Tag Archives: rand paul

Skirmish of the Titans

For a while, energy policy in the US has been characterized by many as a sort of apocalyptic battle between a group of interconnected fossil fuels industries and a kind of scrappy coalition of underdog competitors.

Even I’ve written about energy proposals somewhat from that angle myself, where policies fairly neatly cleave into two adversarial camps. There’s those that recognize the risks of climate change and those that don’t and the outcomes on how you want government to work as a result. There’s those that see resource renewability as a key issue and those that don’t, giving us economic policies based on endless resource extraction and those based on resources being possible to exhaust. There’s those that want to create a new energy system and those that want to double down on maintaining what they already have, creating a competition for federal research funds between those who want to improve the viability of solar panels and those who want to perfect the science of dredging oil from the earth. They’re two different worlds and two different political realities struggling to live together in just one.

That dynamic seems to be changing somewhat, however. The anemic coal industry has slowly reached the realization that fracking and other innovations extracting other fossil fuels are at least some of its biggest competitors, joining if not quite replacing renewables and regulatory oversight as its bogeymen. The huge leak of natural gas in California has called into question the natural gas industries not so subtle claim to being the safest fossil fuel energy source. Ethanol producers, long seen as a fossil-fuel-like and fossil-fuel-cooperative energy industry a bit like the nuclear industry, has emerged as a competitor for favor and support within the same Republican energy-minded circles. There’s no outright conflict between any of these powerful industries yet, but there’s a new sense of fractures between them.

There’s a sense that these different industries feel crowded together within the US marketplace. The Republican energy policy proposals expected to be put to a vote before Congress in the coming days seem to attempt to address those feelings in a number of ways. Lifting the ban on export for certain energy commodities might allow fuels like coal which aren’t terribly competitive domestically to be exported to where they might be (or at least, whoever buys them thinks they are). On the other end of these industries, reopening certain federal lands to speculation and extraction might similarly allow all of these possible competitors to co-exist again. Failing that, it might at least create a feeling that they can all get along. From production to sales, the focus in “adult” Republican circles has shifted towards carving out a big enough space for all of these different industries, seemingly to keep the peace.

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From here.

Curiously, this would politically put the Republicans in the place of actively governing, and at that in a way that would be to reduce competition within one of the biggest markets in the US. That’s in a nutshell precisely what they’ve branded themselves as being opposed to. In spite of the risks, they appear ready to do anything to avoid wasteful conflicts between your biggest donors, particularly as even mainstream discussions about energy sources have started talking about keeping all of it in the ground. That’s a bit of a tell – they think they might need a united front in the coming years, and are willing to spend political points today to have one tomorrow.

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Life, liberty, and the pursuit of chemical weapons

Trigger warning: Syrian civil war, war crimes

The Republican Presidential Primary has now seen five debates. Since the second one, at which former CEO Carly Fiorina made her national debut, there’s been few changes in the rhetoric and claims made by candidates in appearance after appearance.

One of the most interesting consistencies is Senator Rand Paul’s fierce insistence on a mildly pro-Assad stance. Part of the strangeness of this is that this puts him outside of the Assad-critical consensus which includes everyone from his competitors in the primary to President Obama. These aren’t just rare politics, however, but ones that speak to an intriguing contradiction at the heart of American libertarianism.

The still technically reigning president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, essentially inherited his position from his father after his brother, initially favored, died unexpectedly in a car accident. He has held a prominent national position since the mid-1990s, with only dubious democratic checks on his rule. Ignited by the international Arab Spring in 2012 and fueled by local droughts and famines, much of Syria has been engaged in open revolt against his regime for several years now. The remnants of al-Assad’s government have resorted to widespread use of chemical weapons, prompting the current US administration to categorically reject any involvement in Syria designed to shore up his rule.

The son of a charismatic leader thrust into protracted and toxic battles to retain territory, perhaps al-Assad reminds Senator Paul of himself. Whatever personal readings he has of the man, his libertarian ethos seems to take a backseat to a curiously pro-Assad policy plank without question. Paul stands with, intriguingly enough, a large chunk of the US and broader world in insisting that we can’t back Daesh and other islamist groups in the prolonged Syrian conflict. As he put it last night:

We had people coming to our Foreign Relations Committee and saying, ‘Oh, we need to arm the allies of Al Qaida.’ They are still saying this. It is a crazy notion. This is the biggest debate we should be having tonight is is regime change a good idea; has it been a good idea.

This uncontroversial carefulness when picking people to support in Syria (and the broader Islamic world), based on more than simply opposition to dictatorships, is woven into his larger, stranger political view of the Middle East, however. As he also explained in that debate:

“I think that by arming the allies of ISIS, the Islamic rebels against Assad, that we created a safe space or made that space bigger for ISIS to grow.”

