Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Questioning Homeland Security

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. “
Albert Einstein

“Question Authority!”
Seen on a button in the sixties

Hello Reader,
Got  congressmen?

I am getting “revved up” from reading a thrilling young adult novel, Little Brother, where the hero’s code name is Winston, (A little like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four) by Corey Doctorow, a name well known in computer and literary circles. I’m confident Doctorow realized that even though the computer nerd side of him liked facts, the reality is many other people are only revved up by stories.

Here’s a story:
 You may recall how the fascists gave us good order, stopped those bomb-throwing anarchists, and made the trains run on time. And, in the case of Germany, also stopped the nightmare of runaway inflation, something the conservatives had failed at miserably. (People were bringing their paycheques home in wheelbarrows)  Sounds good. 

There was a certain “good European”: After the war, which he had hated, being a man of peace, he still did not truly believe in the horror of fascism, not even from the facts of the death camps in Poland. No indeed… not until he heard police boots clumping offstage for the story of Ann Frank.

Doctorow presents a world where the hero, a high school boy, by being arrested, has seen the iron fist beneath the velvet glove of D.H.S. … A bomb is thrown—no, that’s too 20th century—a line of bombs is set off, blowing up a bridge in San Francisco… No one else seems to grasp, or will even question, how D.H.S.  must have had plans in place to obstruct liberty before the bombing. The D.H.S., of course, is Department of Homeland Security.

Naturally Doctorow, like Einstein imagining riding on a beam of light, is only doing a thought experiment. No newspaper journalist today is saying H.S. is fascist, not yet. Furthermore, many people would say only a long haired hippie would question authority—but Albert Einstein had long hair, too. That gentle, credible man was never afraid to question. Question the Nazis, and question conventional gunpowder war. In fact, it was due to his gentle credibility that the U.S. president agreed to undertake something out of science fiction: to invent the Atomic Bomb.

If the police and D.H.S. are innocent, then they shouldn’t fear any questions, right? But no, in Doctorow’s San Francisco, after the bombing,  they want to dominate and to squelch questions from citizens. Not like a pair of police walking sternly outside a dingy “bad guy” bar, but by having many police walking throughout the boy’s entire city, as though anybody might be a bad guy, especially anybody the computer shows having unusual behaviour, as does that peace-loving loyal boy.

So the question for us to ask today is: Could the federal H.S., in the future, in our world of computers, become bad? Should we be holding that horse with close firm reins to prevent any future foolishness? 

I don’t know much about federal departments. Here in Calgary, more often than I visit my member of parliament, I will visit my city alderman, or my Member of the provincial Legislative Assembly. One day my MLA and I were talking in his office, the phone rang, and it was a constituent asking about finding a job. The poor guy’s accent was too strong. So then I delighted my politician by alerting him to evening classes in “accent reduction,” that he could tell job seekers about. (He phoned the constituent back right away) Here in Calgary, when you apply for a job with the city, the interviewers ask you for your stories about your past performance as a predictor of your future. 

My question: The Department of Homeland Security may be new, but to predict the department’s potential for messing up, are there any older federal departments we could look at? As Einstein would say, when it comes to H.S., can we “Learn from yesterday”?

As  Governor Sarah Palin might say, “You betcha!” … Consider the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As children we all saw the lovable Jimmy Stewart in The F.B.I. Story, a movie starting from the 1930’s. Kids would send away cereal box tops for their junior G-man badge, while Hoover’s boys were known to be wholesome, well groomed Americans we could all be proud of—so what the heck happened? 

By the early 1950’s President Truman, having contempt for the F.B.I.’s  director, J. Edgar Hoover, didn’t feel safe removing Hoover from office, partly because the F.B.I. was gathering dirt on prominent Americans. I believe President Johnson was merely quoting Truman when he told the New York Times in 1971, “It is probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” 

The F.B.I. secretly taped John F. Kennedy in bed at night sharing his doubts and lack of confidence in things. (In fairness, they thought Kennedy’s female lover might be a communist) Even when Kennedy had become the U.S. president, with his loyalty surely beyond question, they kept the transcripts, kept them even after he was assassinated—perhaps to hold power over the attorney general— but then again, they kept the transcripts even after his brother Bobby was assassinated, too. 

