Tag Archives: the guardian

The downside to Glenn Greenwald

TW: police detention, mass surveillance, police brutality

You may have heard about the controversy earlier this week as Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained while returning to the UK from a visit to Brazil. Greenwald was understandably incensed and wrote several thousands of words on the subject for The Guardian over the course of these past few days. While this incident has been largely pushed aside in light of the sentencing news for Chelsea Manning, I think this story from earlier in the week in illuminating in terms of the flaws in Greenwald’s journalistic practices.

To be clear here, this is not to suggest that Greenwald’s reporting on these events was biased or that either he or his partner “deserved” the scrutiny or restrictions placed on them by the UK government (and, as Greenwald and others have alleged, at the US government’s request, which the Obama administration has wholly denied). There’s something of a media campaign underway to paint this issue as reasonable comeuppance for Greenwald and Miranda which is obviously an elaborate profession-wide apology by the highest echelons of US-based journalists who hope to be the best stenographers to power that they can be. Greenwald’s bucking of that trend is something that we should all appreciate, and even if failing that, we shouldn’t hold Miranda culpable for Greenwald’s actions.

That said, the way that Greenwald’s role in reporting international surveillance systems has expanded to experiencing them as well is worrisome. Concerns about bias are understandable, but in this case seem unfounded. Instead, I think the real damage is in how this limits the most public reporting on these issues of the increasing use of mass surveillance by the US and UK governments. As David von Ebers wrote at This Week In Blackness, the UK has its own history of using these same methods of surveillance and detention to crackdown on both anti-colonial activists that had been displaced from British colonies as well as against locally marginalized and anglicized Irish protesters. There’s more than a past pattern of those tactics, actually, as across the UK and other EU countries anti-surveillance protesters took to smashing CCTV cameras (publicly placed video recorders) this very week.

(One German dissident dismantling a public surveillance camera in January, from here.)

On the distinct but related issue of the wave of UK riots two years ago, which were prompted in part in opposition to police brutality, Greenwald struck an odd tone. While he admitted that the riots were rooted in opposition to exploitation and “the system,” he likewise reduce them to being nothing more than “opportunistic criminality and inchoate rage“. Instead of attempting to sort through the diverse motivations for the riots, Greenwald essentially gave up, and missed out on reporting a connection between this larger backdrop of protest and resistance and the state systems he now takes so seriously.

As long as he’s reporting on the US’s possible involvement in detaining Miranda and likewise the US’s National Security Agency’s broad surveillance programs, why can’t he also mention Stop and Frisk, which as near as I can tell, he’s never covered? It’s also rather timely this week, given how New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has responded to the declaration of that policy as unconstitutional with calls for mass fingerprinting in poor, predominantly Black and Latin@ neighborhoods. Both that former policy and Bloomberg’s interest in replacing it with a similarly overpowered form of policing has gone chronically underreported and could do with a larger name like Greenwald’s throwing some attention its way.

The problem here, to repeat myself, isn’t his choice to cover the surveillance state and police overreach as it affects him personally, but his decision to primarily cover it then and only describe the system’s hostile actions as violence in that case. The contours of his reporting on this issue leave so much beneath the surface, unexplored.

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It’s bad

TW: police brutality, military government, 2013 Egyptian coup, islamist violence

It seems that we’ve reached the place in Egypt where there shouldn’t be continued debates about whether the interim military government rose to power during a coup or adequately respects the will of Egyptians. The world got it’s answer today as to where on the murky boundary between playing with fire and burning the house down the Egyptian military’s current governance falls: and it’s not a good answer.

(Protesters dislodging a police vehicle from a raised road, from here.)

Ahram online is documenting (among other issues) how the increasingly close relationship between Christians and the military is fueling the sectarian elements to this crisis, as populists target Christians assuming they supported the coup and Christians respond by backing the violent security forces. Contrary to claims by non-Egyptian Christians, the military is arguably aggravating the religious conflict dimensions to this crisis.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post has posted more of those fascinating (and seemingly, in the international press, increasingly iconic) images of protesters overturning a police vehicle and then pushing it off of the higher road where it had been. As was unfortunately unacknowledged by too many at the beginnings of this, a large part of Morsi’s ouster is attributable to his loss of legitimacy with nearly every faction in Egypt. A common assumption, especially outside of Egypt seems to have been that the military would fill that vacuum of respected government. It’s clear that a significant number of Egyptians have rejected that idea, and seem to view the military as equally if not more so unacceptable as the ruling order.