This reduction down of the Syrian conflict into a binary choice between locally quite bloodthirsty secular dictatorship and theocracy with aspirations of terrorizing the globe seems politically useful, if you want people outside of Syria to ultimately accept al-Assad and his regime as a “lesser of two evils”. Unfortunately, it presumes a lot of not necessarily true facts: that someone has to be supported in the Syrian conflict, and that no alternatives to al-Assad’s government and Daesh exist (the Kurdish separatists, among others, are apparently not worth mentioning).

syria conflict map
Syrian military blocs’ holdings, as of his summer, from here.

What’s truly shocking, however, is to hear this acceptance of systemic violence and despotism as inherently how Syria and perhaps the broader Islamic world simply have to be coming out of the mouth of libertarian widely criticized for his idealism. The idealist rhetoric which permeates Senator Paul’s worldview, or at least political perspective within the US’s borders, melts away, leaving behind an undemocratic and even imperialistic skeleton.

An interesting implication of this is that all of the language favored by libertarians, or at least the ones who agree with Senator Paul, obscures something. It’s not possible that all human beings have inalienable rights to life and liberty, if Syrian’s lives and liberties can so coolly be considered and bartered away on the other side of the world.

It suggests that only some people are truly included in the loftiest defenses of all “human beings” or that “life and liberty” are so incoherently defined in practice that dictatorships like al-Assad’s can quite easily still fit into the definition of a government which provides them. Maybe it’s both – that liberty in (at least some forms of) libertarianism is a privilege reserved for a select few and one defined in a broken way designed to excuse and permit quite literal autocracy.

Something no one seems to be asking is for Senator Paul to explain himself on his, how someone who claims to center a universal human right to liberty in his politics can also be one of the leading figures calling for us to tacitly or even directly support one of the most violent regimes on the planet. I hope he we can hear his answer to gain some clarity on what’s happening here.

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The Five Most Crucial Moments in Last Night’s Debate

Trigger warning: anti-immigrant rhetoric, racism, linguistic imperialism, slavery, abortion, colonialism, islamophobia

Last night, fifteen candidates in the Republican Presidential Primary appeared on CNN over the course of two debates lasting five hours. Almost every word said by their entire group will cast longer shadows than I think most realize, not only through the primary, but into the general election. In such a crowded and raucous field, these individual statements are going to define how many people think about the Republican Party and will play a key role regardless of whether the candidate who said them is necessarily nominated. Here are the five that stood out to me as most emphatically defining the party and its eventual nominee to the general public.

Lindsey Graham didn’t dogwhistle quietly enough

In the lower tier debate round, a number of candidates were asked to speak at greater length on immigration policy than those in the upper tier. For many, the trick was to both avoid alienating statements about immigration that could harm their favorability with many ethnic communities or that would mark them as opposed to the heavy-handed approach to immigration that appears to have built Donald Trump a base of support overnight.

Lindsey Graham intriguingly attempted to not only triangulate between those two diametrically opposed constituencies but also stress the policy desires of business interests within the Republican coalition with the argument that immigration is necessary to maintain economic efficiency. That third consideration may have been too many balls in the air for him to juggle properly, and led to him speaking a bit less indirectly to the racial and ethnic dimensions of anti-immigration sentiments within the Republican Party. As Graham himself put it-

I have a little different take on where the country is going on this issue. Number one, in 1950, there were 16 workers for every retiree. How many are there today? There’s three. In 20 years, there’s going to be two, and you’re going to have 80 million baby boomers like me retiree in mass wanting a Social Security check, and their Medicare bills paid. We’re going to need more legal immigration. Let’s just make it logical. Let’s pick people from all over the world on our terms, not just somebody from Mexico. […] We’re not going to deport 11 million people here illegally, but we’ll start with felons, and off they go. And, as to the rest, you can stay, but you got to learn our language. I don’t speak it very well, well, look how far I’ve come? Speaking English is a good thing. […] I never met an illegal Canadian.

Part of what this reveals is that the comparatively pro-immigration business wing of the Republican Party is quite comfortable with racially and ethnically charged devaluing of specifically Latin@ immigrants, but more broadly immigrants of color in general. That isn’t precisely groundbreaking, but potentially Graham made that obvious to people who hadn’t seen or realized it before. Their alternative to a total restriction on immigration is a restitution of sorts of the historical immigration policies the US has had, which encouraged the “right kind” of immigrants. Whether that will as neatly translate into racially and ethnically “desirable” immigrants as it historically has remains to be seen, but the emphasis on racial and ethnic contrasts between Canada and Mexico that Graham relies on seem to suggest that that’s the case.

