Jonathan Kay's excellent book "Among the Truthers," which provides a tour through American conspiracy minded communities and persuasions. I have spent a great deal of time focusing on conspiracy theories and their negative impact on the American psyche, and Kay's work puts some of those arguments together far better than I have in the past. I recommend buying a copy.
Vice Magazine recently put together a short documentary on the Tea Party/Patriot Movement that is also discussed extensively in "Among the Truthers."
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Monday, June 10, 2013
I have been following the “scandals” regarding the IRS and the NSA that have dominated the media’s orbit over the last few weeks trying to see how all of this would play out. I find it is never wise to jump to a conclusion about a developing set of stories as the facts available to a layman revise swiftly. I initially thought there was more to the IRS scandal than apologists for the Obama Whitehouse wanted to admit, but have come to see that this is political hyperbole of the highest order. Worse yet, it has drifted into political territory I have little patience for: the desire for victimhood.
In many respects, this blog was started 7 years ago to confront some of the nonsensical hand-wringing and “woe is me” mentality that I had come to recognize on the left. As I left my radical circle of comrades and networks, I began to see just how removed from reality these activists were. I got tired of hearing how they were the victims of an undemocratic police force and surveillance network. The biggest badge of honor that could be bestowed on a young activist was to come in contact with the state’s bureaucracy or law enforcement, and claim to have been “abused” by said agencies, regardless of the punishment actually carried out. (Case in point, I remember attending a protest on the UCSC campus, and witnessing a police officer asking one of the protesters to not jump out in front of cars as they drove up towards the campus. Within an hour, this outwardly “white” student was at the microphone, claiming to have been a victim of racial oppression at the hands of the police. I could only roll my eyes in disbelief.)
I did not spend much time with those on “the Right” prior to leaving the university, and I did not realize that this sense of victimhood was common outside of leftwing circles as well. Smarter people than I have said that the IRS had overstepped its bounds when investigating conservative organizations looking for tax exempt status. Based on their knowledgeable assessment, I will have to assume this is true.
But the reaction by conservative media pundits and leaders of some of the groups investigated is truly baffling. Remember, these groups were looking to be free from taxes as an organization under a classification known as 501(c)-4. This wasn’t about the government or the Obama administration putting leaders of groups they disliked in jail. They were not shutting down their newspapers or radio stations. They were investigating whether these groups really were entirely educational non-profits that would not be involved in politics. If they were involved in getting candidates elected or measures put on the ballot in any way, they were still free to do so. They simply had to pay taxes like other campaign related organizations.
So when I see teary-eyed nonsense like the congressional hearing last week, I feel little but scorn for those groups “investigated” by the IRS.
Lots of blubbering about how America has lost its way, and done something inherently un-American by asking about the group’s political aims and operations. But this line really got me going:
“This is a willful act of intimidation to discourage a point of view. What the government did to our little group was un-American…..I want to protect and preserve the America I grew up in…and I am terrified that it is slipping away.”I was struck by how silly this statement was, and couldn’t help but think of one of my least-favorite internet memes: check your privilege. Hadley Freeman from the Guardian summed up this internet trope well.
"To be fair to them, its meaning is not always obvious, because all too often the well-intentioned phrase is abused. But roughly speaking, it is a way of telling a person who is making a political point that they should remember they are speaking from a privileged position, because they are, for example, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied or wealthy. It is, in other words, a sassy exhortation to acknowledge identity politics and intersectionality (the school of thought which says, for example, that different minorities experience oppression differently).”
Often used by the same activists I have heaped criticism on in the past, there is a significant grain of truth to the statement. Yes, it is often used by activist types to shut down any opinion they don’t like based on the messenger behind it, and in turn provide authority to anyone of the “right” background. Harebrained and thick as it is often employed, recognizing that one’s own problems and perspective may be greatly influenced by one’s background and status is a necessary reminder in a country that often allows the same circle of policy wonks and talking heads to use up all the oxygen in our public debates. Becky Gerritson’s should have considered this before her congressional testimony that alluded to some coming totalitarian state under Obama.
Gerritson may not be aware that having the IRS ask her group to pay taxes is in fact not the greatest attack against American civil liberties. It wouldn’t even make the top ten. Here are just a few specifics Gerritson should spend time politicizing in her Tea Party group.
- One convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences than whites for the exact same crime (as much as 10% more on average).
- Most drug arrests occur primarily in communities of color where people of color are more likely to receive higher offenses. According to the Human Rights Watch, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have higher rate of arrests. African Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.
- Black men are much more likely to be pulled over and searched by police than their white counterparts.