Finally, the Guardian has an interested blueprint for what an idea international response might be. It’s biased towards the anglophone world, focusing on the US and UK especially, but it contains an extremely interesting point that

“it is worth exploring whether countries with their own history of internal strife, civil-military conflict, and reconciliation, and respected international leaders, have a constructive role to play. Leaders from government and civil society in South Africa, Turkey, Serbia, Greece or Spain, South Korea come to mind (as would Aung San Suu Kyi, were it not for Myanmar’s own mistreatment of its Muslim minorities).”

A truly international and consensus-driven group of countries coming together to address this issue would be an amazing and arguably most likely to succeed response to this crisis. I hope it comes to pass.

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Helen Thomas and “the palestinian question”

TW: Holocaust/Shoa, Israeli occupation, Zionism, sexism

I have to be as brief as possible today, so I’ll recommend reading what I’ve already written on how the historically pivotal and intriguing journalist Helen Thomas is being remembered. In a nutshell, the way she created the news seems really inseparable from her gender, in spite of the flurry of obituaries that either don’t discuss her gender at all or do so in comparatively shallow way.

When I say “don’t discuss” it at all, I honestly do mean that. The Guardian’s Dan Kennedy seemed to do so in fascinating oblique way. Among the actually utterly bizarre sections of his piece I could pull out, here’s the two most striking. First, when establishing her as not merely critical of Israel but (as his piece intended to) as antisemitic, Kennedy quotes this confusing mess:

“Her comments – that Jews [specifically modern Jewish settlers] should ‘get the hell out of Palestine’ and ‘go home’ to Poland and Germany – brought Thomas’s 67-year career to an abrupt end. On Monday, she announced her retirement from the Hearst news service amid condemnation from the White House and her fellow reporters. ‘It’s hard to hear the words ‘the Jews of Germany and Poland’ and not think of anything but the millions and millions of Jews who were incarcerated, enslaved, tortured, starved and exterminated in the Holocaust,’ wrote Rachel Sklar at Mediaite, concluding: ‘Which means that, sad as I am, Helen Thomas can no longer be a hero to me.'”

Sklar better explains her point later in that article (most “couldn’t go back to where their families came from in Germany or Poland even if they wanted to, because entire villages were wiped out”), but there really isn’t much of a there there. Of course survivors of the Holocaust have every reason to want to leave Germany and Poland, but it seems a rather difficult length to go to where Thomas was saying they couldn’t leave those countries. Her statement was made within the context of the Israel-backed right of any Jewish settler to any Palestinian land they might want, free of charge, because it’s “theirs”. The need for many Holocaust survivors to leave the cites of that massacre doesn’t give them the right to any property they so choose, and the militant efforts to establish their ability to do so anyway is what has prompted many current residents of the region to tell the settlers to go elsewhere (including to Germany or Poland).

Kennedy shows how he’s willfully ignoring that entire context of forced land redistribution when he closes his article saying, “It would be unkind to suggest that Thomas, who was born in Kentucky, should ‘go home’ to Lebanon, from which her parents immigrated. But it would be in keeping with her own loathsome views.” For one, virtually none of the Holocaust survivors whom he and Sklar pointed to were born in Palestine as Thomas was in Kentucky. What’s more, unless the Thomas’ have an extensive yet well hidden criminal record, they didn’t take their home in Kentucky from a family which had been living there, but purchased one. His entire point collapses under this conflation of the survivors of the Holocaust and any Jewish person who is afforded citizenship rights and certain social privileges by Israel, as well as an astounding romanticization of the settlement process.

The second egregious flaw in Kennedy’s argument is much less illuminating and more utterly baffling. Having cycled through recent Thomas quotes up to the Israeli attack on an aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in 2010, he wrote, “to assert, as Thomas did, that Israeli commandos landed on the deck of the Mavi Marmara with the express intent of shedding Muslim blood is to deny Israel’s very legitimacy as a state.” That is then explained as the “subtext” to her and other critics’ response to that action by the Israel Defense Forces. I honestly have no idea how he goes from one action of the state being illegal under international law to Israel itself being vaguely ‘illegitimate’ but it’s quite breathtaking. If that’s how international human rights standards work, then we should all prepare to live in anarchy while nearly every state on the planet is presumably dismantled for ‘illegitimacy’.