With Graham failing to subtly reassure the anti-immigrant parts of the Republican base without telegraphing the racially and ethnically-charged nature of his immigration platform, you would think his dodge and miss would have led to an outcry. According to the google analytics, however, he captured most of the attention over the course of the lower tier debate. He failed to come off as being motivated by legality rather than race and ethnicity in animus towards immigrants, but he managed to appeal to two other typically Republican constituencies: White nativists and the business community. If that benefits him, that will confirm for many hesitant voters what the Republican Party stands for and what policies it as a cultural force wants to advance.

Did Carson just say he wants to reintroduce slavery?

Speaking of the ultimate fate of the millions of undocumented people in the country, Ben Carson touted his plan for them in more extemporaneous detail that he previously has. On the face of it, it’s quite garden variety Republican policy. The currently undocumented people in the US can’t receive citizenship directly without penalty because that would be “jumping the line” or something similar in the eyes of anti-immigrant groups. Carson takes a page from both the compassionate conservative and business community however, and rejected at least the official language of deportation or the immediate hostility towards a guest worker program. The policy carved out by those separate rejections is that immigrants will be offered a guest working program with potentially the eventual ability to apply for citizenship, but with a number of restrictions placed on that to make it as inaccessible for them as possible.

What Carson added last night to that was the florid image that this workforce bereft of the benefits of citizenship would be toiling, specifically, in the fields. The tone of it calls into question whether those guest worker statuses would permit them much latitude in choosing the nature of their work, their employer, and other basic rights taken for granted by many. In effect, they would constitute a legally captive labor force with slim chances dependent on others’ mercy to be granted protections and liberties purported for all but actually reserved for a few.

slaves in fieldUnnamed slaves in a field by an uncredited photographer. From here.

Does that strike anyone else as sounding familiar?

Unlike Graham, Carson isn’t auditioning to make it out of the lower tier of candidates but is rather attempting to maintain his upper-to-middle-of-the-pack status. What’s more, he has to do this as a Black man in a primary election defined by voicing anger, something he may not be able to do without facing negative repercussions others wouldn’t. From those two facts spring a selection of uncomfortable possibilities.

However these statements affect his rank will speak loudly about what exactly it means to be a Republican and more generally vote or support for any of them. Beyond that, they are also a reflection of the historical amnesia and detachment from present realities to be a plausible Black Republican candidate. Simultaneously, this is showcasing to the broader public the policies desired within Republican circles and reflecting the limitations and requirements put upon Black people within those spaces.

Fiorina tried tapping into Trump’s base’s anger

Just before the first debate I tweeted a couple of questions that I wanted anyone reading to keep in mind while watching. One of the most important in retrospect was-

With Carly Fiorina rising from the lower tier and Carson’s surge to second place in many polls, those two candidates seemed both best poised to use their momentum to capitalize on any weakness by Trump. The actual answer to this appears to have been, intriguingly: both.

Carson focused on being an affable contrast to Trump, down to a very even-tempered and counter-conflict personality. He was careful to appear to be that directly towards Trump as well, potentially shaving support off of Trump’s by being policy-wise similar but potentially more palatable from a social standpoint.

Fiorina, alternatively, wasn’t interested in playing the good cop to Trump’s bad cop. She worked to outdo Trump himself in channeling the anger that catapulted him to the front of the polls. She used that far more strategically, building to a fiery crescendo that drew some of the biggest applause of the night:

While Carson may have made some small in roads with a careful play, Fiorina took a big risk in trying to bottle Trump’s base’s anger and redirect it, largely not towards Latin@ immigrants but towards comprehensive healthcare and Iranians. The hostility towards those seen as less important and less socially valuable is maintained, but put to work in ways that safely advance Republican policies more directly in line with the party’s economic elite, in terms of dismantling the health provisions for low income women and boldly insisting on absolute fidelity towards US interests by other countries.

Part of Trump’s whole appeal is that he is breaking the establishment’s mold, so it’s unclear that Fiorina’s play won’t backfire. Keep your eyes peeled to see if the party’s core can camouflage itself with the periphery’s fiery emotions.

The first casualty is the truth

For many this is unsurprising. Everyone expects politicians to fudge the truth in their favor. What’s more, to be fair it can be pretty difficult to be on-call to speak with complete accuracy on all sorts of topics the way they must. That said, the stretched truths in this debate reflect a growing problem within Republican politics, however, where the entire basis for a set of policy decisions is a complete fabrication. The problem is no longer a lie that’s convenient but that’s the entire foundation of a political stance. Immediately after Fiorina’s denouncement of a Planned Parenthood video a whole slew of tweets like this one went out:

The supposed torture of a not only viable fetus, but one that was living after being aborted should, in a reasonable world, tip people off that what’s being stated isn’t true. Not only did that false anecdote prompt invective and applause, however, but it’s the emotional crux at the heart of the fierce demands for absolute defunding of Planned Parenthood.

My own personal version of this was the insistence that not only do most countries not have “birthright citizenship” but that, according to Trump, Mexico is one of them. In a word, that’s wrong.

