Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Museum of Terrible Beauty

No, I don’t have survivor guilt—I am grateful God has a purpose for me.

We were soldiers once… and young. Now, twice a week I work with an archivist. Approaching the Museum of the Regiments, in the cold spring morning air, I hear again quiet forlorn radio voices in the night. I smell machine oil and gunpowder. Stepping up to the door I crouch through swirls of dust and smoke and I enter the huge atrium—where all is open and clear. Far ahead and up above is a great portrait of our queen. She is so old! Back in my elementary school every classroom had a picture of her, with her smooth big young smile. The great painting surely was made when she was here to open the new gallery, back in the early 1990’s. The Queen Elizabeth II highway across the plains to Edmonton was named in her honor back then. I wonder what she would think of my spelling “honour” without the “u,” Yankee style, to match my new software spell-check. The world has gotten smaller since the years of flaming towns at midnight. 

Keith the commissionaire, at his big desk, once saw the queen when he was 17, as a member of the British army. He was a kid during the war, back when my father, born in Scotland, was over there with the Canadian army.

 As we talk a cheerful old oriental stranger shuffles in. He carries a polished branch as a walking stick, wearing grey sweat pants and the new-fangled plastic “crock” slip-on shoes. He wants to contribute his memories of the war; Alec, retired from the King’s Own Calgary Regiment, (Modern day cavalry troops, with battle tanks) goes and stands talking with him. I overhear Alec say that a retired reservist colonel of the Calgary Highlanders, a former CBC journalist, is recording oral histories, and that is whom the old veteran could eventually go see. But not today.

My main contact here is George, a manager, and a serving member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. As a soldier he will be retiring earlier than any civilian his age—a retirement well earned! He asks if I am retired. I say, “Not yet, although I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked that…I used to be able to keep count.”

Along with the archivist I disappear down into places the public never goes. People, mostly men, pass back and forth. Not old, not World War II veterans. Some will wear golf shirts, T-shirts or blazers with the crest of their reservist regiments emblazoned proudly. How contented they are with their meaningful work. Here is an air-conditioned world, a safe world. No youthful bravado, no derisions. Alec, with a twinkle in his eye, doesn’t “swear like a trooper”—he doesn’t need to now. And Jimmy sleeps in his own bed again.

Back upstairs, on our way back out, waiting for our handi-bus, we chat with a happy man my dad’s age wearing a Dieppe pin. Now a days he cheerfully speaks to groups of school children, telling them he was a “guest of the fuehrer.” He laughs, feeling fortunate to be in such good health, still walking. My dear dad is not so fortunate; my brother is living with posttraumatic stress disorder. In my family, poor but honest, we all did our best. At last the handi-bus comes; the archivist and I get strapped in. And then I can relax, I can slump a little against my strap… and I grieve.

Sean Crawford
With malice towards none
Calgary 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Distracted Perspective

…By the time I was a teenager we had moved beyond our small town days. Everyone had long become used to the appropriate morality of using liquor: Don’t drink in public, don’t be a drunken public nuisance, and don’t encourage minors to imbibe. (Lest they fail to develop common coping skills) And so back then a lady could sit on a bench on the town square, across from the church and city hall, and feel quite safe. So much for alcohol. Meanwhile the morals for two other substances, tobacco and marijuana, had yet to catch up. This was before any 1980’s research into “side stream” smoke, what we later called “second hand” smoke.

As a teen I noticed something about inappropriate use of substances: The worst offenders were the most vociferous about their feelings of entitlement. Were they so loud from being extra sincere, or from needing extra self-justification? As an adult I realized it was the latter when I noticed history repeating: When cellular telephones arrived, using the principle of a honeycomb of cells around towers talking to satellites, the worst offenders insisted they were entitled to raise their voices in public. Meanwhile, good people only groaned and silently submitted… just as earlier they had submitted to side stream smoke.

