Tag Archives: government

An introduction to the fight for the internet and humanity’s fate.

22 Nov

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

What if you could fight a war without the need for armies and large scale military operations? What if you could fight these wars proactively, before your enemy even attacks? What if you were able to identify potential enemies and neutralize them before they even organized? What if you were able to achieve near complete situational awareness, not just on the scale of your immediate surroundings, but on the scale of entire nation states? What if your definition of “enemy” was not limited to foreign agents but anyone who questions your total dominance?

What if your definition of enemy included your own citizens?

What if there was no one to stop you?

This is the situation humanity now faces with the US Government and technology.

Back in the days of knights and archers, castles were the primary force multipliers. A well-built and well situated castle would allow a small garrison of soldiers to fend off a much larger foe. The castle allowed for efficient and targeted use of force. Today intelligence is the ultimate force multiplier. The better your intelligence is on a target, the more efficiently you can apply targeted force. Just as the atomic bomb represented a paradigm shift in conventional warfare, so does the internet represent a paradigm shift in surveillance and intelligence gathering.

A government’s power rests on its ability to use violence to enforce its will. Note that I said “power” and not “legitimacy.” People sometimes confuse the two and mistakenly believe a government gets its power from the people when in fact it only gets its legitimacy from the people; but what does legitimacy matter when you have the power to eliminate those who say you’re illegitimate?

A government’s power in an operational theater (domestic or foreign) is limited by how quickly and effectively it can exert organized violence, usually through either a military or law enforcement.

At the time the Bill of Rights was drafted the technology was such that the exercising of power usually took the form of infantrymen with muzzle-loading muskets. The founding fathers understood the relationship between the ability to exercise violence and power. England had just attempted to exercise its power through violence on the colonies; hence why they codified into law a people’s right to bear arms. A populace without the final recourse of violence is a populace without the final say. To take away that populace’s ability to check government power (violence) with their own power (violence) is to take away all their power. They are then made subservient and can only hope that those with the power will consent to changes if only the populace asks nicely enough.

redcoats

The problem we face now is that government’s ability to exercise violence has vastly outstripped the populace’s ability to check that violence.  Instead of muzzle-loading muskets, we now have flying robots that kill people, including American citizens without trial.

drones

A side note on the accountability of government and the false dichotomy of liberal/conservative with regards to this issue:

This problem transcends the liberal/conservative paradigm everyone is used to. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Liberal vs conservative is a false dichotomy encouraged by those in power to distract you from the fact that you have no rights and no real say over what the government does. No matter who you vote for, the government always wins. If voting actually changed anything it’d be illegal.
Furthermore, it’s a fallacy to believe the government is ultimately subject to its own laws. It writes the laws. Trying to defend your “rights” within the US legal system is like playing a football game against a team that wrote the rules of the game and can alter or ignore those rules at will.  The fact that the president can and has extrajudicially executed American citizens without trial is a recent example of the government’s immunity to its own laws. This attitude is nothing new. Nixon stated “When the president does it, it’s not illegal.” Well when the government does something, it’s not illegal. Any thinking person knows that just because something is legal or illegal doesn’t make it just or unjust.
(Possible videos of interest: Judge Napolitano was fired from Fox News for this 5 minute speech he gave pointing these facts out. The late standup comedian George Carlin explains here how “rights” are a myth. Recently making a lot of waves, Russell Brand explains in an interview why the current system is impervious to “approved” political outlets like voting.)

How does all this violence and politics relate to the internet?

Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s important to understand the context of what you’re up against as a person who wishes to maintain their rights to privacy and personal liberty.

The internet is the force multiplier, like a castle, but is the most powerful force multiplier ever constructed. With modern surveillance techniques the government, who is effectively answerable to no one, can record practically everything you do: Where you go online, what you buy with your credit cards, who you call with your cell phone, even where you travel. The CIA is even preparing to spy on you with your home appliances.

How do they do this?

The key concept is what’s called “Data linking.” Through programs like PRISM, SIGINT, and BULLRUN, the government will record as much information about you as they can. Often they will ask companies like Verizon and Google to hand over all the information they have on you. If the company refuses, which they rarely do, the government just hacks the company and takes it. They then store this data in centers like the Utah Data Center, a $1.5 Billion dollar facility built specifically to house 100 years’ worth of data on everyone on the planet.  They then use all this data on you, credit card purchases, who you messaged on facebook, cell phone text messages, phone calls, GPS location, etc to create a matrix of dots. Each dot is a point of data. Jacob Appelbaum, a security research, privacy advocate, and member of the TOR anonymity project gives a great example of this during a digital anti-repression talk. Here’s the part where he introduces the concept of data-linking: 5:56-8:23

To watch the whole talk, and you really should if you want to understand what you’re up against, you can start from the beginning here.

They’re doing this to protect us from terrorists, plus, I’ve got nothing to hide!

“I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

The government will often use “we’re protecting you” as an excuse for power grabs. It could be something as simple as the mayor of NYC attempting to ban big sodas “for your protection” to something as massive as invalidating the 4th Amendment with the “Patriot” Act and super-secret FISA courts.