This annoys me mightily because the data collected on Kennedy should have been protected by being destroyed, long ago. As local professor and computer expert Tom Keenan said, “If you collect, you have a duty to protect.” 

At the time of Bobby’s death some clean-cut agents were running dirty tricks, covert operations called “cointelepro,” against loyal non-communists such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Even after Watergate the F.B.I. would not reform: They never did apologize for their complicity in the killing of Karen Silkwood.

If even the F.B.I.’s noble agents could decline into resorting to cointelpro, what hope is there for H.S.? Are they already starting to collect data the way the N.S.A. was doing right up until Edward Snowden’s revelations? Is your congressman allowed to even ask?  

In fairness, within the F.B.I., maybe only a small percentage of agents went over to the dark side, just as, in the Roman Catholic Church, surely only a small percentage of priests went on to be child molestors. Trouble is, as with the Church, sometimes a whole organization can be complicit. Just like in the movie Snowden, where patriotic staff see their not-so-patriotic boss on the six o’clock news lying to congress—and not one …single… solitary individual… blows the whistle.

Perhaps the way to understand government, then, is to understand individuals. I ask you: Don’t we all sometimes get too focused, too much looking down on our own pet issue, for example security, ignoring the larger issues?

Here’s another story:
Canadians were happily protecting their sacred culture, thwarting “Yankee imperialism,” by legislating that a certain per cent of their airwaves must be “Canadian content.” Dirty Canadian socialism? Not to all those self-employed business-artists who were finally able to keep their heads above water. About the time satellite phones were the size of war-time walkie-talkies, there came these giant satellite dishes filling up people’s yards. A cabinet minister, forgetting to lift his eyes to the larger issues such as the informal Right to Property, said government must control the dishes, in order to control Canadian content. To quote a Yankee: “Say-What?” He backed down.

Here’s a story:
In my city, we have a love of the environment, plus an ever-worsening shortage of landfills. (In New York City they have resorted to taking their garbage out to sea—which worked just fine, I guess, until needles wash up on the shore) One day a Calgary alderman, forgetting the principle of Citizens Deciding For Themselves, said that there should be a restriction on the number of garbage bags put out by each household. Call it “prohibition light.” A more experienced politician quashed his idea by saying that people would meet their numbers by coming out with giant bags the size of the next town. Better to use education and peer pressure.

A story:
In another year, another alderman proposed a law that garbage bags all be transparent, so peers, nosy neighbours and the government too, could all enforce recycling. The greater issue he forgot? The Right to Privacy. A fellow retorted, “Some of my constituents have adult diapers, and that’s nobody else’s business.” The man backed down.

Right now the problem with Homeland Security is they have no shame, no, not even when a powerless senator is reduced to asking questions with sarcasm, while they just keep a straight face… Come to think of it, I read this story on BBC News, on the web—do you think U.S. newspapers carried it? I refer to the story where border agents no longer need any suspicion, let alone probable cause, regarding you taking your private cell phone or tablet across the federal border.

While every citizen’s duty is to question, surely the business world models for us the value of, and encouragement of, questions. In business, the way to remind people to stop their vested tunnel vision, and to lift up their eyes to other issues, is with questions. (For example, asking: “Have you considered the tax implications?”) It might seem rude for a top executive to ask his people this, but after they stop blushing, they’ll thank him. 

As you know, every incorporated business must legally include, besides the obvious such as a president and (treasurer) finance officer, a board of directors. Historically, the board members would be from the same field as the company. However, decades ago we learned better. Now we know boards of directors should be diverse. Not just to think outside of the box, but to ask better questions, inside the conference room. 

(But can they force you to name a financial officer? Can’t you instead, for example, have a commune of cardinals doing the finances in complete equality, socialism-wise? Answer: You can have freedom of religion, but not freedom of corporation—and legally you will need yearly audits too: Because society has learned the hard way what is needed for the “greater good.” When it comes to business, religion and yes, Homeland Security too, “we are saved not by our faith, but by the lack of it.”) 

