Thursday, June 27, 2013

Privacy and Secrecy, a poem

for Glenn Greenwald

Secrets are as people keep them.
Privacy is as it is respected.

The State does not respect your privacy.
Nor do its subservient journalists.*

It says, "If you want your privacy,
you'd better keep it like a secret."

And when its secrets are exposed it acts
like its privacy has been violated.

Decency is the difference between secrecy
and privacy. The State now has none.

*"Flies carrying news, harpies dripping with sh-t through the air,

The slough of unamiable liars,
bog of stupidities,
malevolent stupidities, and stupidities,
the soil living pus, full of vermin,
dead maggots begetting live maggots," (E.P. Canto 14)

That means you, NY Daily News.

Privacy and Secrecy

This is my statement of support for Glenn Greenwald, who is now apparently under personal attack for his journalism about how the state spies on and lies to its citizens.

"The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold," sings Leonard Cohen in "The Future" ("it is murder"), "and it's overturned the order of the soul."

What he might have meant is that the soul requires privacy. The modern "security state", like the police states of old, does not give the soul a place to exist (does not give existence a place to be, we might say), because it dissolves the distinction between public and private matters. We have long lived in a society where the State's interest in your private life is proportional to the efficacy of your public criticism of it. (I've written about how ridiculous this is before.)

"There'll be a breaking of the ancient Western code.
Your private life will suddenly explode," sings Cohen.

He was predicting what is happening to Glenn Greenwald, as well as Edward Snowden, of course. And he was no doubt informed by what Nixon tried to do to Daniel Ellsberg. But I'm not sure Ellsberg is completely right that state power "uses those tactics against anyone who dissents from or challenges it simply to distract from the revelations and personally smear the person with whatever they can find to make people uncomfortable with the disclosures." That too, no doubt. But the main thing is to show everyone else what happens when you criticize power in a way that actually has some bite. You better make sure your private affairs are in order. It is intended to discourage future whistle-blowing, not effect damage control.

And this is the deeply sinister force of such personal attacks. The intelligence apparatus (having co-opted a good portion of the media), which does now seem to be an entirely soulless machine, is unable to distinguish between privacy and secrecy. It makes no distinction between keeping things to yourself and having something to hide. Greenwald's legal issues in the past were none of your business yesterday and are none of your business now, no matter what he did. The journalistic impulse to find out "what he's hiding" is one that, as in all matters of basic decency, one has an obligation to restrain. His past is a private matter, not a shameful secret. There's a difference. Only those who have no sense of decency do not understand this.

Greenwald was not hiding anything from us, like the NSA was hiding Prism from us. He just lived with what should have been a reasonable expectation of privacy. It is sad (but of course demonstrably true) to read that he was "fully expecting those kinds of attacks since [he] began [his] work on these NSA leaks." Note what it implies. Greenwald knew, going in, that to expose state secrets is to give up your personal privacy. That's because the State thinks that its counterattack is just two people playing at the same game. It probably thinks there is only one game.

The journalists who are attacking Greenwald (and Snowden and Assange and Manning and...) personally are napalming what Rosmarie Waldrop called "the lawn of the excluded middle". I'll unpack that notion & metaphor in a follow up post.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Collateral Damage

" assumption is underpinning the US analysis: The belief that China copied and read whatever documents he had in Hong Kong."

Intelligence officials (and their attendant journalists), it seems, are trying to get us to understand the damage that Edward Snowden, perhaps unintentionally (i.e., "not wittingly"), did to U.S. national security. My first reaction is to point out that every time people try to use the fact that, say, drone strikes do a lot of "collateral damage" as an argument against the drone strikes themselves they are told to keep the bigger picture in mind.

My second reaction is this: if you're really worried that leaked information will fall into the wrong hands you should treat leakers with greater respect. That is, you should offer credible whistle-blower protections.

In the Snowden case, it seems pretty straightforward. If Snowden had felt he could safely leak information to show that the Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress about what his agencies were up to, i.e., if anyone working within the intelligence apparatus could be given a reasonable expectation that leaking information that informs citizens about something that officials are trying to conceal from those citizens will not ruin their life, then they would not, when conscience forces them to speak out, seek the protection of foreign governments, who might, of course, have their own interest in the information the whistleblower has access to.