More generally, while most of the world does indeed have its citizenship system based in jus sanguinis (family background) rather than jus soli (location of birth), the normal state of things in mainland countries in the Americas is to have a basis in jus soli – only Colombia is an exception to that. So, while there is a technical global rejection of that, the hemisphere-wide norm is one that the US fits. The idea of us being strange in terms of that and specifically different from Mexico is, however, the basis of an argument for undoing our legal standards for how citizenship is passed down to specifically target communities of recent immigrants.

One both issues, major candidates are not only stretching the truth, but creating an idea of what is true to validate a political stance that has made them wildly popular. I’ve written before about the unrealness of politics in the US and an emerging post-truth politics, but this is a jolting resurrection of those attitudes after they proved rather useless in the 2012 elections.

Rand Paul endorses secular dicatorships

For those who have been reading this blog for many years, you might remember my misgivings with the libertarian counter to standard Republican security policy. In a nutshell, the criticisms don’t seem to be motivated by much concern for the people most likely to experience violence justified in the name of “national security” so much as fear that that violence is likely to eventually be used against other groups or otherwise is poorly supervised. Rand Paul has long been the most visible example of those types of pseudo-dovish politics on a national stage. He didn’t disappoint on that last night when he explained-

[S]ometimes intervention sometimes makes us less safe. This is real the debate we have to have in the Middle East. Every time we have toppled a secular dictator, we have gotten chaos, the rise of radical Islam, and we’re more at risk. So, I think we need to think before we act, and know most interventions, if not a lot of them in the Middle East, have actually backfired on us.

The possible concern for how US military interventions negatively affect people in the targeted countries is papered over with the fear that they jeopardize if not undermine other US policy objectives. Out of the mouth of the libertarian candidate, supposed speaker for liberty in the room, comes a defense of secular dictatorships in the Middle East, which outside of Syria have by and large operated with significant US support. This is the alternative within the GOP’s major candidates to a neoconservative crypto-colonial approach towards the Middle East: a selective mix of that and a more historied colonial attitude that democracy is a privilege we can deny other nations. That not only limits the debate in that room but speaks to what the limits of the Republican Party’s policies are.

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A transcript of the main round of the debate can be found here, and a transcript of the initial round here.

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The year a third mainstream security stance emerged

TW: racism, abilism, drone strikes, mass surveillance, imperialism

I wrote at the end of last year that gun control had, at least in some way, become a more visible issue within the US over the course of 2012. At the time, I didn’t realize the potential for a similar set of politics to emerge on other similarly security-focused issues. A number of events over the past year, however, suggest that we’re in the midst of a messy, shuttering political realignment on security issues – with risks faced by both major political parties and the two pre-existing main political camps. What started last year with rising interest in gun control measures designed to restrict access to weapons or ammunition for people of color and people with documented mental illnesses, has become a full set of policy prescriptions that indelibly reflect discussions about rights cloaking opinions about power and privilege.

The most obvious incarnation of this is the rise of the Rand Paul-style opposition to drone strikes, which is always careful to drop mentions of strikes being unnecessary on US citizens or within US territory, or Stop Watching US-style opposition to mass surveillance, which inevitably drops references to the invasive nature of spying on “suspicionless Americans”. The familiar debates of the Bush era have apparently disintegrated in the past few years, with the issue no longer being whether existing anti-crime and anti-terrorism systems were “keeping us safe” or had contributed to drastic restrictions on people’s rights. Against the by-the-book moderate politics of many Democrats and the more hawkish interest in more police and military actions that otherwise dominates US politics, a new third bloc has emerged. It’s radically opposed to the current state systems of policing and targeting people, but fundamentally only on a contextual basis.

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(I am far from the only person who noticed this way of thinking about state power this year, from here.)

There’s been something of a Faustian exchange that’s happened. Criticism of the policies and systems that have been grossly misused and expanded in the past few years have suddenly coalesced into a viable and identifiable political wing, even in the US government. But that new political force is at its core separate from the far longer outcry against these systems that’s been a part of the politics of many marginalized populations for centuries now. This new political faction’s ideas seem to be about shoring up differences between people in how these laws effect them. Rather than critical of state power, they’re predicated on merely making its fallout more guided.

There’s a question we should all ask ourselves as this new force continues to disrupt the old conversation about security: is it drawing supporters and support from those that previously have advocated for more violence or is it taking from and taking over a nascent movement that could have challenged the violation of rights of non-citizens, of people of color, of the mentally disabled or ill?