In Gerritson’s eyes, having her group asked questions related to their attempt at not paying a single cent in taxes is an attack against the very framework of America. All the while, African Americans are subjected to real and documented discrimination in our legal system in a way that would make even less ardent Tea Party groups consider armed insurrection. So while I understand you feel it was unfair to have your group investigated by the IRS, stop with the exaggerations and victimhood. You are only making a fool of yourself.
Update: This piece in the Atlantic should also put a wrench in the Right's narative on this issue.
"Close to a third of the advocacy groups named by the Internal Revenue Service as recipients of special scrutiny during tax-exempt application reviews were liberal or neutral in political outlook, a leading nonpartisan tax newsletter reported after conducting an independent analysis of data released by the agency."
I’ll be the first to say that I have been underwhelmed by the recent “scandals” to rock the Obama administration. A great deal of the NSA data collection seemed rather rational and commonplace from an investigative angle, and the condemnation from Congressmen (who had signed the Patriot Act into law countless times) seemed like nothing more than taking the moral high ground in a hole full or dung.
Read the whole thing.
Thankfully, David Simon (best known for creating “The Wire”), explains just how mundane the data collecting undertaken by the NSA is. Having spent years as a police reporter, he recognizes that this is nothing new and has been done for decades now in one form or another. He writes:
“Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff.
Allow for a comparable example, dating to the early 1980s in a place called Baltimore, Maryland.
There, city detectives once began to suspect that major traffickers were using a combination of public pay phones and digital pagers to communicate their business. And they took their suspicions to a judge and obtained court orders — not to monitor any particular suspect, but to instead cull the dialed numbers from the thousands and thousands of calls made to and from certain city pay phones.
Think about it. There is certainly a public expectation of privacy when you pick up a pay phone on the streets of Baltimore, is there not? And certainly, the detectives knew that many, many Baltimoreans were using those pay phones for legitimate telephonic communication. Yet, a city judge had no problem allowing them to place dialed-number recorders on as many pay phones as they felt the need to monitor, knowing that every single number dialed to or from those phones would be captured. So authorized, detectives gleaned the numbers of digital pagers and they began monitoring the incoming digitized numbers on those pagers — even though they had yet to learn to whom those pagers belonged. The judges were okay with that, too, and signed another order allowing the suspect pagers to be “cloned” by detectives, even though in some cases the suspect in possession of the pager was not yet positively identified.
All of that — even in the less fevered, pre-Patriot Act days of yore — was entirely legal. Why?
Because they aren’t listening to the calls.”
Read the whole thing.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
While a majority of my adventures in the Mediterranean last summer revolved around Israel, I was fortunate enough to travel to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. While in Egypt, I inadvertently found myself thrown into an international incident that resulted in a military escort out of the Sinai.
I knew that Egypt had its share of problems when I booked my ticket to Cairo, but seeing the revolution that overthrew Mubarak was all the encouragement needed to make the visit.
The first thing I realized about Egypt is that driving is a very different game than it is in California. I was holding on for dear life as my cab slipped in and out of traffic and in breakneck speed. Clearly sensing my discomfort with the pace, my cabbie tried to ease my apprehension by explaining that “revolution or not, traffic in Egypt is still the same.” The man was no amateur at this profession, and he may have missed his true calling as a NASCAR aficionado.
My hotel was just a few blocks from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests that eventually overthrew one of North Africa’s longest standing dictators. Revolutionary graffiti was everywhere, some of the Islamist variety, but a great deal from the anarchist, liberal, and socialist camps. As it was Ramadan during my visit, the square was generally disserted other than a few occupiers who have tried to keep the revolution’s fire burning. A young man I spoke to in a café nearby claimed that once Ramadan was over, there would be “a new revolution.” Perhaps it was wishful thinking on his part, but the sense of uncertainty that permeates Egyptian society was potent. Everyone I spoke to tried to put a good face on the situation facing their country, but they rarely sugarcoated the circumstances they found themselves. My guide to the pyramids at Giza said that I had come to Egypt too late. “It is over now,” he said. He wasn’t the only person to share that sentiment. Now, I don’t speak Arabic, and most of folks I spoke with were connected in one way or another to the tourist industry, so it may simply be that this segment of Egyptian society has been hit hard by the revolution and is thus not feeling positive about the country’s future. However, it seemed like the revolutionary promises were slowly being abandoned as the Muslim Brotherhood took control of the nation’s politics and society.
Egypt has seen its share of revolution prior to its current upheaval. One of the destinations that was high on my itinerary was Café Riche. Founded in 1908, the café has played a role in nearly every political change that has occurred since then. The Economist writes:
"Black-and-white pictures in wooden frames commemorate a past that has often revolved around the café's guests. On December 15th 1919 a medical student, Iryan Yusuf Iryan, seated himself near the door and awaited the prime minister, a regular. When he arrived, so Iryan recalled later, “I exited the café and threw the first bomb at the car.”
