Friday, January 28, 2011

Danny Sullivan imagines what the Demand Media version of the NYT would look like. (Above: a possible future?)

North Africa has been convulsing for weeks. First, Tunis and now Cairo and Alexandria. For both a familiar script: massive street demonstrations by the young and jobless and desperate and angry, met up against by overwhelming state violence, tear gas, curfews. (Above: an Egyptian demonstrator kisses a riot policeman, now a widely-circulated photo.) The public service that Al Jazeera is providing really is incredible, as reflected in my feed from repostings by @lisang (Lisa Goldman) and @jeremyscahill (Jeremy Scahill). And of course @dailydish (the ever-present Andrew Sullivan).

To digest, the authorities in Cairo, who have been receiving American diplomatic and financial largess since the late 1970s, have now cut off internet access and closed the airport. Hosni Mubarak is trying to put out a fire that does not appear to be quenchable. Meanwhile in Israel, which has been used as another vital US client, there was a peaceful assembly of 20,000 citizens against its government for its perilous decisions but nothing at all like the sturm und drang surrounding it, particularly at its northern border where Hezbollah now holds the reins of power in Beirut.

No one has a crystal ball with which to divine how all of this turns out across the region, the implications for US policy, etc. But it is needless to say how momentous it all is, and that before we can figure out all of the details many things will be totally changed. If that is too general a statement it is of course intended to be, since events are moving too quickly.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The grisly incident this weekend in Tucson, Arizona has sparked a row about extremism in political discourse, particularly violent rhetoric. The following is clipped from an article written by me for The Wooster Voice in April 2009:

Laird Wilcox is a specialist in political extremism, drawing up some time ago a list of specific traits that extremists use. He identifies 21 of them in total; its versatility is very broad. I’d like to go through them point by point — which should help us in our everyday filtering of valuable information from the bullshit.

1. Character assassination. Extremists care not at all for the merits of the argument before them, and instead will savage the personality or “associations” of the one making the argument. This serves to throw red herrings in our path.

2. Name-calling and labeling. In a recent episode of “The O’Reilly Factor,” radio/TV personality Bill O’Reilly declared that once someone resorts to calling people names, they’ve “lost the argument.” QED.

3. Irresponsible sweeping generalizations. My favorite. Wilcox writes that extremists “tend to make sweeping claims or judgments on little or no evidence” — facts are for the weak, waffling types.

4. Inadequate proof for assertions. This is similar to generalization, but the difference is that, to extremists, standards of evidence are so weak that they collapse upon rational inspection.

For the sake of space, here are the rest: “advocacy of double standards”; “tendency to view their opponents and critics as essentially evil”; “Manichaean worldview”; “advocacy of some degree of censorship or repression of their opponents and/or critics”; a tendency to “identify themselves in terms of who their enemies are”; “argument by intimidation”; “use of slogans, buzzwords and thought-stopping cliches”; “assumption of moral superiority over others”; “doomsday thinking”; “belief that it’s okay to do bad things in the service of a ‘good’ cause”; “emphasis on emotional responses and … less importance attached to reasoning and logical analysis”; “hypersensitivity and vigilance”; “use of supernatural rationale for beliefs and actions”; “problems tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty”; “inclination toward ‘groupthink’”; “tendency to personalize hostility” and a belief that “the system is no good unless they win.”

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The would-be assassin of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a 22-year-old creep with a psychotic persona, did not appear fully-formed out of a vacuum. It appears overly-simplified, as well as convenient, to place blame for yesterday’s incident on the likes of Palin and Beck, but by now it is more than obvious that dangerous, apocalyptic rhetoric has serious consequences (cf the Pima county sheriff).

Above: from a time not too far from our own, courtesy the John Birch Society.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Protect the Bay

An estimated two million fish mysteriously died in the Chesapeake because of “cold weather,” according to anonymous officials informing the Baltimore Sun. This “joins a growing list of reports from around the globe of mysterious fish and bird deaths.”

The apocalyptic-minded may suspect something more sinister than a deep chill, though as of yet no evidence of some strange divine plan has emerged.

Monday, January 03, 2011

There appears to be little to add to the WikiLeaks saga, which already feels like a story from yesteryear. Yet several puzzle pieces lay on the table, unconnected to the bigger picture that has already been put forth: a humiliated State Department, enraged Pentagon, irritated Swedish prosecutors, and a tagged and house-bound cyberpunk whose organization has become an unstoppable force in our information age.

In my investigation of how a gallivanting, galvanizing hacker from Melbourne, who first made headlines in the Australian press in 1995 for breaking into a telecom’s mainframe, became public enemy no. 1 over the course of several months in the past year (from April onward), the unconnected pieces became more visible.

As follows: how did a relatively low-level military operative, Lt. Bradley Manning, get access to hundreds of thousands of confidential cables? And if the accusations are borne out, what were his motives? As for Mr. Assange, the “high-tech terrorist” in Vice President Biden’s now memorable turn of phrase, does he really believe that his legal troubles in Sweden, which led to an Interpol warrant for his arrest, were concoted in Langley by spooks out to get him?

The “state’s secrets” continue to be released in periodic batches to the press, of which the New York Times is demonstrating considerable discretion. One multi-gigabyte file alleged to be a smoking gun against Bank of America is on the horizon, reams of files said to echo the Enron paper trail that can be easily torrented. The list of targets — the military, our diplomatic apparatus, and now a major financial player — raises another question which, though it may play into the propaganda campaign against WikiLeaks, is worth asking: does Assange intend to bring down the United States?

That question implies that his organization, which appears rather anarchic, even has such a capability, given the fact nothing earth-shattering has come of the cables themselves, aside from understandably mortified embassies. But the “high-tech terrorist” meme may retain much power, the facts aside, many of which remain unclear. It is thus imperative to discover them: writing in a piece for CBS, tech writer Joshua Norman noted, as Scott Horton did in August, that US officials saw the whistle-blowing group, which includes Chinese dissidents in its roster, as a “national security threat” in 2008.

Among similar lines but within a broader frame, Francis Shor observed yesterday, “Given the battered economic and military standing of the United States over the past several years, the hysterical reaction of the American political class over the recent release of State Department cables by WikiLeaks is not surprising.”