But in time, as good people conversed with each other, things changed. For example, I read in the newspaper that elegant waiters were finding the courage, with backup from the public, to tell people to carry their cells over to the payphones to conduct their conversations. I didn’t do fine dining, so I never saw it for myself, but I would have loved to see a poor but honest waiter facing down a rich scowling loudmouth.

The issue was not the quality of the microphones, but the quality of the users: They were raising their voices from vanity. Of course, as the cell phones have become cheap and common, the loudmouths are fewer:  What they show now-a-days is not their vanity—just their sheer selfishness.  They suck.

Lately I’ve seen how young digital pirates have been angrily impervious to reason. From their willful blindness my jaw drops; from their self-justification my tongue curls in disgust. (Here’s a trailhead to a link-path where various pirates raise their Jolly Roger as they comment to one of my favorite writers, David Gerrold) I think any solution for society won’t be a quick fix from “reasoning with pirates,” only a long slog of good people reasoning with each other and then surrounding the pirates with a consensus that piracy is wrong.

Every time a new technology comes along it takes us by surprise, and then society has to play catch up. Back when I was a boy, soon after the scientists had invented the horror of the atom bomb, it was often said the laboratory wizards have a responsibility to think before they give us a new invention. This sort of talk has vanished, I think, as I read nothing about science ethics when, as I dimly remember reading in the newspaper, a couple of Asian scientists published how to determine a baby’s sex. It seems to me the inventors of new technologies have a duty to think things through, as Prometheus did, and as Oppenheimer maybe didn’t, before they gift us with their fire. (Sting sang, in Russians, “How can I save my little boy, from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”)

For example, the purpose of having only three digits in an emergency, 9-1-1, is partly to save time. It might seem that cutting out a couple digits, and having only one panicky button to press on a cell phone, might save another precious microsecond during a frantic emergency. I suppose that’s a benefit, but did the nerds who invented the single 9-11 button UI (user interface) not foresee the cost? Obviously in Silicon Valley the computer guys carry their phones and calculators in cases on their belt, below their pocket protectors—how charmingly nerdish—but didn’t they think about normal people? Plain folks will just toss their cell phone tumbling into their purse, or jam it into their jackets and jeans, and then sit on the phone—needing only a single button to rouse the guys at the fire station. This should have been foreseen.

History repeats: In recent years, as with substances and cell phones, it has been like pulling teeth to get entitled people to admit that “distracted driving” is a Bad Thing. Early on, Oprah even had a man on her TV show who explained that even a “hands free” distraction is much more dangerous that talking to a front seat passenger. But still people kept angrily rejecting the science. I’m no longer surprised. At last, one by one, various jurisdictions are outlawing distracted driving. If not for resistance from the “folks of entitlement,” the laws could have been passed right away; saving God knows how many limbs and lives.

The police can only do their best. If here in Alberta we haven’t outlawed hands free devices yet, then it is only because trying to do so was meeting stiff resistance, besides being harder to enforce. So we compromised by banning only hands on devices.

Meanwhile, in my hometown of Calgary the road engineers, despite the booming oil wells, hadn’t anticipated how the population would boom. Pity the drivers: At certain stoplights, with our severe lack of East-West connecting roads, it is common to see a number of idling cars. After the distracted driving law was finally passed, the police then posed as beggars, going among the stopped cars and ticketing the users of mobile devices. Oh, how people were upset! Despite the law, the idiots felt entitled, since they were “stopped.” I have little sympathy for them, very little, and besides—aren’t they their brother’s keeper? What if someone sees them being distracted while stopped on the road, copies them, and then copies them while driving too? I say this with a trace of sarcasm.