The only angle through which I can squeeze some modicum of sense through those statements is that Kennedy (and Michael Hirschorn) honestly believe that the attack on the flotilla was exaggerated or a set-up or some other bizarre conspiratorial situation or account, which was created for the use by the villainous Thomas and her ilk against the good (if perhaps flawed) state of Israel. There’s sadly no charitable way of putting how ludicrous that is, given that it was Israel that put out blatantly false evidence of the “threat” posed by the flotilla.

(This is one of the infamous pictures supposedly taken after raiding the flotilla of their “weapons”, the metadata of which suggested that the photos were taken years prior to the flotilla raid, from here.)

Ultimately, that’s what these issues (of the rights of Palestinians and other gentile groups within Israeli-controlled territory to basic dignity) boil down to. Thomas, although dead, seems to have coaxed Kennedy and those like him into making these same broken arguments, based on falsehoods or strange comparisons, with a fervor that betrays them. Even beyond the grave, she’s getting answers out of people that they don’t want to give.

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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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The Rohingya World is on fire too

TW: ethnic cleansing, genocide, nativism, class warfare, erasure

Amy Chua’s World on Fire, first published in 2002, quickly captured the imagination of a wide swathe of the media and has continued to be a subtle force in political analysis since then. From the almost establishment liberal press to the moderate and internationalist conservatives, a consensus emerged that for all its faults, the book was quite an insightful examination of the trials many developing countries faced. With economic globalization, the prior decade had seen something of a race to the bottom as markets “reformed” or “opened” around the world. As post-Cold War democratization began to speed up and seemed poised to accelerate given Bush’s lofty language of a plan to democratize the Middle East, ethnic competition within electoral contexts had increased. Her idea that the class war and ethnic electoral competition in many places could collapse into a single, potentially very violent struggle seemed not particularly unreasonable, even if she presumed a certain model of a given less developed country.

The Guardian hailed that conception of the world’s poorer nations, actually, as it noted-

“Her starting point is that in many developing countries a small – often very small – ethnic minority enjoys hugely disproportionate economic power. As she points out, this is not true in the west: on the contrary, we are accustomed to small ethnic minorities occupying exactly the opposite situation, a very disadvantaged economic position.”

If you accustom yourself with those other countries, primarily defined by what they aren’t (in this case, “Western”), you’ll quickly realize the illusion at play here. The assumption is that demographically large ethnic groups are typically impoverished, which is unsurprising given that we’re talking about less wealthy countries. Likewise, small ethnic minorities may install themselves as a type of local elite, which isn’t terribly surprising given many of the examples Chua turns to are either former colonizers (as the Whites of Latin America and much of Southern Africa are) or colonial-era managerial classes who were empowered by colonial rule. Missing from the mental diagram however are those who are both outnumbered and impoverished. That’s apparently a concern exclusive to the “West”.

Al Jazeera for quite some time has been among the few international news outlets to pay much attention to one particular set of events in Myanmar. As others, including this blog, focused on the geopolitical ramifications of Myanmar’s warming relations with the US and complex relationship with China or the possibility of democratization, Al Jazeera has covered the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, mainly isolated in the coastal western districts of Myanmar, along its border with Bangladesh. They have been effectively stripped of their legal rights and branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many were born in Myanmar, and had ancestors living in Myanmar prior to colonization even. Bangladesh similarly denies them citizenship, leaving them essentially a stateless people. Without a political entity to appeal to, they have been recently subject to campaigns of violence, which left many of them homeless, if not injured or killed. A few experts on the issue have started using the word “genocide” as local authorities have started implementing punitive measures for every birth in the community.

(Remains of Rohingya villages burned down during anti-Rohingya riots in October. From here.)

Apparently the struggles of groups like the Rohingya are invisible to Chua’s analysis. They don’t have the demographic numbers to swing a national election in Myanmar, assuming they were even granted suffrage. But that isn’t compensated for the kind of opulence displayed in the mansions that Chua visits through the course of her book. Instead, they have neither political nor economic power, so they apparently don’t even register for her and her many fans. Yet, for the moment at least, they still exist.

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