In reality, the government is protecting itself.  In addition to “we’re protecting you from terrorists”, you will often hear “we’re protecting the children!” as an excuse to take away your liberties.  Think of all the cries for repelling the 2nd amendment after the Sandy Hook shootings.  As if disarming an entire populace would somehow make people safe against lone shooters. Another example: UK prime minister David Cameron implemented a nation-wide ban on internet pornography. Starting in 2014, all new broadband accounts will come with mandatory pornography filters. “To protect the children.” Do you think pornography is the only thing these filters will be searching? (Hint: The answer’s NO.)

Do not be surprised if you hear the government label people who wish to maintain their right to privacy as criminals, terrorists and peddlers of child pornography. Just like guns, there will always be a few people who use a technology for unjust purposes, but this does not warrant attempting block everyone’s access to that technology. Those who still want to take a technology away from everyone more often than not have their own unjust motives for doing so.

But the government would never abuse this power and target political adversaries…right?

It’s the classic scenario: Would you do something you knew was wrong if you knew you wouldn’t be caught and punished? I would hazard to guess that most average people would say no, but then again average people aren’t the type of people to get themselves in positions of power like politicians, generals, and spies.

It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it… anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. ~Douglas Adams

Think about it. You’re the government. You are god. No one will punish you except yourself, and that’s not about to happen any time soon. You have this secret power to spy on anyone in the world. The public, hell even most of congress, doesn’t know about your secret abilities. If they do, you’ll pull the “terrorism” card or the “child pornography” card. Who wants to be labeled as “pro-terrorist child rapists?”

Do you do it?

OF COURSE YOU FUCKING DO IT! Are you serious? Every government ever has always sought to spy on their political adversaries. It’s like statism 101! The US government is no exception and has a long and rich history of spying on civil rights leaders, students, activists, anyone that didn’t fit with the party in power. Abusing power isn’t reserved for just political adversaries, the employees at the NSA even used their illegal powers to spy on spouses and ex-lovers!

What’s worse, all this spying has not provided any tangible benefits! In June of 2013, NSA director Keith Alexander sat in front of congress and flat out asserted that they had stopped 54 terrorist attacks as a result of illegally and unethically spying on 300 million Americans (and the rest of the world).

But guess what… he was lying.

Last month Alexander admitted as much. Instead of 54, Alexander said they had stopped “only perhaps one or two.”

Let me tell you a little story about a man arrested for drinking and driving. The officer pulled him over and asked him how many drinks he had that night. When the man replied “one or two” the office asked him to take a breathalyzer test and found that he was over the limit. When the man asked the office how he knew that he had been drinking heavily the office responded with “If you had had only two beers you would have remembered exactly how many you had.”

And that’s ladies and gentlemen yet another reason why the NSA (and Keith Alexander) is full of shit.

What are the risks?

Besides living in an Orwellian police state world (the internet knows no national boundaries and nor does their spying) where you automatically suspect and guilty until proven innocent, they’ll break the internet.

Most people don’t understand how the internet works. They get on a computer and it’s just there. Sadly, a lot of people in government don’t understand how the internet works either. As a result, they’re doing things that will destroy the internet on a fundamental level. Their short-sided goals of cracking down on political dissidents has led them to break common encryption methods used for things like whenever you purchase something from amazon with your credit card. They’ve also leaned on software developers to put back-doors (allowing the NSA to spy and steal information) into various programs and websites. (Most notably, Skype and Facebook)

One of the (many) big issues with this is that the government is not the only one who will be able to take advantage of these back doors and broken encryption. They’re basically smashing down the door to your house, ransacking the place to try and incriminate you, then leaving. Meanwhile the door to your house is still smashed in and anybody can just walk right in when they find that opening. When they break the ability to encrypt transactions online, they break the trust people have in online commerce. Imagine if nobody felt safe buying anything online anymore. What would that do to the world economy? According to the Wall Street Journal, Americans, just Americans alone, are projected to spend $327 BILLION online by 2016. That’s just Americans. Can you imagine what the total figure is for that plus the rest of the world? Now imagine what would happen if that disappeared? What would happen to the world’s economy? It would fucking crash in a catastrophic fashion. There is a serious threat now of Balkanization of the internet. When Snowden revealed just how massive the NSA’s spying is, countries started talking about segmenting themselves off from the internet. This will undermine the internet’s core concept: inter-connectivity. Can you imagine a country by country internet?

The internet is arguably the most amazing technological advancement in the history of humanity. The ability to communicate and share ideas instantaneously has produce a Cambrian explosion like advancement in science, commerce, and culture. There has never been anything like it. Unfortunately, there’s now a real risk that it will die. If it does die, die too does humanity’s chance to escape the bonds of its past and any hope for a brighter future. The fight for the fate of the internet is really a fight for the fate of humanity. It is perhaps the most important fight in human history.

So what can you do?

I hope you know by now that writing letters, calling your representatives, marching around in the cold with signs, and voting (all the socially “approved” outlets) are futile. They’re an illusion to make you feel like you’re accomplishing something when in fact you’re not. Instead the only thing you’re accomplishing is venting your frustration in a sterilized (non-violent) way. As far as the government is concerned, you can do that all day. What really matters to them is that you don’t challenge their power with your own.

So if the approved outlets are pointless and you’re unable to out-violence the government, what can you do to protect yourself from the monster of a surveillance state we’ve created? What will save us?

sacred_heart_of_jesus

End to End Encryption

Our only hope for salvation lies in end to end encryption of all internet traffic. Why? Remember how all government power rests on violence?