I remember being stopped once on Memorial Drive. With a score of cars ahead of me, and a dozen stopped behind me, I felt safe. No one was going to come barreling down the road and hit me. The light changed. I gently took my foot off the brake, patiently waiting for the cars ahead, one by one, to go. Unfortunately I was chewing sour candy that day, with my jaw way out of line, when the young guy behind me hit me. Crash! We both got out. My car had only the tiniest dent. “What happened?” I asked

“I was on my cell phone—my hands free cell phone; I just broke off with my girl friend—suddenly I noticed the light had changed, so I went.” That was in April. My doctor tried muscle relaxants. In July my dentist, standing at arm’s length, could hear my jaw clicking. Physiotherapy is not an option. In October I can still feel a difference in the two sides of my face, a permanent reminder for the rest of my life, a possible source of pain when I become a senior citizen… Oh well, maybe my accident has sent the man a lesson, preventing a fatal injury to someone else.

Now, I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun; I like new technology as much as anybody; in fact, I enjoy using my MacBook Air to surf and see Youtube. Last week I noticed someone had posted a nice clip from Easy Rider, of two friends on motorcycles riding through God’s own country. One of the commenters for that post used to love riding free and easy. Not now. In the last seconds of his normal life he could see the lady who hit him holding her Goddamn cell phone. Now he has a new normal. A wheelchair.

Such is my perspective on persons who feel entitled to drive distracted.

Sean Crawford
~Footnote for US readers: Somebody told me that in crowded Los Angeles the cars all have to start to move off in unison, but that is not the case here in relaxed “Cowtown.” A few years ago our total population, including suburbs, reached one million—which would make our prairie town only a suburb of L.A. Here our cars move off one by one.

~I could have shrunk this big essay into a little sound bite: “If you distract, don’t drive; if you drive, don’t distract.” But that might be seen as a mere cliché, or as preaching... Forget swift preaching; essays are more fun.

~My essay Pirates and Prohibition is archived in April 2012

Update: The day after this posted, the Calgary Sun for Oct 25 ran a two page spread,  part 1 of 3, Driven to Distraction. Between 2008 and 20012 all of Canada's provinces and territories, except Nunavut, have come out with legislation.
(on the current legislation) "It's not working and it is not working right across North America," Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson says.
"…Ontario blamed a higher number of deaths on distracted driving than impaired motorists."
"After the tragedy, Henkel put her phone into the trunk when driving, urging fellow motorists to acknowledge the potential gravity of distracted driving and do the same."

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fears of Elysium

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princess and lords may flourish, or may fade,
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.”

From The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith, Irish playwright, 1730-1774

They say semi-conscious fears may be expressed by science fiction movies. The classic example is the Godzilla movies of Japan in the 1950’s. Naturally, half-hidden fears wouldn’t be on the movie posters, and the folks in the street were unlikely to walk out of the theater saying to each other, “Godzilla is about our fear of radioactivity after The Bomb.” It required academics and film critics to make the fears explicit. Meanwhile, over in the US, the conformity of the 1950’s, along with the Red scare, was behind such movies as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I think our fear of someone pressing The Button, a truly irreversible act, was behind that movie where the saucer lands on the Washington mall, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The human pilot, “Mr. Carpenter,” would “stop” the earth, but his robot could destroy the earth. You may recall how after the man is shot the robot goes into a countdown to apocalypse. (klaatu, barada nikto)

Elysium, in theatres now, is influenced by our world of today while showing a world of tomorrow, one where cold logarithmic equations have not meant the “progress” we would like to see—only the “progress” we fear to see. It stars Matt Damon and Jody Foster in a world where the middle class, “once their country’s pride,” is gone, where the poor live on earth and the rich live in a gargantuan space habitat, Elysium. In the United States of the future the poor guys groundside feel much, much more medically hopeless than, say, Africans of today who can’t get advanced cocktails to fight AIDS. Of course people want to escape to the sky.

Today there are sometimes boatloads of economic refugees heading for Australia. The Australians have finally stopped docking the boats and housing the refugees— instead they are taking people off to remote islands for judicial processing. In the future, space boats headed for Elysium are simply blasted out of the sky—only a few boats ever make it. If the Australians do not simply find an old cargo ship and chug-chug the refugees back to where they started, then it is because the public of today is divided on what to do. But not the cynical public of the future.

