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May 06 2013


Manque Generation


Without even venturing to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue, I unreservedly despise the Metropolitan Museum's new Costume Institute exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, which purports to "examine punk's impact on high fashion from the movement's birth in the early 1970s through its continuing influence today."

To put it simply, there is nothing in this particular quadrant of the celestial universe more un-punk than a Met show on punk's impact on couture.

This is all you need to know about punk fashion: sometime in the late 70s, I saw Stiv Bators walk past me on the stairs at Max's in some kind of multi-layered leather jacket sarong with a red scarf and thought, "I gotta find something that like."

There is no punk fashion after that. By 1983, punk fashion was for marketers and those who'd missed it. Vivienne Westwood, the MRI for your soul beckons - perhaps some wisp may be seen on the resonance machine. But I doubt it.

For those who were there - and yeah, this is a fogey rant so bear with me kiddies - "punk fashion" was the most ephemeral thing in the world. Sure, the more manufactured of the British punks were studied collectors and McLaren tried his marketing bones (and went belly up) but all else was momentary experimentation. Otherwise it was thrift shop nonsense and passing fancy; fashion of the moment, by the moment, and for the moment.

The recreation of CBGB at the Met is like the faux Oval Office in George W. Bush's new Presidential library - there's an unsanitary stain on your soul if you're taken in by the exhibitor's artifice.

To quote my friend Al Giordano via his angry Facebook feed:

Why do some of my chums seem to crave "institutional endorsement" for something whose first beauty was its utter contempt for institutions and absolute disregard for their approval? Day in, day out, we are treated to bombastic NY Times "stories" on this stupid exhibit, people who should know better link to them and cheer them. Well, sit down all of ye and stare at this Bloomingdales ad (hat tip Jim Sullivan) and contemplate what *always* happens when institutions try to make something theirs. I hope someone tosses dollar bills off the balcony during tonight's exhibit opening to reveal the true colors of this porkfest and lay waste to its elite pretensions.

Please remember dear friends that the Met is one of my favorite New York institutions. I liked it back in those days too. But for different reasons. I guess you can't put your arms around a memory (and Johnny Thunders knew his way around fashion, bub), but today's fashion manques can try and sell some baubles from the days of yore.

April 30 2013


The F-Bomb

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 6.04.06 PMWhen I was in the last years of grade school and an underclassman in high school - both Catholic, middle class, and predominantly white - there was one word that almost always guaranteed playground or sandlot bloodshed among adolescent males.

The word was "faggot."

If you've seen 42, then you know its most heated scene consists of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman standing on the dug-out steps shouting variations of our most hated racial epithet at Jackie Robinson - over and over, in a chanting cat-calling cadence that is designed to evoke a physical response. 

Fight or flight, the human instinct particularly sharpened in the nervous systems of young men.

Ben Chapman had nothing on some of the guys I grew up with, although their special milieu wasn't race, it was sexual orientation. "C'mone, faggot!" was the tag line of one particular 70s bully whose name does not escape me. You fought (and probably suffered) or you ran. I, for one, took off at full gallop. Others fought and were patched up by the school nurse. 

None of us questioned the underlying challenge. In point of fact, we barely understood it - except for those among us who were, of course, gay. I'm sure they got it. And I'm certain they suffered worse in silence than the cuts and bruises the non-runners tolerated.

What was this challenge? That being called gay - the term was not widely in use at the time; the more polite noun was actually "homo" - was the worst put down, right up there in fight challenge parlance with questioning the sexual proclivities of the maternal? And that it meant weakness, a failure of proper gender, the banishment of the outsider? I didn't stop to think - yes, I was too busy running. But I just wasn't prepared for it either. The culture would barely support the conversation. 

I feel some shame at this memory. In my amended biography, it would be nice to find a heroic chapter in which I stood up and shouted "yeah, I'm a homo - what of it, buster?" But my Pro Keds and their fleet tread provided the best option for my adolescent legs. I ran from conflict with the slur, yes - but I mainly ran from fear of physical violence. And when I didn't run, I was silent. Sad to say, we all pretty much were.

