Immigration and National Security

Two implications of Bush’s proposal to beef up border security with National Guard troops:

The first is practical: it’s another instance of the militarization of civil society, which I had criticized in an earlier post.

The second is symbolic: by policing the border with troops trained for combat, Bush masterfully conflates two entirely distinct issues: immigration and national security. Illegal immigration is not a national security threat. (How many of the 9/11 terrorists were here illegally? None.) Framing immigration as a security issue obscures what it really is: a labor issue.

And what would happen if conservatives began treating immigration as the labor issue that it really is? They’d have to confront one of the contradictions of capitalism in the U.S.: we believe in “free trade,” in which corporations and products are free to move across borders, but not in “free labor,” in which the workers that produce those products for those corporations would be free to move across borders.

Total Information Awareness, Reprise

A few more thoughts on the massive NSA database of every domestic phone call, ever, in the United States…

The database actualizes what was once only theory: DARPA’s defunct Total Information Awareness project, which sought to “counter asymmetric threats [i.e. terrorism] by achieving total information awareness.”

Awareness of everything, godlike omniscience.

Is this the only way neo-cons can imagine protecting Americans from terrorist attacks?

Forget Total Information Awareness, this is Total Imagination Failure.

Another disturbing aspect of the NSA’s database is that General Michael Hayden, now Bush’s nominee for the head of the CIA, was in charge of it. Hayden is not a retired general. He is still on active status in the U.S. Air Force. So what we had here with the NSA (and what we might have with the CIA) is a military officer running a civilian organization. It is yet another chilling example of the militarization of domestic, civilian life.

There’s a reason the founders of the Constitution made a civilian (the President) the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Men with guns need to be kept in check. Because men with guns will eventually use those guns (and tanks and planes and phone records). Ironically, nobody recognizes this more than the neo-cons, who see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as de facto evidence that Iran will eventually deploy those nuclear weapons.

Again, Total Imagination Failure.

Can You Hear Me Now: The NSA, Me, and Papa John’s

The big surprise in today’s USA Today story about the NSA building a staggering database of every single domestic phone call in the United States is not that such a database exists, but that the NSA waited until after 9/11 to begin building it.

I think we had always assumed that the government was already gathering this information, logging every phone call, timestamping every caller and every recipient, and crossreferencing all those records. Think of it: every pizza delivery order in the U.S. stored for posterity’s sake. Oh, the marketing possibilities!

“A database of every phone call ever made”: this is how one insider describes it.

Yet, there are gaps in the record: Qwest is the only big carrier to refuse to cooperate with the NSA (unlike Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T). Good for them. Sell your Qwest stock soon, though. (Or, maybe hoard it, and wait for that big buyout from the resurging Ma Bell…)

The sky is falling, but my phones are tapped, so I’m okay and you are too

I caught snippets of the Diane Rehm Show today, and there was a panel of experts discussing the domestic war on terror. There’s the predictable apologist for the Bush administration, spouting the standard refrain that because there’s been no terror attack on the U.S. since 9/11, all that illegal wiretapping and surveillance and profiling and warmongering has paid off. Okay, fine, that’s no surprise, what he’s saying. Typical specious reasoning, Homer Simpson style.

But what got me was one of the callers. First, he said that Robert Heinlein is one of his favorite authors. Red flags go off, right there alone. Then the guy, a marine who, to his credit, is on his way to Afghanistan, says that Heinlein has a quote, something like, You can have peace and you can have freedom, but you can’t have peace and freedom.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s Starship Troopers talking, Heinlein’s most (and there are many contenders) fascistic novel, where his militaristic, kill the motherfragging aliens, and so what if a few humans die, because they were weak and deserved to die urges come to full blossom.

And this guy is citing it as a textbook for American liberty?

I bow before the almighty forces of juvenile literature!

Terrorism Means Never Having to Say Your Sorry

I’ve been on the blogging equivalent of radio silence for several weeks now, waiting for my handlers to issue the code for me to go on active status. Last weekend was it: Vice President Dick Cheney shooting a 78 year-old man in the face with a shotgun. That was my signal. (Or, close enough: it was The quail flies at dusk, which is basically the same thing.)

Now, I know this important political issue of vital national security has been covered professionally and responsibly by the news media in a very measured way. I have nothing new to add. Except for an email exchange between my friend (and occasional SampleReality commentator) Stephen and myself:


I wonder if Dick Cheney is Jack Bauer [of 24] in disguise?


But has Jack Bauer ever shot someone by accident, hmm?

More to the point: has Jack Bauer ever wasted ammunition on someone he wasn’t planning to a) kill or b) torture?

Stephen is absolutely correct. And add to this that Jack Bauer has never had to apologize for killing or torturing (except for that unfortunate electroshock thing with his lover’s estranged husband in Season 4–but that was, like, totally a misunderstanding).

So Jack Bauer never has to say he’s sorry. But apologize is something Dick Cheney had to do.

Or sort of.