Below Elysium, Damon works in a factory. He live in a dusty brown city, a cynical unhappy city, a city quite unlike the vibrant 1950’s city of Detroit where proud workers live in strong neighborhoods. Instead, his demoralized world has pathetic foremen and pathetic safety standards: a natural consequence of absentee owners and no middle class.

For Hollywood, portraying an economic decline is straightforward; moviegoers may exit saying to each other, “What a yucky world.” But I think the half-conscious fear, unlikely to be spoken aloud, is about Damon’s city in California. In the future of Elysium the US is neither a traditional melting pot nor a Canadian style multi-culturalism—instead, a European style pluralism. Viewers sense that just out of camera range is a world where, as in Europe, government documents and kitchen cereal boxes are legally mandated to be in more than one language, English and Spanish—and this is not to aide fresh immigrants.

So far, of course, ethnic groups in the US have always melted in. So far, only rare individuals have been Boston bombers or, say, drone strike targets: individuals holding dual citizenship who have suffered a failure to assimilate. The general population is doing fine. Sure, the Swedes in Fargo say, “Ya?,” and the folks in ‘Frisco use chopsticks, but no one raised here is without a sense of “good English” and an American self-identity. (The exceptions might be in two states that were conquered with inhabitants already present: Arizona and New Mexico—I’ll find out when I go to Roswell) But despite this proven track record there is still, in the US, an ancestral semi-conscious fear of, “There’s always a first time.” (to not assimilate) I suppose the 1980’s movie Alien Nation played into this fear of separation. “How will my kids get a job?” said someone at the start of that movie, fearing his kid would not be as smart or as bi-lingual as an alien would be.

As I see it, we live our lives and we go to watch the big silver screen in the context of our citizenship. So let’s step back to see the bigger screen.

I’m as fearful as the next guy: In my everyday life, I for one prefer to be only semi-conscious of the rate of progress: How easy to think that progress is as regular as the arithmetical gradations on my ruler; how fearfully hard to acknowledge that progress is like the spreading logarithmic gradations on my slide rule, or like some startling graph curve.

Given that bar graphs and curves are easier to visualize than abstract numbers which have to be translated, perhaps other Americans fearfully prefer to be only semi-conscious too: I’ve noticed something. I sometimes read figures, usually within a sentence, but I never see a graph showing how other countries are catching up to the US GNP—nor do I (accidental pun) “graphically” see the interception point. Never have I seen a graph curve on how the gap between rich and middle class keeps growing, nor a graph of how the US middle class keeps shrinking. And heaven help us: These curves are just not flattening or slowing down.

In my boyhood, before the moon landings, it was the man now called Barrak Obama’s mentor, the famed community organizer Saul Alinsky, who could just as well have meant fears when he referred to problems: He said things remain as only a semi-conscious “bad scene,” not a clear and solvable “problem,” until people have hope. No one reasons out how to spend a lottery fortune, not unless they want to indulge in fantasy, and no one living in the ghettos, in Alinsky’s day, reasoned out how to fix the ghetto schools. Not until they had hope in the form of resources and tools and money. (Alinsky died in 1972)

Today some people, “hope challenged,” feel it makes more sense to write to their congressman about “sin” or “gun control” than about those infernal graph curves—after all, what could you expect a poor congressman to do? It’s a bad scene to be steadily losing the middle class, but where are the specific tools to recommend?

The good news is that our congressmen are not “capitalist pig dogs.” I think they mean well, even if they have an “old white male upper class bias.” They aren’t like the cynical folks in Elysium. The other good news is that our attitudes and habits are within our control. I’m thinking of how business guru Peter Drucker often wrote of how the post-war economic miracles of Germany and Japan were made possible because businessmen and legislators always had one eye on the good of the nation. Today congress could learn to keep one eye on whether anything they do will further shrink the middle class—this habit of mind would be qualitatively different than simply looking at “jobs.” To paraphrase the Buddhists, “when the people are ready, the tools will appear.”