No amount of violence can solve a math problem. ~ Jacob Appelbaum

End to end encryption is based off of a complex math problem. (If you’d like to see a really clever and easy to understand explanation of encryption, check this video out.) Whenever you communicate with someone over the internet (or go anywhere for that example), unless you’re using end to end encryption to encrypt all your traffic, you’re basically having the equivalent of unprotected sex with the internet. You’re not anonymous and it is easy for someone, especially an oppressive government, to monitor your activity. Pretty Good Privacy was one of the first publicly available encryption methods. (Funnily enough, the US Government tried to throw it’s creator in prison for spreading a technology that would prevent them from spying on people.)

In addition to end to end encryption, another source in combating oppressive regimes online is to utilize open-source software. What’s open source software? It’s software that is created by anyone who releases the source code of the program for everyone to see. For example: A private company might write a program and sell it. They don’t want to give the program away for free, so they don’t show the source code. This way you have no idea what else is hidden in the program. It’s possible for governments and other entities to hide things inside the program that do things other than what the program is being sold to do.

Open-source, however, has the source code out there for all to see. This actually increases security as everyone can look to see if something bad is hidden in the program. It also opens the program up to peer review. People can often contribute to an open-source project and improve upon it, whereas a close-sourced project is restricted only to the people who originally wrote it.

Lastly, you can use some tools to help obscure your identity online. TOR is a browser, much like firefox or google chrome, that lets you surf around the web. TOR, however, obscures your traffic by sending it through multiple different paths before coming back to you. In addition, you can also use a VPN service that will act like a middle man. Say you want to go to a website, but you don’t want someone watching your internet traffic to see that you’re going to that website. If you use a VPN, the VPN provider will go to that website for you, and then forward everything to your computer. This way someone watching will only see the VPN provider going to that website and not who’s on the other end looking at it. An example of a VPN provider is Private Internet Access.

Encryption is so dangerous to the government precisely because it renders them powerless. You can bet your ass they’re going to do everything they can to demonize encryption, anonymity, and attempt to prevent its wide-scale adoption. It’s for precisely this reason that it’s so important to implement and popularize security measures like this. The fate of humanity depends upon it.

You can’t play by the rules with the government

14 Jul

I’ve been thinking about laws a lot lately. Laws have been in the news quite a bit recently. Laws about gun control, laws about leaking government documents, heck, when I took a flight on a plane earlier this week I was told about laws prohibiting me from tampering with the smoke detectors.  I think it’s funny how some people think and act with regards to laws. One group of people who really make me laugh are those who think laws somehow stop something from happening; as if laws were some mystical force, or an invisible wall like in a video game. Don’t want something to happen? Make it against the law! Yeah, that’ll stop ‘em! Sure that might deter some people from some activities, but if someone is really determined, or just simply doesn’t care, they’re going to do whatever it is you’ve made against the law. Yet here I’m just referring to law and its relation to everyday life in society. What’s really got me thinking about law lately is how it relates to the government.

When I think back to my early days of political activism in high school one memory sticks out. It’s the memory of my US Government teacher. He was once asked what he admired most about America. His responded that what he admired most was the fact that a single ordinary citizen was able to bring the most powerful government on earth to a screeching halt through the use of law. I think in his mind he imagined someone exercising their rights to refuse a search or to keep their home when the government wanted to build a highway. This memory has become one of my sorest and most poisoned points of cynicism.

I feel there are two realms to the law. There is the law as it affects everyday people and their daily lives. For example, laws regarding driving, civil contracts, or when the bars close reside in this realm. The second realm revolves around laws and how they relate to the government. Usually people say things like “Well the government can’t do X because it’s against the law” or “I’d like to Y in order to comply with the law.”  As a specific example, I was in an online forum discussing Julian Assange and his captivity in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The police there are spending $16,000 a day to make sure he doesn’t leave the embassy. Someone in the forum was asking if there was any legal way for Assange to escape.

When people talk about law in relation to the government I get the impression that they think of it as a kind of game. The government and the person interacting with the government are both players in this game. The law governs what actions the players can and cannot take. The players then try to win the game by using the law to out maneuver their opponent. This could be in the form of a person attempting to avoid jail time or secure the ability to do something the government has tried to stop them from doing. Conversely, the government could use the law to prosecute someone or prevent a group of people from doing something.

I imagine most people conceptualize the law this way. Unfortunately there is a major flaw in this understanding of the law that undermines any chance of fair play:

The government writes the laws.

Imagine you’re trying to play a soccer game where you make your best effort to stay within the lines on the field and not commit any fouls. Now imagine that your opponent is not constricted by those lines and can commit whatever foul they want. The game would seem fixed and it would be extremely difficult to play. Now take it a step further. What if your opponent could actively redefine the lines on the field and what constituted a foul to their advantage? Any chance of a fair play would be impossible! There is no way you could win against that opponent. They have god-mode enabled.

That’s exactly the situation we’re faced with when using the law to interact with the government. Because of this, I can’t help but laugh whenever I overhear someone talking about trying to play by the rules with the government. I feel a lot of people fail to see this because it’s rare that this truth is so nakedly apparent, however, it’s rapidly becoming more apparent every day.