A half-fictional story:
A company which makes facial tissues (Kleenex) was grappling with the high costs of shipping tissues across the country, focusing on various transport means, hubs and warehouses… A board member from the field of dentistry asked, “Well, can’t you just suck all the air out before you ship them, shipping concentrated kleenex, and then re-air them later?”

I am in Calgary, far away from the swelled heads in the federal capital. Here ordinary people, government people, are fully aware they are fallible, and so when they pass a new bylaw they always put in an appeals process. Only a very self-righteous individual, like the head of H.S., would assume they would get it right every time.

My concern is that H.S. has a “tunnel visioned” for security, without due humility, without lifting their eyes to the issue of Liberty, and without even having Common Sense…. To me the smoking gun for that department’s gross incompetence was when the head of H.S. publicly said that some of the 9/11 killers had crossed into the U.S. from Canada—and no, the head did not resign after that evidence of gross negligence. 

If H.S. is already beyond questions and appeals, beyond the check and balance of congress, if H.S. is trying to be both judge and jury, then I can only conclude they will follow down the same path the F.B.I. took—only greased, on skids.

Back to you, dear reader. Have you got a congressman you can ask? 

Sean Crawford
In the fourth largest city in Canada
Where the biggest minority group is U.S. citizens

~Got tunnel vision? The motto for the local university, where Professor Keenan works, translated from Gaelic, is: “I will lift up my eyes.”

~I describe in detail the role of a board of directors in my essay Olympics and Boards. You may find it in the archives for February 2013, or via clicking on the label Olympics.

~ The investigative book on The Killing of Karen Silkwood could stand alone as proof that “The innocent do have something to fear from surveillance,” as agency after agency is shown breaking the laws for surveillance, despite Silkwood’s innocence. Poor girl. I think it was a surveillance team who killed her. 

Karen was neither communist nor criminal.

~As documented in the movie (link to review) Spotlight, a “small percentage” of priests translated into 90 priests in the city of Boston alone. I won’t speculate on the percentage of “insert fear of choice” in Homeland Security.

~Link to movie review for Snowden.

~Canadians are not socialist, they can indeed buy a private satellite dish, but their constitution, despite controversy while they were writing it, back when I was a young man, does not recognize the right to property.  

~I like how Snowden, rather than try to be both judge and jury, used the check and balance of confidentially going to respected sober journalists, and then letting them rule on whether the sound of his whistle should remain secret, or whether it was appropriate to publish.

~My Kleenex story is based on real life, where I think it was an executive, not a board member, who came up with the air question during a brainstorming-like discussion. He began by curiously noting that stuff travels faster in a vacuum. 
…Perhaps he was thinking of how, before interoffice communicators, (intercoms) company memorandums (memos) flew through pneumatic tubes, typed by secretaries who would stop off after work to get a permanent wave. (perm)

~While Doctorow is Canadian, it was a well known British author, Neil Gaiman, who did the front cover blurb for Doctorow’s book, saying, “A wonderful, important book … I’d recommend Little Brother over pretty much any book I’ve read this year.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Tick Tock as we Talk

Meta-blog note: If a blog post can be made with links, what Scalzi calls a “conduit blog,” then maybe a post could be made with quotes.

Hello Reader, 
Got conversation? And growth too?

Like Oprah Winfrey, I have my talk preferences, which have changed down the years, as my life and character have changed. Here’s what Oprah said in her monthly (last page) What I Know For Sure in O, The Oprah Magazine, for February 2018:

“What defines me is answering the call to Truth—capital T—in every moment.That’s why small talk makes me jittery. It feels fake, like we’re just pretending to have conversation. I have such an aversion to it, I go numb inside. I can’t look people in the eye because the whole time I’m thinking it’s so beneath us to be talking about trivial things when our world is burning.”

Make no mistake: Oprah is not sadly serious. She wouldn’t mind laughter with her non-trivial talk. On page 105, with RuPaul: 

“Fascinated by his ability to defy categorization and spark vital conversation about identity, Oprah sat down with the 57-year-old for a much-needed kiki*.” 
Defined: “*A laugh-filled chat between friends.” 

