Tag Archives: Politics

Ferguson, hammers, and the NSA

There’s an old saying about how “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem tends to look like a nail.” I certainly believe there’s a lot of truth to this proposition. Recently, we’ve had a good (i.e. appalling) demonstration of it in Ferguson, Missouri: it sure seems like, on top of the multiple other problems at work, kitting out local police like shock troops encourages them to act like shock troops even when there’s no conceivable justification for behaving that way. (Which, for local police, is very nearly all the time.)

It occurs to me today that this is also a demonstration of why honest, ordinary citizens ought to be concerned about the NSA’s surveillance dragnet and associated programs (arbitrary lists, death drones, “extrajudicial executions,” etc.). The belief that it’s okay because they’re on “our side” seems awfully naive when you consider the fact that we (or people supposedly representing us) have built a massive organization and continually given its employees more and more and more tools for

  1. invading privacy,
  2. finding ways to make it look like someone could be connected with terrorism, and
  3. essentially treating the entire population as suspected criminals everywhere we go, every moment of our lives.

When you and everyone around you are armed in this way, how is it likely to shape your whole concept of what you and your organization do? Particularly when your organization (like the Ferguson cops) has become detached from and even contemptuous of direction by the community you are allegedly “serving?”

Seems to me that when most of your tools are a tyrant’s, everything and everyone is going to start looking like a rebel (which, from a tyrant’s perspective, means “a terrorist”) to be suppressed.

This, I might add, is one of the (many) things that makes it difficult for me to see any potential for reasoned dialogue with contemporary American conservatism. Listen to the US right*, and “government health care is tyranny! Taxes are tyranny! Public transportation is tyranny!” Everything, seemingly, is tyranny except large standing armies and unaccountable, omnipresent secret surveillance.

This.doesn’t.make.sense. All powerful organizations pose risks, and need to be kept in check, but the hammer-nail effect suggests that some risks ought to be considerably more frightening than others. A health-care bureaucracy that gets high on its own powers might… what? Treat the sick and injured? Or just be really, egregiously bureaucratic perhaps. That’s frustrating, and again, all of these programs ought to have an informed citizenry and our representatives closely managing them. But these agencies decried by conservatives as “tyranny!” are usually okay with that at least in principle. In contrast to the NSA, whose unchecked powers pose a risk categorically more dangerous than do “non-defense” programs, and who nonetheless aggressively oppose the whole idea of outside oversight.

Conservatives love to say “give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” The metaphor fails in multiple ways. Additionally, though, there’s too little consideration of what happens when you teach a man to regard himself as an enforcer of vaguely defined “order” and everyone around him as potential threats thereto.

* There are exceptions, and bless them, but they aren’t a majority and aren’t setting their party’s agenda. Even with an opposition-party president whom they can seemingly oppose on anything else, whatever he does, a majority of congressional Republicans lined up to endorse leaving the military-surveillance complex unreformed.

A political recap of the 21st century

I chanced upon a particularly interesting item, recently, by one Thomas E. Ricks, published at Politico. Entitled “Why Am I Moving Left?”, the author muses on how it should be that he finds himself “moving steadily leftward” in successful middle age.

It struck a chord with me because his eight-point summary of, one might say, “How I Learned to Start Worrying and Turn Leftist,” reads very much like a recap of my own political reevaluations since adolescence.

As recently as 15 years ago, I still considered myself more or less a conservative Republican. Today, I’m a self-employed professional and at least modestly successful. Yet I would have to say that I am very liberal by typical American standards, and about as likely to vote Republican as I am to get my eyeballs replaced with cherry tomatoes; how does this add up? Mostly, the things on Mr. Ricks’s list. More than a dozen years of basically constant spying, torture and murder by the military-surveillance complex, with little substantive dissent from elected officials of either major party, has been a disturbing but persuasive argument for its dismantling. Likewise the concentration of more and more money in fewer hands, and the growing corruption and arrogance of elites in business and politics alike.

All in all his list offers a close and eloquent summary of my own. I can’t say that gun violence would make my own personal list of warning signs; I absolutely support gun-control measures, but as a danger I think that being shot by an armed nut is (rather like that of terrorism) much exaggerated by emotional reactions relative to its real statistical threat. (I’m also skeptical of how much can be accomplished in a vast nation with about a zillion guns already in circulation and a large number of people fanatically devoted to keeping them.)

I would probably add one or two further reasons, meanwhile, in a list of my own.* Read More →

Bad Politics Depends on Bad Voting

I can't recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is "get out a pencil and draw another option."

I can’t recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is “get out a pencil and draw another option.”

Yesterday, a friend asked me this question about voting:

So, if you reject the ‘lesser of 2 bought and paid for evils,’ what do you do?”

I admit this seems somehow fake, at least to me; even with the context that led to it, the innocence of this question took me by surprise. But I assure you that this is a direct quote. I suppose that even in this day and age, not everyone keeps his or her mask of cynicism up all the time, and occasionally someone will still ask an honest philosophical question that isn’t accompanied by sneering or part of a set-up etc.

This was my answer(1):

First of all, per the old saying “I wouldn’t start from here,” I advise not beginning at the general election ballot. We have a sort-of-kind-of run-off system in America, via primaries, though this system is to a proper run-off system kind of what the ACA is to single-payer.(2) But it’s what we have, and more people should take part in it rather than just waiting until November to consider who “they” chose for you.(3)

Second, if (and often when) primaries result in both major parties running bought-and-paid-for pod people anyway, look down-ballot. There is often at least some alternative.(4) If there isn’t… or if all of them appear genuinely as bad or worse than tweedle-D and tweedle-R… well, go fish. Many times life is, indeed, a menu of only bad options… but it still isn’t as narrow a menu, as frequently, as most people take for granted.

Elaborating on a few points… Read More →