While Americans have made movies about the Iraq fiasco and the Wall Street melt down (Margin Call) I don’t sense the public has truly felt any “wake up call.” Not yet. Let’s hope we don’t have to “hit bottom” before we can face fears and drop hubris. Not yet cynical, still pre-Elysium, I still retain hope. I realize that just now, our fingers half weakened with confusion and despair, we are allowing the middle class to slip away from our grasp. But “good old congress” could still become embedded in a nation with a strong attitude, with a clear-eyed determination to preserve the middle class.

I raise my glass in a toast, “Here’s hoping.” I think I’ll go rent the movie South Pacific, and sing, “I’m a cockeyed optimist.”

Sean Crawford
~I covered America in Descent (book report about A Time to Start Thinking) in October 2013, …
~I exposed inflation here and abroad in Conspiracies and Inflation, archived November 2013….
~I covered drone strikes matching US values in Drones, Culture and Citizens archived in February 2013.

~ It’s a truism the middle class is the backbone of our economy, of democracy and of public morality. The classic contrast is between the inspiring, awesome republic of Rome… and the corrupt, decadent Roman Empire that came along once the middle class was extinguished. “Ill fares the land…”

~As for my claiming that European style pluralism is inappropriate for us, I can imagine the British on their islands serenely nodding in understanding. After all, their flag is a combination of the crosses of ethnic patron saints, (not political flags) as they have broken a lot of hearts down the years in order to assimilate. (Oliver Goldsmith, quoted above, wrote in English) Meanwhile, over on the continent, I can imagine the Germans frowning and disagreeing, as someone told me Vienna has three languages. My sarcastic answer to the Germans is: Can you spell Yugoslavia? ... Your children won’t be able to.

~A nation’s semi-conscious fears may not always make it to the surface to be worked on and solved, of course. Today, tutored by the war on terror, we are learning that many Arabs find it easier to retreat to an Islamic past "—progress by earning God’s sudden blessing—" rather than surface their fears that "—progress by catching up—" to the rest of the world would require a lengthy effort: no quick fix. Arabs would need to embrace the attitudes and tools of progress, such as non-corrupt business management and a scientific mindset—but I doubt anyone is translating Drucker’s management books into Arabic. In fact, according to journalist Gwynne Dyer, in the whole Arab world, only 300 books are translated per year. (Future Tense: the new world order, 2004, p 66, adding in brackets, (Greece, population ten million, translates about 1,500 each year.))

Meanwhile, in Japan, Drucker is still well known as part of their economic miracle. A 2009 novel, Moshidora, has been made into a live action movie, a comic book (manga) and a TV cartoon (anime) series. In the novel a schoolgirl fills in for her sick friend to be the high school baseball team manager. She goes to the bookstore to find a sports book and instead finds a text, Drucker’s Management, which she uses to lead the team.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Reflections on Surveillance

A mystery, still unsettled, and unsettling: Do the innocent have anything to fear from federal surveillance and invasion of privacy?

I have to smile: My own lens for looking into this, an unusual lens I think, is to look with warmth and understanding upon federal workers. While I’m fiercely for citizenship, I’m not “agin’ gov’mint,” I’m not a libertarian or survivalist or—say, is there still a Tea Party movement? (Yes)

My reasoning about fellow Americans begins with my sunny boyhood… when suburbs were new, and we liked the good agents of the central intelligence agency, and we liked their good wives in their hair curlers too. In those days it seemed to me most of the girls who married wholesome clean-cut C.I.A men, if not to be housewives, hoped to be nurses, secretaries or schoolteachers. As teachers of elementary school, I can imagine them initiating homework for the children: With the purpose, or mission, of exposing them to responsibility and projects… then adding more homework for the mission of introducing them to what school would be like as teenagers… then adding more homework for the mission of “accelerated learning” which is the intent of studying—study interrupts the natural “forgetting curve.” What those teachers were innocently indulging in was “mission creep.”