In fact, coming down hard on whistleblowers has the effect of forcing whistleblowers to steal not just the secrets they want to expose "on purpose", but additional secrets that might be used to bargain with possible protectors.

My third (and last, for now) reaction is this: all the motives that have so far been attributed to Snowden are pretty ordinary. At best, he is a man of conscience, at worst he's looking for fame and adventure. I don't think anyone has suggested he actually wants to hurt America or expects to make a lot of money off this. But even this would be pretty ordinary stuff, given a population of, what, 1.4 million Americans with security clearance. To blame (and even be very interested in) Snowden's motives is to miss the fact that an intelligence must maintain discipline in ranks that can be expected to have such motives.

So, for example, if you're going to lie to the American people about how you're spying on them, you are simply going to have to lie also to the rank-and-file intelligence officers that, "unwittingly", spy on them. Otherwise the very patriotic sentiments you are counting on to keep them motivated will ultimately drive them to betray you. To not get this is simply to be unable to lead a nation.

Monday, June 24, 2013

There Are No Philosophies

There are philosophers, of course. And there is philosophy. But, precisely because there are as many philosophies, if there are any, as there are philosophers (in their various moods, moreover), to speak of them as bodies of thought, separate from the thoughts of the bodies of the philosophers themselves, is simply to add a needless complication, and much unnecessary grief.

I dare say the same goes for poetry.

Schools and movements serve a temporary purpose that ultimately has nothing to do with the art. It is the individual artist struggling with the materials present in experience, seeking his or her own particular satisfaction, that produces a work of art. It does not become more or less artful by association with the works of others traveling under a common banner.

(I know, I know ... how this sounds. But there are times when one feels the need to say it anyway.)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

On Prevention

When we lock our doors we are engaging in what may be called "crime prevention". It is, of course, a perfectly acceptable precaution. So, too, when the city chooses to install lights along a dark path in a park that has seen an increase in nighttime aggravated assaults. But when the state begins to track the private communications of its citizens, looking for signs that they are contemplating a criminal act as a way of expressing their political frustration, then we are getting into something sinister.

New York and Washington should not have been vulnerable to the attacks of September 11, 2001. But the current argument, that these targets were unprotected by adequate surveillance of the world's electronic communications, is not only nonsensical but deeply irresponsible. Surely we can imagine a plan to hijack planes that is developed entirely on paper and in face-to-face meetings? Surely, it was the responsibility of those who made enemies of Al-Qaeda to protect America against the reality of attack, not the idea of it, the act of violence, not the thought of it.

On Privacy

"How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech." (Søren Kierkegaard)

Perhaps we should reject also the false choice between freedom and privacy, but lately I've been imagining a renegotiation of the state-citizen relationship. I might prefer giving the state the power to imprison or execute me for the views I express in public so long as it promised not to listen to what I say in private.

This has a quite radical consequence. It should not be illegal (because it should be entirely undiscoverable by the state) to plan an act of political (or even personal) violence. Such planning should be considered part of my private process of thinking the requirements and consequences of my actions through before reaching a decision about whether or not to do it. It is always in principle possible to decide, after carefully planning a murder, that one will not, finally, go through with it. Sometimes thinking the technical details of the act through is the only way to clarify its moral dimension. Thus, even while planning, one is exercising one's conscience.

When a group of political malcontents sits down under a low lamp to plan a subversive act of violence, they are not yet committed to carrying it out. They are really just thinking their political position through to its logical conclusion. By criminalizing their private conversation (as "planning an act of terror," for example) we are criminalizing the social dimension of thought.

To only grant me the privacy to think within the confines of my own skull is, quite literally, Orwellian. ("Nothing was your own," in the nightmare of 1984, "except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.") I would much prefer to be constrained in my freedom to speak publicly, than in my freedom to speak openly to my friends about what I've "got a good mind" to do.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Nausea

"The crux of the whole book seems to be the illumination that comes to Roquentin when he discovers that his 'nausea' is the result of the pressure of an absurd and amorphous but very tangible world. ... One has no special quarrel with Roquentin when he decides that the world exists. But the task to make the world exist as a work of art was beyond Sartre's powers." (Vladimir Nabokov, SO, p. 229-30.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

On Angst

"It lurks in old loves and old letters or in our despair at the complexity of modern life" (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, 1944, p.43, my emphasis).