Everything the government does is governed by a cost/benefit ratio. The government can break its own laws at the cost of public disapproval. Historically, the bigger the breach, the bigger the public backlash, yet everything in life is governed by economics.  This ratio, like a currency, is not a fixed value. It fluctuates over time. At some points in time it might be more costly for a government to do a particular thing than at other points in time. For example: In the 1970′s, Nixon was involved in wiretapping the Democratic National Committee headquarters in DC. He was caught and the publish outcry eventually lead him to resign. Nowadays, Obama wiretaps the entire country along with many of our allies oversees and nothing really happens. The cost/benefit ratio of such actions has shifted.

Historically, public backlash against the government has been the force to keep the government in check. Lately, however, I feel this force has been losing its market value. What is causing the devaluation of public outcry? Several factors: public apathy and distraction is the cliche, but nonetheless still a major factor. (On a related side note, Portlandia did an amazing skit here demonstrating this.) Technology is another often overlooked factor. Technology allows the government to be more precise, efficient, and quick in applying its force. Wire-tapping everybody and monitoring everything gives the government better situational awareness and lets them effectively single out potential trouble makers and deal with them quickly. Governments are, after all, self-preserving organisms just like any other. The first law any government always passes is to make it illegal to overthrow the government.

So back to people failing to see this truth because of it rarely being apparent. Why is it rarely apparent and what are some examples of when it is apparent?

What is the difference between a “civil” society with laws and a society where the ruling party often and arbitrarily does whatever it wants? Stability.

Instability is bad for business, and again, everything is about economics. The government could start ruling with an iron fist and start imprisoning people and breaking laws en masse, but the cost of doing that is very high. It quickly lowers the threshold for open rebellion and we often see the outbreak of civil war quite quickly in regimes that resort to these tactics. For the most part, the government might allow itself to be constricted by its own laws for the sake of stability, but the whole point of laws is that, like rights, they’re supposed to be absolute.

If a right is not absolute then it is, by definition, not a right. It’s a privilege allowed to you by some other party, at risk of being revoked should the sentiments of that party change. A law is not a law if it is at risk of being ignored or broken by the government.

Nowadays, there are increasingly times when the government deems the cost of disregarding its own laws tolerable enough to do something that would otherwise be illegal. One example I’ve quoted on here before is the case of Megaupload. Megaupload was a file sharing site that the government, at the behest of powerful Hollywood lobyists, illegally shut down. They were waiting for SOPA, a bill giving them a legal pretense for exercising more control over the internet, to pass before they took down the site. When the bill failed due to public outcry, the government went ahead and took down the website anyways. Your average citizen didn’t know what Megaupload was, nor would they care, so the cost of taking it down illegal was very small. A much more high profile example lately is the government ease dropping on all communications. The NSA records all your phone calls, collects your e-mails, browser history, bank transactions, you name it. This information is collected automatically so it can be examined should you become a person of interest in the future.  The NSA is currently constructing a facility 5 times larger than Washington DC where they will store all this illegally gained information.  Another example is the targeted killings of Americans. (How can you read that sentence and keep a straight face?) There was seriously a discussion in this country a little while back about when it was ok for the president to extra-judicially execute an American citizen. No trial. No jury. No due process. Before that there was a discussion in this country about when the president could torture someone and lock them away in prison for years without a trial. How did the government get around the illegality of this?

Simple. They just rewrote the laws to make it legal.

 

Why we need guns, even in the wake of yet another school shooting.

17 Dec

With the advent of another school shooting, gun control is back in the spotlight.  The focus of much of the debate revolves around assault rifles and high capacity magazines. I’ve heard people argue that we should ban both high capacity magazines and assault rifles. The proponents of this argument reason that neither are used for hunting, but instead have the sole purpose of enabling someone to kill more people faster. While this is true, the proponents of the ban are wrong in their assumption of what the 2nd amendment was intended for. The 2nd amendment was not written for hunters, it was not written for collectors, it was written for a specific purpose. Here is a simple fact of life:

Government authority is derived from violence.

Like it or not, the government claims a monopoly on socially acceptable violence. (Whether they are justified or legitimate in doing so is another issue.) A government’s laws only have weight because they are backed by the threat of violence. This threat may be very well concealed by formalities like a bureaucracy, but ultimately, if you resist a chain of laws long enough, you will come face to face with an individual with a gun acting on behalf of the government who’s laws you are breaking.

Given that violence equals governmental authority, what happens to a government’s people when they are relieved of their ability to use violence?

They lose ultimate authority over their government.

It is possible for people to exercise authority over their government by voting, but this is not the same as ultimate authority. People can vote about something all they want, but if other people show up with guns, the ones with the guns are going to have the final say. I realize this might sound absurd to someone living in a first world country, but the reason it sounds absurd is because first world countries, by in large, have a relatively good track record when it comes to adhering to the will of their people when the people exercise their will through voting. This track record, however, has varying degrees of length depending on the country.  You only need to look at now first world countries during the various hot and cold wars of the 19th and 20th centuries to see governments repressing their people. (Franco Spain, Vichy France, DDR Germany) It can happen. It does happen. It currently is happening across the middle east. Syria, Egypt, and recently Libya are good examples of where the government swept away any illusions that ultimate authority rested on anything other than violence. It is also here that the people have attempted to reassert their ultimate authority through violence. When the 2nd amendment was written, the colonists in the newly formed United States had just thrown off an oppressor with violence. They had attempted various non-violent means previously, but fond them to be ultimately powerless. They used the last recourse available to them: violence. Having learned this lesson, they drew up the 2nd amendment to ensure that their people would never again be powerless in the face of an oppressor.