As a boy, I carried to school nothing but my lunch in a bag; after lunch I folded up the bag and put in my pocket; after the last bell I walked home, arms free, back light, to have adventures on the way: Between the new suburbs were frog ponds, creeks and forests. As God is my witness, none of us had backpacks! When I first saw innocent kids in the funny papers with adult-style backpacks I thought it was a joke: but no, little children today really do look like turtles. Call it mission creep.

As for the good husbands in the C.I.A., they too had mission creep. The agency was started up under President Truman to avoid another Pearl Harbor, avoid separate agencies not cooperating to share information. Truman (in the book Plain Speaking) later called setting up the C.I.A. one of his few mistakes. While news has been slow to leak out, we know now the agency had mission creep: Starting with a clear mandate to spy only outside the US, and to gather and analyze intelligence, the enthusiastic Americans jumped the fence and started to do “covert operations” and then assassinations. These shameful actions have been documented in the feature length documentary, boringly irrefutable, but at least denial-smashing, On Company Business. And so today, when conversing with pleasant foreign tourists, the American people can no longer enjoy plausible deniability.

I like Americans; I like how federal workers, including the various “guns and uniforms” crowds, are not like dispirited minions of Darth Vader (or middle east armies) who merely go through the motions. In fact, I am touched by how idealistic they are: I’m still chuckling fondly over Vietnam. After the Japanese left, the French fought there the same way as any other western army would, but the Americans in their turn were exceptional. Who else would have brought in grueling long range patrols, complete with special long-range rations, lonely snipers, the widespread phoenix assassination program, candy for the children, and all sorts of plans to “win the hearts and minds?” And who else, unlike Europeans, would have kept their hands off, no hiring and firing of bad Vietnamese officers, insisting the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam be allowed to screw up? “This is their war and they have to win it.”

It was during Nam I first heard the term mission creep. The grunts, I heard, started with a mission to defend the Vietnamese airport, presumably from foxholes along the perimeter. But then… they would go out on reconnaissance patrols, “reconnaissance in force,” combat patrols… forward listening posts, bigger posts, and “force protection” by dominating the area… “We need more troops!” And so it goes. Civil servants are no different. Even if transparently for all to see are plainly written and clearly defined perimeters and mandates, the federal workers, at home and abroad, can be infinitely resourceful in finding ways to step over the bounds. It reminds me of riding horses: If the citizens and senators of the republic are alert, then we can yank the bridle on these jokers before they take another step off course and start to gallop.

I like American workers; years after Nam I innocently bought a brand new home. I discovered I was legally required to have one-year home insurance, for in case the contractor associations, unable to monitor themselves, needed to have their work redone. Call me innocent with something to fear. There is a reason why my for-profit company has to pay thousands of dollars to be audited by an outside firm—at the company’s own expense. Call it old wisdom. To my disgust, in our brave new 21st century, the government has failed to monitor its own contractors in Iraq.

The book Fiasco about Iraq was published quite early in the war on terror, even before the American liberators in Iraq had enough self-honesty to call what they were doing an “occupation.” (Although the Iraqi’s themselves were already using that word) Fiasco shows the massive US armed contractor, Blackwater, undoing all the efforts by any other Americans to “win the hearts and minds,” making null and void the efforts to convert the Iraqi’s into believing in democracy—and in the occupation. You might hope that by the time the book was proofed and printed the government would have monitored—after all, there was a war on! —and then told Blackwater: “Pull up your socks, dammit!” Nope. It was only after years of undoing US goodwill that the scandal of Blackwater started to appear on the front pages of my daily newspaper. Regrettably, I don’t remember reading any news articles saying that Blackwater had ever reformed. Judging by Blackwater, in wartime, I don’t think government would have any luck, in peacetime, at trying to monitor the folks doing surveillance… People in government have my sympathy. “Keep it simple, sweetheart”: If monitoring and oversight, when it comes to surveillance, is so hard for mere mortals, maybe canceling all domestic surveillance is the simplest answer.