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Again, mild reforms for some

TW: racism, racist criminalization, islamophobia, drone strikes, stop and frisk

In anticipation of a rally tomorrow in Washington, DC, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have put together a video about their organizations’ stand on the issue:

I think we’re seeing a total convergence of their center-left civil libertarian view with that of libertarian-leaning conservatives (such as Ron Paul) – and that’s not a good thing. There’s repeated, consistent contours to whose rights they’re interested in protecting and restoring, if this clip is any indication. They’re quick to specify that their concern is for US citizens who are under “suspicionless surveillance”. I’ve written before about the frequency with which non-citizens of the US are left out of discussing the US surveillance state, but the “suspicionless” addition is uniquely intriguing.

The ACLU works generally with people who aren’t suspicionless but who rather have come under suspicion for reasons that violate the law (namely, racial discrimination) or with elaborate rationalizations for invasions of privacy that are extra-legal. The emphasis on the “suspicionless” nature of some modern surveillance detaches those from many other issues that are absolutely related. The arguments for everything from drone strikes to stop-and-frisk are typically built around racist, classist, and islamophobic explanations of suspicion. Those unique forms of violence which overwhelmingly apply to people of color have been deliberately filtered out of this explanation of how dangerous the modern surveillance state is.

The overall narrative to this film was one of restoration – which was delivered primarily by older White men. I’ve asked in other contexts where these politics have cropped up whether a motivating factor has been to properly direct government surveillance, which is seemingly namely towards people of color, Muslims, and non-citizens of the US. This theme of restoration seems to confirm that, as it points to Nixon’s crimes in an abstract way – not to the contemporaneous mass surveillance of Civil Rights workers. What people across the political spectrum – now from Rand Paul to the ACLU – seem to be asking for is a guarantee that these systems won’t be used against the most privileged.


(Amnesty International seems to have joined them when they published the above headline to an article today.)

This seems particularly so within the on-going fascination with how few online communication systems free of NSA surveillance exist. It’s as though the issue many people take isn’t with the violation of privacy, but the inability to buy their way around it with a unique site subscription or other loophole. Many of those in power, whether inside or outside of government, seem to want some guaranteed system of privacy in electronic communication. The broader question about anyone’s right to access that, means to access that, and subsequent impacts on their lives if they don’t or can’t have apparently fallen by the wayside.

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Can’t look away

TW: racism, sexism, rape apologetics, classism

Nick Gillespie’s recent article in the Washington Post which attempts to “debunk” popular myths about Libertarians is absolutely fascinating, in much the way a dramatic car accident or Roland Emmerich disaster flick can hold your attention longer than you want it to.


(All Gillespie needs is a fedora to complete his ensemble, from here.)

He starts with a muddled point that Libertarians aren’t “the hippies of the right” (whatever that even means) because there’s a lot of them according to a poll put out by an avowedly Libertarian media outlet (Reason, which Gillespie edits). The conservative framing here should be obvious: hippies are recently formed and marginal agitators who ruin everything, which Libertarians can’t be compared to because they’re historied (at least for a few more decades by Gillespie’s odd count) and central to the political culture in the US.

Both Gillespie’s logic for classifying assorted movements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “libertarian” and the rational behind his magazine’s polling are the same – that Libertarianism is semantically devoid outside of a distaste for government policy (quirkily defined). He argues that libertarianism wasn’t a strange reaction to communism (which others have argued), but instead rooted in movements within the United States against formal imperialist structures over the proceeding century.

That libertarians arguably only oppose government-run imperialism today when it’s convenient to them is one quibble, but it’s also worth noting that disinterest in imperialism is being reduced by Gillespie to disapproval of it when conducted by the government. It’s apparently unthinkable that those liberal movements might be the antecedents to calls for governmental intervention to prevent commercial groups or other organizations from profiting from and reinforcing the conditions left by overt government-run colonialism.

This is revealed in the simplistic questionnaire that Reason used, which merely asks-

“1. ‘The less government the better’; OR, ‘there are more things that government should be doing’.

2. ‘We need a strong government to handle today’s complex economic problems’; OR, ‘People would be better able to handle today’s problems within a free market with less government involvement’.

3. Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?”

Occasionally (as the article states) over the years this survey was put out, a question actually pertaining to an issue (only marijuana decriminalization though!) rather than a vague philosophical moral would be asked. A nuanced perspective that governments’ actions are legitimate or unacceptable depending on what those actions are, is apparently by and large anathema to getting the results that 24 percent of US citizens agree with them (compared to 27 with “liberals” and another 27 with “conservatives”).

His other points are poorly strung together, and really amount to two admissions: that libertarianism doesn’t offer much to people of color and women, as well as that libertarians are a contentious political bloc that is already contending with others within the Republican Party for the 2016 presidential nomination. For the former, he only points to opposition to the drug war, support for “school choice”, and the idolization of Ayn Rand (and a few other decades-dead women, none of whom were a part of libertarianism in the past 31 years).

