try to get access to it. There will be more and more hacking. For more than ten years, I've assumed that everything I've ever done on the internet is available to anyone, if they're determined enough to get it. I don't know why anyone assumes their information will remain confidential. I assume it's all public record. (That doesn't mean I like or intend for all my information to be public record; I simply recognize the possibility that it all could become known, and proceed accordingly.) And, yes, I'm aware of the Deep Web, but I don't think that alters my comments here, at least insofar as most of the general public is concerned. But feel free to correct me if you think I'm wrong about that.

What will save us from the future wave of increasingly frequent cyberattacks? Why, the State, of course. Late in the Anthem story is this:
The wave of cyber attacks, including the recent hacking at Sony Pictures Entertainment, spurred President Obama during his State of the Union address to urge Congress to pass legislation to fight cyber attacks and identity theft.
One of the more remarkably stupid viewpoints of recent years -- and you've all heard it, since it's repeated by vast numbers of people -- is that the internet will save us. The internet will make us free. Since so much information is available to more and more people, more people know the truth than ever before in history. Despotism and tyranny are doomed! The people know the truth now! We will be free forever!

I recently heard a commentator (with admittedly excessively limited mental capabilities) offer this catechism almost word for word. I am always astonished by the possibilities of human ignorance and self-delusion. The truth is precisely the opposite, and that is particularly true as long as we have the internet. I've been over this ground before (that's why this post is designated "Part II"). From the earlier post:
If you understood the possibilities that might be realized by the internet, do you seriously think those people and interests possessing the most power and wealth did not? Yes, we're all special and unique and all that keen stuff, but the ruling class is people, too (revolting thought, I understand, but also true). And the ruling class is not stupid. It is certainly not stupid about this kind of thing. So our betters will do everything in their power to harness and redirect every advance to their own purposes. Again, consult history. This is always the pattern.
I expect that, as there are more cyberattacks, there will be growing calls for increased State regulation. One possibility is that no one will be permitted to access the internet until they are provided with a personal ID number. Everything you do on the internet will be tied to that ID number. For most people, that will be the end of internet anonymity -- although, following the historical pattern, as more obstacles are erected, more ways to evade them will also be created. Just as people get fake IDs now, people will get fake internet IDs -- but it will be harder to do, and most people will simply succumb to State control.

If you consider the matter, I think you might agree with me that the internet is one of the most diabolically clever means for population control ever devised. Why, it's almost like someone did it with that very purpose in mind ...

Is there a solution? Yes, and one possible solution was suggested in my earlier post. I quoted one commenter to a story I discussed as follows:
Just open your wireless port, call it parasite.net, and then set yourself up as an 'ISP' with an FTP, web server, torrent tracker, etc. If you can convince enough people in your area to create access points and mirrors of the content we'll eventually cut out the telecoms and have a truly distributed data and communications network.
You can call it "going local." See the earlier post for more.

I'm sure some people are already setting up their own networks, in this or similar ways. And that's just one possibility. As I suggested in the conclusion of the previous post, the pattern remains the same. The ruling class consolidates and expands its power; those who would escape, or at least minimize, the depredations of the ruling class devise means of eluding their grasp; the ruling class then does its best to take over the newly devised means of escape from their rule and integrate them into its own powers, which are thereby expanded once more; still new means of escape are devised, and so on. I am profoundly skeptical of any claim that X changes everything. Nothing changes everything, except mass extinction or a means of making humans immortal. But in the last case, we wouldn't be talking about "humans" any longer, not using the current definition, so that would be a new ball game. Short of that...

So. Some ruminations for a Thursday. On we go...

P.S. I encourage readers to contact me with their thoughts about the future of the internet. I especially welcome comments from those with technical expertise in this area, which I sorely (and perhaps obviously) lack. I'll be happy to publish interesting and informative replies. You can write me at: arthur4801 at yahoo dot com. And please indicate if you give me permission to publish your comments (I never publish emails without permission, unless I do so anonymously, but that happens very rarely).

February 04, 2015

Embalmed Dissent, or the Fault in Ourselves

Almost exactly three years ago, I read an article by Michelle Alexander that I regarded as especially significant and revealing, and I have intended to discuss it ever since. As you may know, Alexander wrote the very valuable, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. More recently, in the concluding part of "God Damn You, America, and Your White, Privileged Grief", I excerpted a similarly valuable article by Alexander.

In the article that lodged itself in my memory -- which was published by The New York Times, a salient point to which I shall return -- Alexander recounts some of the basic, inescapable facts of the United States' system of profound injustice. For example: "More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty."

The overwhelming majority of people give up their rights -- "to be informed of charges against them, to an impartial, fair and speedy jury trial, to cross-examine witnesses and to the assistance of counsel" -- because, as Alexander, summarizes the point, "the system is rigged."