The prime minister survived, yet Egypt slid into a nationalist revolt against de facto British rule. Battles raged outside the café's doors and revolutionaries sought refuge among coffee-quaffing bohemians. The Riche's basement became their lair. It had several little-known exits that connected to tunnels, built a century earlier when the surrounding land housed a palace, some said to lead all the way to Tahrir Square.
Today one can still descend to the vaulted cellar and inspect two wooden panels—one holding glasses behind a well-stocked bar—that may be unlocked with a small key and pivoted from floor to ceiling to permit a discreet exit. Police raids on the Riche have always been remarkably unsuccessful, though frequent in the 1920s. The revolutionaries operated a printing press on the premises, spewing out pamphlets that excoriated British occupiers and their puppets. The press is still there.”
The whole piece is worth a read to see just how this small restaurant remained a force in Egyptian society for so many years. My romantic feelings for the place are propped up by the fact that it was the only place in the country I was able to buy a drink as well.
In an attempt to see more of the country on my way back to Israel, I opted for a rare journey through the Egyptian Sinai to one of the few open Israeli border crossings at the town of Taba, and perhaps a dip into the Red Sea. I bordered an overnight bus, and expected a painless journey through the dessert.
I knew something was up when our bus encountered a roadblock not far from Cairo. Three heavily armed men in plain clothes stopped us and bordered the bus. Initially, I feared for the worse and assumed this was a kidnapping in progress. The armed men asked all the men off the bus to be searched, and then requested my passport. Thankfully, I learned that they were part of the Egyptian military, and that for the rest of our journey, we would need to travel with them through the desert for an undisclosed reason. Our bus would be flanked by two armed vehicles equipped with machine guns. I didn’t know much about travel in Egypt, but I knew that this was not customary. The Egyptian towns near Taba made up the Red Sea Rivera, and were popular tourist destinations. Few resorts exist in places that require an armed procession to arrive.
The journey was slow going. Every 30 minutes or so, we stopped at another checkpoint and had to wait until we were given clearance to move forward. The Egyptian passengers on the bus were clearly agitated by this, and one mentioned to me that the reason for the extra precaution on the part of the military was due to my presence as a foreigner. What was to be a 5-6 hour trip turned into one lasting more than 10, much to the frustration of those traveling aboard the our caravan.
(Somewhere in the Egyptian Sinai)When I finally arrived in Taba, I checked into my hotel, only to realize I was the only guest they had. Mind you, this was the middle of the summer when the town would customarily be full of vacationers enjoying the beach. While at dinner with the hotel owner’s family, they informed me of the reason for the Egyptian military’s involvement in my journey. The very night I was traveling through the Sinai, a group of Bedouin terrorists had attacked an Egyptian border crossing, killing 16 soldiers. These events caused a number of problems for the newly elected Mohamed Morsi, with its opponents arguing that his government was too close to the radical Islamist groups active in the nation. At this time, Morsi was trying to appoint allies to key positions in the Egyptian military, the last bastion for dedicated Mubarak supporters. Now that 16 of its men had died at the hand of radicals, Morsi needed to conscientiously position himself as a leader for the nation against those who wanted to destroy it.
The next morning, I walked into Israel. Israel has its share of security concerns, but it felt serene when compared to the ghostly emptiness of Taba and the troubles in Cairo and the desert of the Sinai. Every Egyptian I spoke with was kind and warm, and freely expressed their desires and expectations for their country. Yet, revolutions are untried times. The potential for chaos and violence hung like a curtain across every space I traveled. I hope, for the sake of our comrades in Egypt that have risked it all for a freer nation and a better future.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Some things never change. Unfortunately for the cult leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, your face does. The picture to the left is the new promotional head-shot of Avakian. Much like an Arab dictator, the aging process only goes to show just how long you have been at the helm of your sinking ship. Someone in the party must have realized that a Stalin-like portrait would better serve the organization has it stumbles forward. I do feel they could have done much better with their representation of Avakian as an all knowing commie guru.
I recommend this picture as their future model.
Come on guys! How can you not build a cult of personality out of that?
I recommend this picture as their future model.
Come on guys! How can you not build a cult of personality out of that?
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
I am a big fan of Anthony Bourdain. His books on the restaurant industry are excellent reads, and I was saddened to see his show on the Travel Channel go off the air last year. Thankfully, he is back with a new program on CNN, and you can watch the first episode about Burma right here. Well worth the 60 minutes.