The 2nd amendment exists to ensure a people’s ability to use violence against the government.

It is for this exact reason that weapons like assault rifles and their extended magazines are needed. They are designed for you to fight a war scenario and kill people. When someone argues for banning assault rifles, high capacity magazines, and other implements designed specifically for war scenarios, what they are actually arguing for is the removal of a people’s final say over their government.

Let’s not be coy about protests.

5 Nov

Last week Canadian lawmakers approved a bill making it illegal to wear a mask while protesting. There are similar laws here in the US, especially against the use of gas masks during protests.

Why?

Because ultimately, when you take away all the niceties and formalities,  the government wants to ensure its ability to crush you. You can’t hide your face because the government wants to be able to identify you and punish you for protesting. You can’t wear a gas mask because the government wants to be able to disperse or incapacitate you with tear gas and other weapons.

You can protest, but only as long as they remain in control, able to pull the plug when they’ve decided that you’ve had enough free speech for the day.

Many aspects of life are like this. It’s like running along in a video game and suddenly hitting a glass wall. You have the illusion of being able to acting out and making a difference, but ultimately, really ultimately, the government will make sure it maintains control. Anything that jeopardizes this control will be made illegal and squashed.

Laws don’t determine what’s right and wrong.

30 Oct

This November 5th some members of anonymous are planning on marching on Washington DC, possibly armed, to arrest the government. As noble as this idea is, in reality they’re going to be arrested the moment they put their hands on any members of the government. If they bring guns, people will be shot because all government authority ultimately rests on the shoulders of someone with a gun. What they’re attempting to do, overthrow the government, is illegal but it isn’t inherently wrong.

However, I feel that if you asked the common Joe/Jane on the street, anything illegal is wrong. I imagine their reasoning would be something as terse as “Well of course it’s wrong! It’s illegal. Things that are illegal are bad!”

Unfortunately, I feel a lot of people in our society have this mentality when it comes to laws. It extends from a view of morality instilled in us from childhood:

Mother and father say something is wrong, therefore it is wrong. Mother and father say it is wrong to break the law, therefore anything illegal is wrong.

The problem is that the law is not some perfect measure of good and bad. It’s written by other human beings, human beings who often have ulterior motives. Governments are living organisms, hive minds, composed of a plethora of smaller beings. All living organisms have a survival instinct. As such, one of the first things made illegal by any government is the overthrowing of that government.

There was a legal academy where I went to high school. Basically, it was some extra-curricular courses students could enroll in if they were interested in going to law school after high school. The idea was to give them foundational knowledge of the American legal system to help better prepare them for law school. The types of people who joined this legal academy were the type of people who loved to watch crime dramas on television, to read about crime mysteries in books, and enjoyed crime fighter comics like Batman and Judge Dredd.

I’ve noticed that later in life these type of people tend to be more conservative and had an obsession with crime and punishment. Their black and white view of right and wrong and over eagerness to punish perceived rule breakers always irritated me. They’re like some annoying self-righteous asshole kid on the school playground that always has to run and taddle on you, desperate for praise and recognition from the authority figure.

The big problem then becomes: What if the people writing the laws write unjust and wrong laws to protect their own misdeeds? What if the right thing is made illegal? Of course this happens all the time in real life. Coercive governments the world over write laws that protect their own interests and attempt to sanction their own crimes. Businesses with enough means bribe governments to write laws to manipulate the market and protect their own interests. It’s common practice.

So how do these crime and punishment types deal with this reality? They don’t. The compartmentalize it, ignore it, or rationalize it away with the just world hypothesis. Such complexities are not within their limited and comfortable range of comprehension.

And so this coming Monday those members of anonymous that march on Washington will experience the government’s monopoly on violence and will be branded criminals by the very people they’re trying to help. Never mind that their crime was trying to do the right thing.

Money destroys democracy

17 Jul

Equality is at the core of a 1 person, 1 vote democracy. Your vote is a unit of direct political power. It doesn’t matter who or what you are, your vote matters just as much as the next person’s. It doesn’t matter what title comes before your name, or what your bank account statement says, at the end of the day my vote is just as powerful as yours. Without this equality democracy couldn’t function.

Unfortunately, things are not as simple in reality as 1 person, 1 vote. Is money speech? Is it a form of your free speech to choose to give your money to a political cause? If money is speech, does that mean those with more money have more speech then those with less money? What if a small group of people pool their resources so that they have an inordinate amount of speech compared to everyone else? What if they use this inordinate amount of speech to affect politics? Now you no longer have 1 person, 1 vote system. Money = speech = power; money = power.

 

At this point democracy starts to crumble. A person’s vote becomes irrelevant when there are much larger units of power in play. It’s similar to the difference between an arithmetical increase and an exponential increase. A large group of individuals can coalesce around a cause, but if another group has more money, they will have more influence and power. Congratulations, you’re now on your way from democracy to oligarchy.

The degree to which you’re an oligarchy depends on how much big money is involved in politics. This issue has always been around since the start of democracy, however, only relatively recently have we’ve seen the advent of super PACs and corporations pouring millions into politics in order to twist the law in their favor. The more money in politics, the less democratic those politics become.