This is the closest Cheney comes to saying “I’m sorry. I did it.”:

“Ultimately, I’m the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry.”

Hello, Mother Goose! This is the cat that caught the rat that ate the malt that lived in the house that Jack built.

Lyrical beauty aside, this is the linguistic equivalent of saying, I only pulled the trigger. The gun did the rest. Or really, if you get down to it, it was the round, not even the gun that did it. (So it remains true: guns don’t kill people.)

And what’s with “I’m the guy who”–instead of simply “I pulled the trigger”? As my students pointed out today, that’s like saying, I just happened to be there. It could’ve been any guy. And it just happened to be me. Wrong place, wrong time kinda thing.

MTO Database from Amazon

I’ll take a break from my travel blogging to mention Applefritter’s astonishing article Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists.

Individuals’ public Amazon “wishlists” are, collectively, essentially a gigantic aggregate of data, waiting to be mined, and in this post, Tom Owad details how he used the wishlists to track the reading preferences of over a quarter of a million readers. Owad’s point is that the U.S. government can just as easily (but probably not as cheaply!) do the same thing, in order to track down Americans reading subversive material.

Now if only the terrorists would create wishlists at Amazon!

I’m sorry. 9/11? I’m responsible. It was me, I did it.

In his press conference this morning, President Bush was asked about the New York Times‘ recent revelation that the NSA was operating a covert surveillance program that monitored hundreds of Americans’ phone calls and emails without any court supervision or warrants.

Bush responded:

My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.

The fact that we’re discussing an illegal wiretap program that defies the Fourth Amendment is, right now, at this very minute, helping Osama bin Laden? The fact that I just wrote the previous sentence means that I’m helping the so-called mastermind of 9/11?

You have to admire the verve of President Bush, suggesting that the ones who question our government here are responsible for the ones who blow things up here and abroad.

Should I apologize now, finally? Should I send a Hallmark card? Sorry about those planes and IEDs, I didn’t mean it. Love will find a way, Peace on Earth and Happy Holidays?

But wait, I thought the “enemy” was Saddam Hussein. And he’s already caught and in jail. So we’re safe now, right? Or am I still at fault?

I’m so confused.

Remembering Shock and Awe et al.

I was going through a desk drawer yesterday and I found a wrinkled piece of scrap paper, which goes back to the spring of 2003. It was the early days of the Iraq War, and I had jotted down some phrases which I was hearing over and over again on the radio and tv. Looking at the list now, I think, what an innocent, nostalgic time it was.

The list seems almost quaint now. Who can forget the wonderful poetry of “shock and awe”? — Well, apparently almost everyone. It seems like a hollowed out slogan from some bygone era, like “I like Ike” or “Remember the Maine.”

    secure undisclosed location
    Coalition of the willing
    shock and awe
    target of opportunity
    credible threat
    protective custody
    increased chatter

Oh, those were the days.

Some of the best things in life are classified

What I want to write is so confidential, so classified, I can’t even write it. It has something to do with the Pentagon the government. That’s about all I can say. And that people involved have signed non-disclosure agreements. Which have been broken. Apparently. Maybe not. I don’t know. The lawyers are deciding. The key word, though, is threat analysis shambles.

It’s Not Looting If You’re White

My friend Adam pointed me towards another example of egregious racism in the mainstream press: the captions on photos of looters in New Orleans. Both pictures show residents of New Orleans wading through chest-deep flood waters, carrying various goods. According to the two AP captions, in the first photograph a young black man is returning from “looting a grocery store”; the caption of the second photograph (which shows a white couple) says simply that they are returning from “finding bread and soda” in a “local grocery store.” also has an article about the photographs of looters.

Cellphones in Africa (New York Times article)

There’s an article in the Times about the amazing popularity of cellphones in Africa. Factually, the data is quite amazing: between 1999 and 2004, the number of subscribers to mobile phone services increased at an annual rate averaging 58 percent. There are now nearly 77 million cellphone subscribers in Africa, up from just 7.5 million a few years ago.

As I said, the data is amazing.

But the article itself and the presentation of the numbers is shockingly full of a number of egregious American stereotypes about Africa. A generous reading of the article would be that the reporter, Sharon LaFraniere, is attempting to show how Africa is so not like what we think it is. But in doing so, she replays and builds upon a dozen different negative images of Africa. The title itself–“Cellphones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century”–presumes that all of rural Africa is exactly the same, and that this gigantic generalized Africa has been, prior to the appearance of the cellphone, stuck in a backwards, even primitive era. It reminds me of The Gods Must Be Crazy, except substitute a Coke bottle with a Nokia. In either case, Africans are primitive people “rescued” by Western culture and technology.

But wait, there’s more.

In the following lines from the article, I don’t know who should be more offended, Africans or Mongolians:

Africa’s cellphone boom has taken the industry by surprise. Africans have never been rabid telephone users; even Mongolians have twice as many land lines per person.