Sunday, June 16, 2013


"Another tendency which is extremely natural to democratic nations and extremely dangerous is that which leads them to despise and undervalue the rights of private persons." (Alexis de Tocqueville)

There was a time when it could almost be accepted that the police might, every now and then, listen to your phone conversations without a warrant while investigating a crime. At least, we said to ourselves, it will be inadmissible in court a court of law. Now, of course, the evidence will not be used against you in a court of law. It will determine your location in the "disposition matrix", according to which you will be held, or just killed, without trial.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Abundance Lost

The North American continent is able to produce everything its population needs in superabundance at the cost of very little labour on the part of that population.

It would be entirely possible for that population to pour the greater part of its energies into the improvement of living conditions and the direct enjoyment of the conditions that exist.

Instead, its governments devote themselves to the surveillance, management and "security" of that population. And its population is consequently engaged in activities distressingly few of which are directly enjoyable in the moment or empowering over the long the term.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Respite Everything

"It's not that I want to be watched, it's just that I don't mind it.”
Jennifer Ringley

I'm not just saying this because it sounds like the right thing to say. This really is a good time time to read the early work of Ben Lerner and Tony Tost. They saw this coming. They knew what sort of mood we'd be in and what sort of poetry we'd need to make light our hearts.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Universal Imbecility

"There is today a new reality; it is its first appearance in terrestrial life—the fact of political world-control. Today this may be said to be in existence, and tomorrow it will be still more of a fact. Neither can it be hidden—short of destroying everybody's sense of reality altogether. People could no doubt be persuaded that they did not see the sun and the moon: but the effort to assimilate this gigantic lie would destroy their brains altogether, and universal imbecility would ensue." (Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, p. 367)

The Vast Lie

"It is likely that the survival of capitalism is no longer possible without the creation in the consumer of a series of psychically disruptive needs which circle about such wants and emotions as the desire for excessive security, the alleviation of guilt, the lust for comfort and new commodity, and the consequent allegiance to the vast lie about the essential health of the State and the economy, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality and thus drive them closer to apathy, psychosis, and violence. Nineteenth-century capitalism exhausted the life of millions of workers; twentieth-century capitalism can well end by destroying the mind of civilized man." (Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 355-6)

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Schools and Prisons

School is to knowledge as prison is to power.

Freedom is to power as limits are to knowledge.

A prison, really, provides the extreme limits within which to decide upon your freedom.

A school, ideally, provides the extreme freedom within which you can discover your own limits.

Learning and...

What is to power as learning is to knowledge?

A hint:

Wikipedia tells us that 'The word mathematics comes from the Greek μάθημα (máthēma), which, in the ancient Greek language, means "that which is learnt", "what one gets to know," hence also "study" and "science", and in modern Greek just "lesson." The word máthēma is derived from μανθάνω (manthano), while the modern Greek equivalent is μαθαίνω (mathaino), both of which mean "to learn."'

The Online Etymology Dictionary, meanwhile, tells us that the verb "to learn" comes from 'Old English leornian "to get knowledge, be cultivated, study, read, think about," from Proto-Germanic *liznojan (cf. Old Frisian lernia, Middle Dutch leeren, Dutch leren, Old High German lernen, German lernen "to learn," Gothic lais "I know"), with a base sense of "to follow or find the track," from PIE *leis- "track." Related to German Gleis "track," and to Old English læst "sole of the foot" (see last (n.)).'

What, then, is to power as mathematics is to knowledge? The answer here must be a word with a Greek root. And this Greek root must give us the analogy for "learn" that we're looking for, which in turn must derive from Old English.

The idea of "following or finding the track" might be useful.

Lessons are to knowledge as _________ are to power. (Remember that schools are to knowledge as prisons are to power, for example.)