In their ignorant devotion to the mythical, utterly false view of America as "a shining city on a hill," most Americans prefer to believe that torture was an aberration that the U.S. government practiced for only a short period of time. And America will, of course, never do it again, as we have been assured by Obama and every other political leader. They're all lying, of course. America was founded on torture: how could it be otherwise for a nation which arose out of a centuries-long genocide of Native Americans and the centuries-long institution of slavery? As I have expressed the point: torture is as American as Mom and apple pie. (See the second part of this article, subtitled "Torture and the American Project," for much more on this.)

The genocide of Native Americans and the abomination of slavery mean that torture is woven into the fabric of America and its system of government. In recent decades, America's version of late capitalism has ossified into a kill-or-be-killed system, where the killers are the State, and its multitude of enforcement mechanisms, in alliance with the richest and most powerful individuals. All the rest of us -- the 99% which obviously far outnumbers the oligarchs and their friends, but remains almost entirely powerless -- are their victims. Today, this system metastasizes at nightmarish speed, and the cruelties inflicted on those without privilege or power multiply by the hour.

America's injustice system is a large-scale example of a (comparatively) refined form of torture. We tend to think of torture as physical acts causing horrifying pain and suffering. We recognize the reality of psychological torture, but even there -- as with sleep deprivation or subjecting a prisoner to intolerably loud music (or other sounds) for lengthy periods of time -- the psychological torture is inextricably linked to physical acts. The ruling class encourages us in our understanding of torture as a narrowly circumscribed phenomenon: this makes it far easier for them to assure us that torture is "un-American," and that "we'll never do it again."

It's harder to offer such assurances, and it's impossible to believe them, when we grasp that torture is the skeleton upon which increasing aspects of American life are constructed. In her article, Alexander notes, as among the reasons explaining why more than 90 percent of criminal defendants plead guilty rather than going to trial, that the Supreme Court has held that "threatening someone with life imprisonment for a minor crime in an effort to induce him to forfeit a jury trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial." The Court has also held that lifetime imprisonment for a first-time drug offense does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

In this manner, terrorizing tens of thousands of individuals (and probably more than that) is made a regular element of State practice. Whatever the resulting monstrosity is, it is certainly not any kind of a justice system. Alexander then relates the following story:
Take the case of Erma Faye Stewart, a single African-American mother of two who was arrested at age 30 in a drug sweep in Hearne, Tex., in 2000. In jail, with no one to care for her two young children, she began to panic. Though she maintained her innocence, her court-appointed lawyer told her to plead guilty, since the prosecutor offered probation. Ms. Stewart spent a month in jail, and then relented to a plea. She was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Then her real punishment began: upon her release, Ms. Stewart was saddled with a felony record; she was destitute, barred from food stamps and evicted from public housing. Once they were homeless, Ms. Stewart’s children were taken away and placed in foster care. In the end, she lost everything even though she took the deal.
I have described torture as follows:
Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever.
Apply that description to Erma Faye Stewart. The American injustice system tortured her and destroyed her life -- even though she did precisely what that system forced her to do. In addition to the injustice system, the welfare system, including the availability of public housing (and most likely additional subsystems as well), all worked together to make her life one of unbearable, endless agony.

America "will never torture again"? America tortures countless numbers of people in these ways and others every single day. Torture is what America does. Torture is America's major domestic product, and its primary export to the rest of the world through a neverending series of barbaric war crimes.

All of this is deeply horrifying. When I read Alexander's article, I was already familiar with these aspects of America's injustice system, and I'd come across many stories like Ms. Stewart's before. None of that was the reason I've remembered Alexander's article for three years.

I remembered the article because Alexander proposed a means of crashing this system, of causing it to collapse into itself utterly and completely. In fact, that proposal was her major impetus for writing the article. The suggestion was not hers initially, but an idea offered by a woman Alexander knows, Susan Burton. This is what Burton said:
“What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?"
Here is Alexander's response to Burton's question, as offered in the NYT article:
The answer is yes. The system of mass incarceration depends almost entirely on the cooperation of those it seeks to control. If everyone charged with crimes suddenly exercised his constitutional rights, there would not be enough judges, lawyers or prison cells to deal with the ensuing tsunami of litigation. Not everyone would have to join for the revolt to have an impact; as the legal scholar Angela J. Davis noted, “if the number of people exercising their trial rights suddenly doubled or tripled in some jurisdictions, it would create chaos.”
It is the elegance and simplicity of the idea that made it so memorable to me. All our politicians and public figures preen and strut, proclaiming the superior virtues of the American system of "justice." Burton's proposal takes these goddamned bullshitters at their word: Fine. You say we have the best justice system in the world. So we'll utilize all the rights that are the bedrock of that system, at least in theory. But we'll actually exercise those rights. Let's see how well your system works then.

And the lie will be revealed before the world. The system will collapse. I repeat one of the sentences I highlighted in the above excerpt: "The system of mass incarceration depends almost entirely on the cooperation of those it seeks to control." Burton's proposal is a marvelous example of non-cooperation: take away the element of cooperation that is essential to the system's operations -- just as all our public figures constantly tell us we have the right to do -- and it will cease to function.