I picture Oprah’s social beverage being a coffee. On the other hand, speaking of Oprah’s “trivial things,” some folks go in for pure mindless fun over beer. Take cartoonist and essayist Tom Krieder, in his book of essays We learn nothing:

“While responsible people were working… my friends and I were spending whole days drinking bottomless pitchers of mimosas or Bloody Marys and laughing till we wept on decks overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. (page 26) …Nick and I once wrecked our friend Gabe’s entire dining room laughing at something one of us had said, whirling around and toppling over and clutching desperately at tablecloths and knickknack shelves, like a couple of robots gone berserk, yet the next morning neither of us could remember what had been so funny.” (page 27)

The last time I had friends for laughter every time we met was when I was among two outcasts in high school chemistry class. The good students all sat at the tables at the front; we three perched at a high black lab table and amused ourselves mightily, as a sort of compensation, because we were barely passing. (This was queer because in my head I was still a wall flower) Years later I would graduate university, but back then, lucky to get a C-, I was a messed up kid.

Kreider is a university graduate too, as are most essayists. Years into the real world, he re-connected with a professor:

“Spending time with him was not like spending time with most of my friends, a lazy relief from life, hanging out for hours drinking beers and thinking up funny things to say; it was an intellectual workout, hard and exhilarating, like reading Conrad or listening to a Beethoven quartet. …You were not wasting time. And if that sense of seriousness and purpose occasionally felt like an imposition, it also turned out to be something for which I’d secretly been starved.” (page 95)

What I wish to focus on today is Krieder’s line, “You were not wasting time.” It resonates. Today I can relax and waste time, but once I was more like Oprah, and so were my friends. At university, before I was actually a student myself, I once heard Lisa telling us how happy she was to have spend part of her Saturday just lying on the floor listening to an entire album! Her joy, I am sure, was not that she could take time away from studying, (no one studied on Saturday) but that she could bring herself to take so much time away from her “shoulds.”

Kreider again:

“… that oppressive sense of obligation that ruins so much of our lives, the nagging worry that we really ought to be doing something productive instead.” (page 25)

For Lisa, her “sense of obligation” was surely her driving urge to get her act together, get normal and live up to her productive potential. No-time-for-small talk. One day, a few years later, we would meet on the bus. She would inform me I could get counselling on a sliding scale at the Grace Women’s Hospital, kindly alerting me to this opportunity because my problems were obvious to her, just as her urgent sense of obligation had been obvious to me, as both of us were in the same storm-tossed boat. 

Another person on the bus to being functional was my housewife friend, Lynn, from my self-help group. I will never forget Lynn being so happy to tell me that one day she and some other ladies, after a yoga class, had just hung out for coffee and talked of trivial nothing—and she felt so fine with that! So she went home and went, “Yahoo!” 

I can still relate to that previous version of Lynn because, as former Calgarian Joni Mitchel sings, I can see “both sides now.” I know I am on the sunnier side of the hill, at last, because a warrior I once served with, (In Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) now a social worker, said to me over coffee, “You are a success story.” (Yahoo!) 

Today I am “recovered” enough to simply hang out, just like all those “normies” with their charmed lives and half decent childhoods. Yes, but even as I am conversing, while passing for normal, calmly wasting time, inside my head a clock is tick-tick-ticking.

Sean Crawford
East of Eden

~We Learn Nothing by Tom Kreider subtitled Essays and Cartoons, free press, 2012. Here’s a review by a blogger whom I correspond with by e-mail.

~It’s no secret Oprah has a past. We like her, we don’t pity her. Like you and I, she has things to offer others.

~What if Lisa, now my age, were here? I would softly say Joni Mitchel has grown gracefully, like us. Here’s Joni’s mature, weathered version of the song she composed in her youth, Both Sides Now, intended for listeners with patience. Goes good with wine when it’s dark out. Not so good for young “surfers” who frantically click on links.

… And if you do have your wine, willing to be present, then here is Dame Judy Dench, in 2010, singing at the proms, being in the moment.