“Well what’s the problem with that?” some might ask. If you’re fine with some people having more power than others, then you need stop your flag waving and acknowledge that you don’t support democracy. While you’re at it, stop using democracy as a buzzword completely. Democracy as a term has become as debased and valueless as liberty, freedom, and terrorism have in the past decade. They are cheap, gilded terms devoid of any real meaning.

“Why shouldn’t the rich have more power? They have more stuff and thus more of a stake in society.”

No. The amount of material objects you possess doesn’t matter. We all have the ultimate stake in society, our lives. When someone dies for their country, we say they paid the ultimate price. It is the most valuable thing we have as individuals. Your fancy cars, houses, and trust funds are drops in the bucket by comparison.

Online petitions and small scale protests

25 Feb

Back in high school I was very politically active. A starry-eyed firebrand I’d join in protests, wage road sign wars, and eagerly engage in political debates with other high-school students. I later realized the party I would have at one point died for was just as fucked up in its own right as the party I loathed with every fiber of my being, but that’s besides the point. I just wanted to start off by saying I’ve been there, I used to be one of the people I’m about to discuss.

Everyday on my way home from work I pass by the South Carolina state capital building, and almost everyday there is a small group of anti-war protesters huddled around some signs. They look even more beleaguered in the cold, freezing their butts of waving around their little signs.

Seriously, what’s the point? Stop it.

Wait, hold your rage and comments for two seconds and hear me out. I fully 100% support what they support. I think the wars in Iraq are a horrible waste of lives and money.

But seriously, what’s the point of protesting here in South Carolina, the angry redneck conservative capital of the US. This was, after all, the first state to declare war on the US and secede. It’s conservative heaven.

I know the standard response (I was one of them once, remember?). It goes something like “Well, we’re out here doing this even though it seems pointless because it is important to let people know that there are people who will stand up against such things.” I can see the merit in that argument, but I’m not sure it’s actually that effective in reality. In reality I get the feeling that people look at you like just a group of idiots whooping and hollering in the cold with your stupid signs.

A small group of people standing around with signs never really does anything. A large group, yes, but a small group just seems to accent how fringe you are to the rest of the people in the community. Also, keep in mind this IS South Carolina. You have no chance in hell of changing anyone’s mind. They are, and forever will be, stuck with their heads so far up their asses they’ll never see the light of day or reason. If you were in a swing state, sure, but here? Fuck no.

Also, online petitions….to put it bluntly they are pointless. Absolutely pointless. “Click here to save the _____________” You’re little electronic signature doesn’t do shit. If you want to actually support a cause, get off your ass, leave your house, and go volunteer. Clicking a button on the computer is a worthless gesture.

The only time petitions actually work is when they are signed by a large group of people, in person, on a local scale. The only power a petition has is the threat of losing all the below signed names as voters. This only really has an effect in a small arena where every vote is important. Online petitions lose this power because A) There is no real way to confirm that the person signing is an actual person and not just some dick signing it over and over again, B) Even if they are a real person, the internet is global, not local, and so the vast majority of people who sign do not have enough collective voting power to threaten the politicians who are the recipients of such petitions. C) You can erase an entire petition by simply clicking “delete”.

“Oh but GP, it shows how many people support/oppose an idea!” I’ve got some bad news for you: the politicians don’t give a shit. It doesn’t matter how many people support/oppose something. It’s not about them and it’s not about the issues. It never has been, that’s just the guise everything operates under. Local petitions threaten local politicians and their access to local money, that’s the only reason they work. Global petitions don’t have any teeth with which to threaten a politician’s money supply and so they’re pointless. *delete*

What is your “better world”?

23 Feb

Everyone, be they liberal or conservative, want a better world for their children, they just disagree on how to go about achieving that. At least that’s what everyone says, but I feel there is a fundamental semantics issue here. What exactly does one mean by “a better world”? That saying assumes we both want the same thing in the end and that we just differ on the paths, but I think that is a wrong assumption to make.

What do I mean by a “better world” coming from my liberal atheist point of view? Well my better world would be a world where people don’t tolerate corrupt politicians who lie to them, where war truly is the last resort and not the first option. In my perfect world people’s lives would not be dictated by their neighbor’s religion. The government would not institutionalize bigotry, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, or impose religious doctrine. My perfect world would be a place where race, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious preference, etc would not matter. Sure if people wanted to take pride in some aspect of their identity that would be fine, but discriminating against someone for that identity would not be tolerated. My perfect world would be a world in which people were guaranteed the things needed to survive, like food, water, shelter, clean air, and medical attention, but where the safety net was not so comfortable as to encourage living off of it. My perfect world would be a world where people were able to speak their minds without censorship. My perfect world would be a world where the government did not try to control your body, be it what drugs you put into it, or when you decide to start a family. In my perfect world the government would work towards improving the lives of its citizens through a strong public education system and strong environmental protection. In my perfect world the rich would not be punished for being rich, but the poor would not be left to die either.

Those are some of the things I have in mind when I think of a “better world”.

Yet when I listen to conservatives, their “better world” seems so….evil to me. I know it’s not nice to paint it like that, but it just honestly does feel like the antithesis to everything I hold to be good and right.

The trickiest part is how they will often use the same words I do when trying to describe a better world, but by observing their actions and how they vote, I’ve come to understand that there is at the very best a serious semantics issue.