 Having already mentioned a movie, On Company Business, I will mention another: the Steven Spielberg drama, Munich. What I found significant in the film was that while only a few secret agents had the secret mission of hunting the Munich terrorists, regular soldiers at the Israeli airport told them to keep up the good work: It was no secret.

If, just like in Israel, idealists like to share information, then back during my boyhood in the 1960’s, when the F.B.I. had a few agents doing a COINTELPRO program for “dirty tricks” against law abiding Americans, including Reverend Martin Luther King, was this truly a secret within the Bureau? And did nobody else in the Bureau know their boss was using agents to generate “gotcha!” files on prominent Americans?

Did no one else know of the F.B.I. agents being present the night of the killing of Karen Silkwood, or sound the alarm later when papers about her death on that night were being shredded? (And so were papers about the ongoing surveillance of her) If only there had been oversight of the surveillance, then maybe, knowing this, the agents would have reacted differently, and Karen would still be among us. As you know, the attorney general back during the Camelot years of the 1960’s —the good-hearted Robert Kennedy, John’s brother—had a perimeter that included the F.B.I. But monitoring is hard and just like President Truman with his new  C.I.A., Kennedy was helpless unless someone, anyone, was willing to be a whistle blower.

Since the 1960’s, of course, to help people be brave and do the right thing, we have implemented laws to protect whistle blowers, but this year, 2013, such laws did not help when rogue agents in the Internal Revenue Service were being punitive against American members of the Tea Party movement. Sometimes, government is something to fear.

I have a symbol for the rarity of whistle blowers, the reality of mission creep, and rogue departments going unmonitored by government. My symbol is a photograph from Eisenhower’s last year in the White House: Forever frozen in time, a lesson to future generations, are men around a long table. These men in sober dark suits with sober responsibility, aided by their degrees in law and history and so forth, these men each agreed, unanimously, to initiate what was to be one of America’s greatest military defeats of the cold war: the wet firecracker known as the Invasion of the Bay of Pigs.

I suppose American school kids have been Orwelled, that is to say, sheltered from knowledge of the scandal, but I hope adults in Business College scrutinize the fiasco in management class. Today we have a word for what causes such disasters: groupthink. In theory, we have remedies such as staff empowerment, respect for free speech, and “If everybody is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” In practice, human nature still remains. Hence Iraq. Let’s face it: Our conformity is a part of our humanity, and our humanity means we have feet of clay, and our common clay means bad luck trying to monitor surveillance; our clay means amusing foibles, ensuring that during every single day of every future decade there will be a fresh editorial cartoon—unless editors are under surveillance.

While I don’t hold with the stereotype of Americans anxious to conform, back slapping and eager to be popular, I do think federal workers will always find themselves becoming embedded in their agency culture. Today civil servants know full well they have been delegated by the citizens to operate in certain clearly defined areas, and they realize those same citizens believe in the US Constitution. But nevertheless, as viewed through my lens, the good men and women at, for example, the National Security Agency, are embedded in a groupthink culture, complete with mission creep, without effective monitoring, without rebuke by other parts of the government… and therefore, just like other agencies, they don’t think they are doing anything wrong.

What now? In a year when we discovered how not just a few bad apples, but entire orchards of civil servants, in orderly rows, have indulged in massive domestic spying on citizens, will there be a creeping tendency towards more specific and more individual spying? Yes, just as surely as apples fall from trees. If passion or money is involved, such as a boyfriend or real estate, will there be a temptation to spy? In Governor Palin’s words: “You betcha.” Meanwhile, in Canada this week, the CBC reported Revenue Canada had been infiltrated by organized crime: A mobster in prison had received a massive tax refund cheque for four hundred thousand dollars, even though he in fact owed more than million dollars in taxes. To rework an old quote, “Government is like organized religion: We are saved not by our faith, but by the lack of it.”

So much for domestic surveillance today. I’m sure things were better when I was a boy.