Prominent libertarians quite clearly only want to soften the drug war, namely by reducing the penalization for drugs which like marijuana are commonly used among more affluent Whites. School choice is openly a means of shifting the cost of maintaining de facto segregation from White families on to the government (while also making parochial education more competitive). And do we really need to run down why Ayn Rand isn’t a feminist idol? (Hint: she wanted her audience to excuse rape.)

In the end, Gillespie is left arguing that it’s a myth that “Libertarians are destroying the Republican Party” and yet that the party leadership is “worried about the party’s growing libertarian streak” so much so that Chris Christie (presidential nominee apparent, unless libertarian Rand Paul has his way) called libertarians “dangerous”.

Is it hard to be so very wrong about everything, Mr Gillespie?

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There’s the how and there’s the against whom

TW: PRISM, government surveillance, drone strikes

The Ed Bott Report beat me to the punch on how (among other developments in the PRISM scandal) The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and various Washington Post reporters have started surreptitiously qualifying their statements on the basic functions of the extensive and arguably unconstitutional information-gathering network. In a nutshell, most electronic surveillance requires information to come directly from a particular company, which the government cannot access without their knowledge or even cooperation (although, under those conditions, they do share significant amounts of information). PRISM has been used to supplement that data with what the NSA can pick up directly on their own, but under similar legal restrictions (namely the requirement of a warrant or court order).

Admittedly, I’m a bit skeptical of Bott’s conclusion that these data-amassing companies are privacy’s plucky canary in the internet coalmine, but his analysis of the shifting reporting on what programs are key to surveillance and how they operate is much less ideological and seems rooted in factual analysis.


(Image from one recent anti-PRISM protest, where the protester’s sign reads: “Hands off my meta-data”. From here.)

The legal system that surrounds the surveillance mechanisms that Snowden helped maintain was something that he appears to have remained ignorant of, like too many US citizens, since its failures are pivotal to understanding the risks and problems with PRISM. There’s a real missed opportunity in that, given how its already shaped how Snowden, and consequently Greenwald, and as a result many civil libertarians. In the second video of Greenwald’s interview with Snowden, which was released this week, Snowden opened with a frankly bizarre statement (in response to what response he anticipated from the US government): “That argument [that his leak aided and abetted enemies of the United States] can be made against anybody who reveals information that points out mass surveillance systems, because fundamentally they apply equally to ourselves [presumably meaning US citizens] as they do our enemies [presumably non-citizens].”

Actually, much like the legal standards of what’s cruel and unusual punishment and what’s a public and speedy trial, this entire debate is informed by radically different attitudes and procedures towards US citizens and non-citizens. This implied fear that that distinction is eroding at this point seems fundamentally central to the modern civil libertarian movement. From Rand Paul’s filibuster to Snowden’s analysis, lots of White men with US passports seem to be worried that drone strikes and excessive surveillance could become their reality in spite of their citizenship (and not, you’ll notice, their humanity – this is about the rights of citizens not all people).

The fact that the biggest threats are to those without US citizenship (or, complicating the issue, people of color who are presumed to lack US citizenship) is essentially missing from that political movement’s consciousness and specifically the picture that Snowden painted of US-run surveillance. Court orders and warrants to take the information of US citizens and non-citizens alike generally flow through the FISC (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court), which has frankly terrifying legal standards, but that’s not the only information that that unique court system handles. As the Washington Post reported, it was a member of the FISC who ruled that the Obama administration could keep a secret list of non-citizens it wanted killed. The same system is indeed spying on us all, but under court orders which view secret murder as a fair use of information gathered of non-citizens. In only one case, for this moment, have standards remotely akin to that been applied to a US citizen.

The system is predicated on a political distinction, which civil libertarians seem loath to acknowledge.

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The center of the universe

I’ve mostly steered clear of the most recent NSA scandal, not because the issue is unimportant but because so much of the situation remains unclear. More information has started trickling out, however, namely in the form of a recent interview of the source of the leaked information, Edward Snowden, by The Guardian. Unfortunately, the whole of his answers taken together are a bit of puzzler about what his understanding of the situation itself is.

parody map of how the United States views the world with major areas of the world stereotyped to communists, terrorists, kangaroos or similar nonsense
(A pertinent joke about perceptions of the world by US citizens, from here.)

When asked about the important lessons to be learned from his leak, Snowden explained that US intelligence agencies “collect more digital communications from America than we do from the Russians”, implying that part of his moral dilemma with alleged actions by the US government rests with a violation of constitutional, not human rights. This taps into a long history of conservative arguments against the security policies of the Obama administration, which often amounts to not so much disliking their actions as much as worrying that they might be carried out against US citizens.

That said, in response to the question presented as immediately following that, Snowden made clear that his claims deflate the Obama administration’s self-presentation as a unique government that respects online privacy, when in fact “we are in almost every country in the world” electronically speaking, including those we are not at war with (and even sometimes politically allied with). The point he makes, however, seems less focused on our violation of other citizens rights, so much as how this reflects on Obama and his administration.