I will put this bluntly. Based off of my observations their “better world” appears as follows:

A place world where only landowners have the right to vote, a world where everyone is assigned strict gender roles and forced to conform to them, a world where white men dominate and control every aspect of society, a world where the power of big government is used to police your bedroom and your body. A “better world” where minorities and women know their place, serving white men; a world where the government is the tool of the rich and powerful and where the poor are left to starve off and die for lack of medical attention, shelter, food and water. A world where public education is non-existent and where all the taxpayer’s money is spent buying bigger guns with which to kill people different from the white men. A world of order, control, and conformity, not diversity, change, and uncertainty.  A world where superstition and religion reign supreme, where the existence of fact is denied. A world rife with sexual repression and discrimination. A world where the environment existed solely to be exploited for profit until it was destroyed.

I’ve acquired this impression of conservatives after having watched them fight tooth and nail against promoting equality among the sexes, races, and genders. Throughout history they have always stood against anything that gave power to people other than straight rich white protestant men. They always vote to cut funding for schools and art and to use that money to make bombs. They fight any legislation that would prevent businesses from raping the environment that we all must live in. They fight against anything that would give aid and comfort to the poor who desperately need it, yet they will die defending the richest millionaires in the country. They always seem to fight against immigrants and anyone who is not white. They fight to enforce and institutionalize discrimination, they fight to enable big government to tell you who to love, who to have sex with, when to have children, where to go to church, what to read/watch/listen to in the media, and what to put into your body. They do all this while chanting “personal liberties” with a straight face. They claim to love democracy and yet they cheer people like Joyce Kaufman when they say “If ballots don’t work, bullets will!” and people like Ann Coulter when they say “We need to put more journalists in jail!” A better world would be one where people resorted to murder if they lost an election; where freedom of speech was non-existent and journalists who disagreed with you were thrown in jail??? Sure Kaufman and Coulter are just two people, but they do not exist in a vacuum. Their ideas have sway with a large group of people in the conservative party.

It just feels evil to me, pure evil. I’m not saying that conservatives are evil, I know plenty who are honest genuinely nice people, but I’m very puzzled as to why they think this would be a “better world”. I feel like I’d end up trying to argue axioms with them like suffering is bad.

A political blogger’s pledge

10 Jan

This is courtesy of GreenGeekGirl:

The pledge:

As a responsible citizen, I pledge to avoid all inflammatory rhetoric and propaganda, including violent rhetoric, unfair comparison of people with whom I do not agree to atrocities such as the Holocaust simply because we do not agree (unless, such as in the case of the Arizona laws where immigrants have to carry their “papers” at all times, such a parallel is historically warranted), immature and childish name-calling, and to use a minimum of unnecessary sarcasm.

As an American, I pledge not to center my political blogs around conservative vs. liberal in order to avoid deepening the divide between political groups.  Instead, I will focus on ideas and not make mass generalizations about groups of people.

As a blogger and a writer, I pledge to do my best to try to see both sides of an argument, even if I initially think that the other side isn’t worth considering (and even if this conclusion persists through exploration).

As a friend and neighbor, I pledge not to let differences in ideology interfere with my ability to see other people as human beings, even when we disagree or when they start name-calling, using unnecessary sarcasm, or using bad logic.

As a person, I pledge to be as compassionate as I can.

I am human and humans are prone to making mistakes and forgetting pledges.  To anybody who is reading, if I break this pledge, I want you to call me out on it (but as Wil Wheaton says, don’t be a dick).

We may differ politically, but you are not my enemy.”

Overall I like this pledge, hence why I’m following GGG’s lead and taking it on my blog, though I do have a reservation. I’m really not sure how to say this, because I feel it will make people instantly think I’m a bad person, which upsets me, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with the bit:

As an American, I pledge not to center my political blogs around conservative vs. liberal in order to avoid deepening the divide between political groups.  Instead, I will focus on ideas and not make mass generalizations about groups of people.”

I understand the sentiment, especially the second half about not making mass generalizations, though in practice avoiding generalizations is extremely hard to do. I think there are varying degrees of generalizations, some more appropriate than others. For example, the generalization “All republicans want to install a theocracy” would be very over reaching and inappropriate. Sure faith and religion are on average more central to republicans (that’s an ok generalization), however there is a very specific, albeit very large and powerful, group within the republican party that wants a theocracy. The rest of the republicans don’t.

I mentioned the problems with generalizations in an earlier post here, though that post was focused on religious generalizations. In order not to be paralyzed by precision, some degree of generalization is required. So can I in good faith pledge to avoid generalizations? I cannot. I can, however, pledge to try and not making unnecessarily over reaching generalizations.

Now on to the first part of the bit I have a reservation about:

As an American, I pledge not to center my political blogs around conservative vs. liberal in order to avoid deepening the divide between political groups.

Again, I lament that people might think me a bad person for saying this, but I honestly cannot agree to this. It is my firm conviction that liberals and conservatives are two groups with irreconcilable ways of perceiving the world. Now before you judge and condemn me, understand that I do NOT mean that liberals and conservatives can’t live together peacefully. I do NOT mean that one group of people is evil. I do NOT mean that there are no circumstances under which conservatives and liberals can work together.

All that I mean by that is conservatives and liberals put different priorities on different values. We both are capable of love and compassion, just as we are both capable of fear and hate. We both want our friends and family to live in a better world, however, we have fundamentally opposing ideas of what that “better world” is or how to get there. Liberals and conservatives have fundamentally different views on the role of government, the importance and deference to place on certain types of authority, how the constitution should be interpreted, personal and economic freedoms, etc.