To me the remedy starts with leadership at the top, which means, needless to say, you and me. We citizens delegate to our government workers the authority to act in specific limited areas: If they jump the fence—and the horse never seems to jump when anyone is looking—there should be consequences. I think even if persons above a certain pay grade are immune there should still be consequences for individual junior leaders. As depicted in black-and-white in the film Judgment at Nuremburg, “I was only following orders” is no defense.

I find I lose my sense of humor when someone tells congress with a straight face there is no domestic spying, as happened earlier this year, until the lie was exposed by Just One Man—what if he had been hit by a bus? I see congress as being the republic’s last best defense; I think such lies weaken the republic’s immune system.

And why did that guy blow a whistle heard shrilly around the world instead of quietly going to his congressman? I can’t resist answering a question with a question: When the department of Homeland Security began “patting” everyone’s genitals at the airport, why did some folks behave like powerless juveniles at a boarding school, proposing people join in a mass no-fly day? Maybe because those guys didn’t trust their congressmen to have any power. And one last question: Why didn’t those guys insist the republic’s last best defense be given a teeny tiny bit of power over Homeland Security? …Maybe because homeland surveillance is a symbol, like an army salute, saying, “you guys don’t have any power.”

I can feel my sense of humor returning.
Imagine a deep official voice in Washington, saying: “And now will the honorable senator from Texas, who, regarding domestic surveillance, has only been kept ‘out of the loop’  for security reasons, please raise his right hand and swear, “I am not, and never have been, a member of Al-Qaeda.”

Sean Crawford

~While waiting for Thursday, to do my weekly post, I found a Reuters story in the Edmonton Sun, Saturday Sept 28, 2013 p. 36; headlined NSA staff spied on lovers “…The practice is known in intelligence world shorthand as “LOVEINT” and was disclosed by the NSA Office of the Inspector General in response to a request by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Republican Charles Grassley for a report on abuses of the NSA’s surveillance authority…”

~Update- This morning, Friday October 11, the CBC , Canada's national radio, reported that both the F.B.I. and the Justice Department refused to be interviewed. (Oh, if only the US government was innocent with nothing to fear from people, and from the rest of the government) This after a brave man, a former businessman who ran a US Internet server, said today in a CBC interview that he was ordered to give up his "keys" to all his users AND that he was legally  forbidden to warn his users or tell the public AND he heard that a legal court order would make him stay in business if he tried to shut down, AND that his staying open being compulsory would have to be secret. So he closed up abruptly before he could be legally notified. The problem is that in a democracy unwise laws and court powers, as above, can eventually be repealed... ONLY if people are allowed to legally communicate and think about them. Without freedom to speak…  —Regrettably, this is not the first time I've heard of this.

~The splendid book The Killing of Karen Silkwood by Richard Rashke, 1981, could stand alone as a convincing argument the innocent have something to fear: Even in the idealistic aftermath of the Watergate tapes, in the book we see so many US justice and defense organizations breaking the law regarding surveillance! (For example, by wiretapping without a judge’s warrant) From that book I learned of the F.B.I. shredding their documents covering the night of the killing. (I haven’t seen the movie Silkwood)

~“… Above a certain pay grade, a politician can never be prosecuted or imprisoned,” a sentiment voiced by a character in Inside Out, a novel by Barry Eisler, 2010, as documented in the references, p 349 (paperback)

 ~The problem with immunity for the leaders, i.e. corruption, is the resulting cynicism reduces everyone else’s motivation to back up their ideals with action: Lest we forget, the once virtuous Roman republic declined into an authoritarian regime, with the first emperor being as popular with the Romans as Vladimir Putin is with the Russians, only after the senators no longer could count on backup from the no-longer-virtuous citizens.

...Say, I seem to recall the emperor taking off his shirt, like Putin, and swimming the Tiber. Putin must think it's safe for history to repeat, not to mention feeling safe with oppression creep, since he can feel safe the Russian peasants don't know history.