It’s interesting to see even some of the most dramatic allegations against the Obama-era security apparatus even when published in media based outside of the US, the most pressing concerns are centered around the rights and respected owed to US citizens. The outrage seems to be rooted in the surprise of finding US residents more vulnerable to surveillance that residents of some other countries (many are actually much more likely to have significant data collected on them, Snowden neglected to mention). Likewise, when the international implications are raised, it’s an outcry against the hypocrisy of the Obama administration, not the alleged violations against various people around the world with little or no legal recourse.

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Just when you thought we’d gotten a break from the Bushes…

As this is the first Monday since “Spring Forward” for me, and will also be for any US-based reader, I’ll keep this post especially short and to the point. Jeb Bush has in a simultaneously hilarious and terrifying fashion, declared that Obama based his reelection campaign on dividing the country – primarily on the basis of class. This was, purportedly, unfair because Republicans understand and sympathize with US voters from all backgrounds.

That’s rich coming from the brother of the Republican President who was installed in office after every Republican justice on the Supreme Court voted to discontinue vote counting and inspections in Florida and simply declare him the winner. Likewise, while in office, that same close relative continually made statements to the rest of government and the population of the US and the world in the vein of- either “you are with us, or you are with the terrorists“.

Those acts had antecedents though, in the form of decades of such rhetoric from prominent Republicans. Remember how they used to talk about how great it would be if the US became a de facto one-party state? Remember the Moral Majority and how it spent the 1970’s and 1980’s advocating for the rolling back of newly gained rights for non-Christians, women, and queer people? Before that was the Southern Strategy, when Republicans prioritized the racial views of White southerners over the opinions and rights of others.

These are more than distant facts though – these are the political forces that have shaped and continue to shape the Republican Party. There’s a reason that in the past presidential election, it was the Republican candidate who took credit for expanding opportunities for women when scores of female activists had actually pushed for it and did all of the work in creating the system that he then used. Isn’t it divisive and belittling how he erased their work from his account of what happened? Besides that, there’s also a two word phrase that Romney popularized during the primary: “self deportation“, which is the concept of making life so miserable for undocumented people that they would leave the United States (how’s that for divisive?).

Perhaps that’s why there were no states that Romney won that Bush hadn’t won in 2000 or 2004. There’s precisely two that he picked up from Obama in 2008. In all, 21 of the 23 states that Romney won had been won by the Republican in every one of those three elections. That is not an indication of a broad, inclusive political brand or presidential campaign.

2012 usa presidential map showing the vast majority of the US being some shade of blue
(In this map which blends the percentage of the vote that was Republican [red] or Democratic [blue] along with population [color saturation], you can clearly see how inclusive the Republican brand is. From here.)

But this runs deeper than Romney – the entire party is culpable. As I pointed out last week, the only way Republicans can capitalized on Obama’s disastrous drone policies is by being concerned that the differentiation between targets who are US citizens in the US and all others isn’t strong enough. In a very literal sense, their grandstanding on the issue is based on worrying that there’s not enough legal division between citizens and non-citizens. Likewise, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) has barred a group of gay activist Republicans from even sponsoring their event (cooties!) for the second year in a row (and in previous years, they were barred from various forms of participation while allowed to attend).

All signs point towards exclusion and division having become core Republican values.

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But why a talking filibuster?

TW: drone strikes

This week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) engaged in the first talking filibuster in quite a long time over the nomination of John Brennan to CIA director (from his current position as Counter-Terrorism Adviser). Quite a few people have raised serious issues in response to yesterday’s events – one important thing to call attention to here is that Paul is showboating on the issue rather than shaping policy.

What precipitated this all was a simply letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Rand Paul who wanted to know what the Obama Administration considered to be the legality of a very specific time of drone warfare: against US citizens in the United States. Holder’s response is complex if brief – while he essentially claimed the President only had that power in emergencies (why is that argument so familiar?), it still prompted quite a bit shock from both more liberal and conservative voices in the US. In reply to that explanation, Paul filibustered, in an unusually public way, the nomination of John Brennan.

The problem with that response is that it’s not actually tailored to Brennan’s actual statements on the issue. While he is enthusiastically supportive of the US’s right to incorporate drone warfare into the larger war on terror and assorted invasions and occupations that has entailed, he’s also explicitly said that it should be understood as part of the military’s arsenal, not the intelligence community’s. He’s called for transparency. His departure from the Bush administration actually heralded the expansion of the drone program. In short, if he were installed in the position he’s been nominated to, he would reduce the CIA’s freedom to use of drone strikes. In a very real sense, blocking him from that position at best distracts from more substantive opposition to the secretive, CIA-driven use of drones that Paul has presented himself as focused on. At worst, it actually detracts from it.