But. Ah, you're smart. You knew there was a "but." Alexander writes:
“As a mother myself, I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t plead guilty to if a prosecutor told me that accepting a plea was the only way to get home to my children,” I said. “I truly can’t imagine risking life imprisonment, so how can I urge others to take that risk — even if it would send shock waves through a fundamentally immoral and unjust system?”
Burton replied: “I’m not saying we should do it. I’m saying we ought to know that it’s an option." Burton goes on to say that it "would be nice if reasoned argument would do," but we know that it won't be sufficient. Burton mentions the example of slavery as a great evil that was only eradicated because people were willing to risk their lives.

Alexander's article concludes with this observation from Burton: "So maybe, just maybe, if we truly want to end this system, some of us will have to risk our lives.”

I also remember my reaction when I read Alexander's article for the first time, in March 2012. I was furious. I felt as if I'd been slapped in the face. Here was a marvelous idea that could very well stop a monstrous system of injustice in its tracks -- and after the proposal was explained, I was told: "But ... never mind."

I'm oversimplying my reaction, which contained many other elements. As just one example, although a very important one: I am well aware of the terrible risks attendant on challenging the system in the manner Burton proposes. It's awful to ask others to take risks of that kind. But we also know -- and Alexander and Burton know -- that anything short of risk of that kind, and even decades' worth of all that lovely "reasoned argument," is going to accomplish only minimal changes at the margins, if even that. Nothing short of mass non-cooperation has a chance in hell.

Three years ago, when I sorted through my thoughts after reading Alexander's piece, I realized that I was more depressed with respect to these issues than I had been before I read it. That is the effect of articles of this kind: a wonderful idea is held out as a tantalizing possibility -- and before you even have time to digest it fully, the proponent adds, as Burton does: "I'm not saying we should do it. I'm saying we ought to know that it's an option."

You can almost hear her subdued tone of wistful, yearning resignation. To me, it's the sound of defeat: "Yes, we could do this, if enough people were willing to take huge risks. But how can we expect people to take risks of that kind? Is it right to even ask them to do it?" And nothing changes, except to get worse.

Certainly, nothing has changed in the three years since that article appeared, except that the system has become even more solidly entrenched. And remember where the article was published: in The New York Times, the leading newspaper presenting the ruling class's point of view, and which props up and further strengthens the ruling class's stranglehold on power in every way it can. For the ruling class, articles like Alexander's are a godsend. I'm sure I was not alone in my reaction. I'm certain most people who desperately hope for fundamental change were angry and depressed by it in largely the same way I was. The article holds out the promise of change -- but then tells you it's too difficult, it carries too much risk, it might be possible, but it's not something we'd actually want to do.

The result, whether it is intended or not, is a deepening resignation to the way things are. I do not look to Wikipedia for information when accuracy about specific matters is a major concern, but the opening of its article on embalming captures an important aspect of what concerns me:
Embalming is the art and science of preserving human remains by treating them (in its modern form with chemicals) to forestall decomposition. The intention is to keep them suitable for public display at a funeral, for religious reasons, or for medical and scientific purposes such as their use as anatomical specimens.[1] The three goals of embalming are sanitization, presentation and preservation (or restoration).
In the past, I have sometimes referred to articles like Alexander's as examples of what I termed "institutional dissent." I intended the phrase to refer to (among other things) dissent which, while supposedly honorably registering protest, perhaps even passionate protest, offers no serious threat to the State or the ruling class in any manner whatsoever.

But as I was reflecting on these issues again recently, I decided that "embalmed dissent" captures the dynamic of this kind of dissent with more precision. Embalming preserves human remains, often (when cosmetics are also used, as for an open casket) "to keep them suitable for public display." Embalmed dissent is protest with the life safely drained away. But when life is drained away, any danger, any spontaneity, any mass arousal -- and any genuine possibility for significant change -- are also eliminated.

I chose the Alexander article as a starting point for this discussion because it offers this dynamic is an especially dramatic form. But we see embalmed dissent in endless numbers of articles by self-identified dissenting writers: All too often, the effect of such writing is very similar to my reaction to the Alexander article. As we read along, our understanding of the horrors with which we contend may be deepened. Our revulsion at the operations of the current system will cause us to wish even more intensely that change could occur. and we momentarily will want to grasp at any possibility for bringing about such change.

But if the possibility of bringing about change is even mentioned (and it often isn't), it will be only to state that such fundamental change is too dangerous, that it would require action by more people than we could possibly enlist in our cause, that it's just too hard. So resignation claims more of our souls, and our lives grow bleaker.

This leaves us with a number of questions, including the one suggested by the second part of my title for this article: Is the fault in ourselves? Is it fair to call it a fault? And if we choose to abstain from the public ritual of embalmed dissent, what do we do?

I will take up these questions and some others in the next article on this subject.