Perhaps the most offensive stereotype evoked in the article is this description of Africa that would fit better in a Tarzan movie:

On a continent where some remote villages still communicate by beating drums, cellphones are a technological revolution akin to television in the 1940’s in the United States.

Did I really just read that? “Beating drums”?

Even if it’s true (and I’m not saying it is), the image of the black African beating a drum is so loaded with cultural stereotypes and assumptions that it really shouldn’t be the basis of a metaphor in a serious journalistic piece. The image speaks volumes about power, control, language, and technology, and in every way positions Europe and North America as superior to Africa.

I think it’s time to go read some Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The Evil Democracy

Here is a lesson in ironic juxtaposition: A freeze-frame of President Bush delivering his State of the Union address, with the closed captioning scrolling the words “THE EVIL DEMOCRACY.”

The Evil Democracy (Larger Image) / Posted to Flickr by kunja.

Ironies abound in this photograph (which I found on the Flickr Bush cluster).

First, obviously, Bush is (purely accidently, purely coincidentally) linked to the idea of an evil democracy. Now, of course, I do not believe that America is evil. I don’t even believe that President Bush is evil. Misguided, maybe, but not evil.

The second irony is the word “democracy”–which is one thing the U.S.A. (symbolized by Bush) is not. It’s barely even the republic it formally declares itself to be.

The most subtle irony is the source of the caption. “THE EVIL” and “DEMOCRACY” come from two different lines of text, maybe even two different sentences. In Bush’s original speech the adjective “evil” does not qualify “democracy.” Because remember, DEMOCRACY = GOOD (except in the case of Saudi Arabia, where Dysfunctional + Misogynistic + Monarchy = GOOD as well).

But, with some clever cropping, we have a postmodern critique of President Bush and his foreign policies, a kind of Max Headroom for the new millennium.

Who’s Your Pope?

This just in–a new pope has been chosen. White smoke around 12:15 Eastern Time says it all. Except, who the guy is.

Is it the conservative Joseph Ratzinger from Germany, or somebody else, some dark horse candidate?

Whoever it is, I’m actually a bit disappointed. The cardinals just started the conclave yesterday. And already they’ve chosen a successor to PJPII? Already? Where’s the suspense? The media build up? The commercial breaks? The days and days of sleepless uncertainty? Jeez, what a let down.

Milk, It Does the Corporation Good

Horizon Happy CowThere’s a disturbing article today in Salon on Horizon Farms, a nationwide producer and distributer of organic milk. Turns out “organic” doesn’t actually mean the Horizon’s dairy cows are raised in a humane manner. Sure, they aren’t injected with antibiotics and bovine growth hormones, but neither are they allowed to graze in open pasturelands like the happy cow on the Horizon carton. (Actually, I guess that cow is flying across the world, she’s so happy.)

Horizon cows are fed a diet of starchy grains (rather than grass, which is what a cow’s stomach is designed to digest). This carbo-loading leads to much greater milk production, but weakens the cow’s health, primarily its digestive system.

Even more disturbing to me though, is the corporate nature of Horizon, a company which comes across as some earthy crunchy local farm. That feel-good image couldn’t be further from the truth.

Horizon is owned by White Wave. And White Wave, in turn, is a division of the dairy giant Dean Foods. Dean Foods also owns Borden, Pet, Country Fresh, and a host of other dairy lines. The company is the country’s leading milk producer, and its revenue last year was in the ballpark of nearly $11 billion.

Of course, Horizon is the only organic milk my local supermarket carries, and I’ve been forking out huge amounts of cash for it for years, thinking I’ve been a good little consumer, supporting some anonymous, honest, farm family out in the middle of Iowa.

So I’ve been thinking I got to find some place that sells Stonyfield Farms organic milk. They’ve been in the yogurt business for years and they’re branching out to plain old organic milk.

These folks aren’t some part of some huge corporate conglomeration. This is me thinking, and this is me thinking wrong again.

Despite Stonyfield’s pastoral story of starting out “in 1983 with 7 cows”, the company is now 85% owned by the ginormous European corporation Groupe Danone (who sells Dannon yogurt in this country).

Welcome to Planet Starbucks. Welcome to the Archer-Daniel-Midlands National Historic Pasture. Welcome to the Dean Foods Corporate Milkman’s Baby.

Covert versus Clandestine

I never knew it, but there is a legal difference between “covert operations” and “clandestine operations.” According to today’s NYT, covert operations are missions “in which the [U.S.] government denies any role and that can be undertaken only by presidential directive and with formal Congressional notification.”

Clandestine missions are not “officially deniable” and require less oversight.

The general thrust of the Times article is that the Pentagon is seeking more covert operations–of the type that used be the providence of the CIA–for use in the Middle East.

Just think, top secret operations for which, if they screw up, the government can just plausibly deny ever happened!

I wish I had some sort of covert operations capital myself, in which I could achieve that exalted state of deniability. The nice wine glasses we just bought and which somehow are now chipped and one is entirely missing? I don’t know anything about that! Never heard of it. Didn’t happen.