In fact, this very public opposition to a specific potential use of drones says quite a bit about the form of Paul’s political approach. Unlike Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), he hasn’t been instrumental in actually challenging the policies that have permitted the secretive use of drones against people of varying nationalities in locations outside of the United States. Instead, he’s finding flaws in the Obama Administration’s wording with regards to strikes that they’ve essentially declared unacceptable.

Naturally enough, with the appearance of a second letter from Holder clarifying that no, seriously, drone strikes against US citizens in the US are exceptional circumstances that cannot be said to be part of the President’s explicit powers, and Paul has folded. His opposition was very vocal and very public, but it was also a flash in the pan.


(A visual depiction of senatorial filibusters from this exploration of the word’s etymology.)

What this wasn’t was a challenge to the core components of drone policy (primarily, that in its current form, it’s a legitimate use of violence against non-US-citizens). It wasn’t a demand for specific changes. It wasn’t an expansion of protections current afforded to US citizens in their own country, but a check that those privileges would be maintained. This wasn’t a revolutionary speech against power, but a speech making certain that a counterrevolution isn’t needed among conservatives.

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The consensus on immigration still sucks

TW: dehumanizing nativism, class inequality

The build-up to the State of the Union address last night is pretty easy to define by a single feature – conflict. There mere fact that the president is a multiracial man has already led to nearly five years of racist screeds like this one, and his speech on Tuesday was a very explicit reminder to Republicans that they hadn’t been able to remove him, even with every dog whistle in their arsenal. What’s more, Obama’s speech was responded to not by a unified Republican party, but officially by Senator Marco Rubio and unofficially by Senator Rand Paul. The situation isn’t just filled racially-tinged partisan tensions, but also infused with a battle between different stylistic branches of the Republican party.

Something remarkable happened last night though – all three speeches talked about immigration in much the same way. The  national discussion, regardless of whoever of those three is doing the talking, is still fixed on immigrants being politically sorted based on perceived “usefulness” to the United States. It’s probably not terribly surprising that Senator Paul said that Republicans “must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities” but it is rather shocking to realize that seeing immigrants as subhuman investments is something lauded as pro-immigrant. That tells you something about both how accustomed we’ve become as a country to immigrants being commodified and how little it takes to be seen as praising immigrants.

But even from those we’ve been trained to expect policies that protect and empower immigrant communities, that sort of dehumanizing attitude crept into the open last night. Marco Rubio, whose grandparents left Cuba prior to the revolution, only briefly spoke about immigration policies, even if he extensively referenced his family history. He explained his position, saying,

We can also help our economy grow if we have a legal immigration system that allows us to attract and assimilate the world’s best and brightest. We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally. But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.

While he does say that there should be some resolution of the undocumented status of many millions of people, he’s decided vague on what that should be. Likewise, he’s quite clear that he expects extensive security, but not terribly specific about what inadequacies have presented themselves during Obama’s presidency. Where he finally provides a clear and singular goal of policy is that our legal immigration system should allow us to attract those deemed useful to us on the basis of their skills and intelligence. It’s hard not to read this statement as implying a two-tiered system of easy access and immigration for those we deem worthy and a much more rigorous and arduous process if one at all for everyone else. It’s a bit strange to find such statements in an indictment that Obama is placing too much power in the hands of the government.

In any case, Obama is not much better, even after having made the Dream Act law by executive order, allowing thousands of undocumented immigrant children to naturalize as US citizens, provided they attend college or join the army. Again, on the margins, there’s a clear message that immigrants must be deemed useful to be granted privileges, like a legal right to live in what’s effectively their home country. His speech unfortunately was not much of a departure from that perspective.

In fact, Obama explained that he would continue his policy of all but militarizing the US-Mexico border and that naturalization for undocumented immigrants would only be possible as part of a larger plan that “includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.” His message was primarily about how little he would reform immigration to ease access to citizenship for those who wanted it, excepting that “real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods [and] reduce bureaucracy” in order to “attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.” There’s a bit of stunning classism buried in that statement, in that it ignores the millions of undocumented immigrants to do other work, from agricultural labor to cleaning homes and businesses to even building our infrastructure, that quite literally allows much of the United States function.


(Undocumented workers on a farm in central California, from here.)

Is the purpose of immigration reform really to only help immigrants who are “entrepreneurs and engineers”? Don’t the undocumented deserve dignity independent of their occupation? And doesn’t that entail listening to their needs, even if we think we don’t need them at all?

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State of the Union live-blogging

As usual, I’ll be live-blogging the State of the Union address on Tuesday, as well as Senator Marco Rubio’s Republican response (and Senator Rand Paul’s TeaParty response if I can find it). This will all start at 9 Eastern or 6 Pacific time. I’ll be putting up my thoughts on my twitter, as per usual.

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