While these views are incompatible, we by no means should we ever resort to violence as a way of settling the disputes, and that is the main sentiment of this pledge that I whole-heartedly agree with. While I may fiercely disagree with someone, I will never allow that to take away their humanity.

Trying to understand the rules of the game

2 Jan

Natural selection is the engine that drives evolution, but within the heart of natural selection is a concept that is central to all of existence; there are rules to the game that determine who wins.

This concepts of rules exists in every aspect of our lives. The rules may change from scenario to scenario, but nonetheless there are rules. We are born into this game not knowing what the rules are for each scenario, and as we grow up we hope to uncover little by little what those rules are. In order to survive and prosper you must understand the rules of the game, for it is only then that you can manipulate and maneuver through them.

The most immediate and glaring example of the existence of these rules is in evolution, from whence we first discovered the concept of natural selection.

In evolution, the goal of the game is to survive and pass on your genes to your children. Nothing else matters. Anything that hinders you in this process will be phased out. A bird better adapted to catching a worm will survive and have children more successfully than a bird more poorly adapted to this task. Those are the rules. That which is most efficient in helping you achieve the goal of the game wins. There is no mercy or tolerance for anything less. Such is the brutality and indifference of nature.

One of the biggest challenges we face growing up is uncovering the true rules, the true mechanics of the game which are often hidden under the more palatable false rules.

For example: “Just work hard and you will succeed” portends that the most efficient and best way of achieving the goal of succeeding is by hard work. Surely the harder you work, the more you will succeed.  While hard work is definately needed in a lot of situations in life, this is a misleading explanation of the rules.

In 2010 Nike’s CEO Mark Parker made 13.1 million dollars. The average Vietnamese Nike sweatshop worker makes $.26/hr. In order for the sweatshop worker to make the same as the CEO, she would have to work nonstop for 5,748 years. Most of these workers are trapped in sweatshop jobs with the choice to either work 40 hours in overtime a week or starve to death on the street.  Obviously in this scenario the notion that “hard work equals success” is a delusion.

A less extreme example is in the American workplace. Yet again, as children we are told that the rules are “hard work equals success” and that knowledge gives us a leg up. While these are both true in some degree, we quickly learn that this is not how the game functions. In order to achieve the goal of getting a promotion and being “successful” it is more important who you know than what you know.

We see the same thing in the dating world. From the onset guys are told that in order to succeed (ie, have lots of sex) the rules are “be sweet and caring.” Yet what it takes years for some guys to figure out, and others never learn, is that maximizing sweetness and caring in an attempt to maximize success fails because sweetness and caring equate to boring, and boring = death. Hence why aggressive asshole guys are more successful in having lots of sex because, while they might be assholes, they’re interesting.  (Now if the goal was to have a stable and healthy relationship and not just copious amounts of sex, then the rules would change and sweetness and caring would be more important)

Another great example of the concept of rules and false rules in action is politics. Ostensibly politics is about how to best lead the nation, how to best maximize the quality of life for the people who pay taxes and make up that nation. A naive person who still believed this would likely also believe that the rules would favor politicians and legislation best suited to this end. (I was once one such naive person) However, if you closely follow politics long enough, you will quickly discover that this is not the goal of the game, nor how the game operates. The game has never been about “the nation and the people who comprise it.”  That is just glittery lip-service every politician gives to half-heartedly mask the true mechanics of the game, namely the self-enrichment of the powerful players (the politicians) within the game.

In politics, as in much of life, those with the most money win. It is the cold and indifferent fact of the game, no different than the fact that the slower bunny will be dinner for the wolf. We may cheerfully delude ourselves with David and Goliath stories, but in the end the mechanics are what they are, irregardless of your strongest desires.

This is why nothing more than PR campaigns and package re-branding will ever be done about global warming until the problem is so severe it starts seriously hurting profit margins. (By which time it will be too late and our life sustaining eco-system is destroyed) This is why despite a 70% approval of a public option in healthcare the measure was defeated. Competition would have been bad for business for those who were writing the congressmen’s checks.  This is why America’s deficit will never be brought under control. Politicians will pay lip-service and feign outrage over the debt and then turn around and add $3.9 trillion in debt over the next 10 years by giving taxcuts to themselves and the other richest people in America.  That is the reality of the politics game and how it is played.

So the question then becomes “Is there a way to change the rules?” I honestly don’t know. The only example I can think of where we’ve changed the rules slightly is in basic survival. Over the centuries science has developed new technologies that increase our life span. Child mortality has fallen drastically in most parts of the world, and many people who normally would not have survived thousands of years ago do. Chances are you’re one of them. I know I am. I have poor eye-site; if it were not for the science of optics, I would be blind to everything 5 feet away from me.

Even if the rules pertaining to human survival have been tempered by technology, the rules regarding prospering and politics have not. Ultimately the rules regarding those two games effect the rules regarding basic survival. (Earlier I gave the example of global warming) So far we as a species have been unable to effect the rules governing politics and prosperity except by temporarily resetting them through violent revolutions.  “Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders become cruel.” I’m not sure if it is possible to effect a paradigm shift other than regularly tearing everything down. But I digress.

I just wanted to reflect on the existence of these rules that govern every scenario and how one task of growing up is discovering these underlying principles through experimentation and observation.

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