In truth, acceptance of this despised "other" was easy - in no small part due to the catechism of liberal 60s and 70s Catholicism. I felt no hatred, no real dislike, and little revulsion - certainly no more revulsion than I felt for the hormone inebriated monster that inhabited my own body. I read a lot and learned, in theory, about the many flavors of man at a fairly young age. But I didn't stand up, and of course, the moment passed. Older high school boys became more polite and less bullying, in general. And college provided the wonders of real diversity and experience. I stopped hearing "faggot" on the playground because I'd left the playground.

And then it was 1998.

In October of that year, a young gay student at the University of Wyoming was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming. His name was Matthew Shepard and his killers left him hanging from a wire fence to die because he was homosexual.

By all accounts, Shepard was a sweet kid, smart and promising. His father said Matthew was "an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."

More than anything - yes, even more than the tragic AIDS plague of the 80s, I'd have to admit, though I was a "liberal" throughout - Shepard's murder made me realize the real stakes in "gay rights." This was a civil rights crusade. It was about the rights of non-heterosexual Americans to live as freely as everyone else. And it was about the forces of darkness, the spit-flaked speech of the playground, the incitement to violence and shunning and shame.

I began to think that it wasn't the Matthew Shepards of the world who needed the courage to come out of the closet - and be welcomed by the normal world - it was the rest of us who needed the collective courage to tear the damned closet down.

Nothing in American political life of recent vintage has been as stunning and inspiring as the success of equal rights - political, social and cultural - for gay citizens. That advance in less than a generation is one of this country's most hopeful signs for the future. And the refusal of my children's generation to even categorize LGBT people is astounding and welcome.

So in some ways, the brave decision of NBA center Jason Collins to come out in Sports Illustrated this week feels more like an important postscript. I know it's not, of course. Marriage is still before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sodomy laws remain on the books in many states. Religious establishments protect prejudice. Things don't change quickly enough.

Yet the reaction to Collins's courage was swift and validating - especially among his former teammates and professional athletes. That reaction in response to the elegant SI essay really matters, it seems to me. The passage in which Collins talks about wearing 98 in tribute to Matthew Shepard was deeply moving. (And how cool was it that Collins is a classic NBA enforcer, a journeyman Anthony Mason?) More gay athlets will clearly live in public. Their teammates will support them. Those athletes can change the playground rules. Sports culture is a stubborn hold-out on all fronts of sexual and gender equality. But under the hoop, maybe we won't hear the real F-bomb as much any more.

April 20 2013


Paranoia, The Destroyer


Hindsight broadcasts in full HD, but I remember thinking yesterday that the total lockdown ordered by authorities for the greater Boston metropolitan area - with the "shelter in place" order stretching from roughly Emerson's house down to the Adams farm, and from Paul Revere's shop out past Bunker Hill and along the Charles to Watertown, where the Committees of Correspondance once met in direct contravention of the British Crown - was just a bit much.

People walking dogs ordered inside. Bars closed. The Red Sox game with the Royals cancelled. Universities shut down. The entire public transportation system at full stop. The loss of perhaps a quarter of billion dollars in trade for a the nation's 9th largest metropolitan area - sometimes known on school trips as the Cradle of Liberty. [Not all the economic news was bad: Karen Raskopf, chief communications officer for Dunkin’ Donuts, told HuffPo that the shops were asked to remain open “to take care of needs of law enforcement and first responders.”]

All this for one killer on the loose. While praise for the Boston police in the live capture of one of the two suspected bombers after a rampage of death and destruction that killed five in total (including the older of the two suspected brothers and an MIT police officer) and maimed dozens was nearly unanimous last night -  celebrated on live TV by vast inebriation on Boston Common, proving that some of that noble city's traditions of liberty hadn't been lost - there was a small murmer that went something like..."hey, WTF?" (We live in a Twitter age, people).

Cautious criticism crept in. Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the same party as Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, got into it on Politico:  “When you have lives at stake, it’s up to law enforcement. But it’s an accomplishment when someone shuts down an entire community and people can’t go outside and are told to stay away. We have to stand up as Americans to this. … We’ve got to continue to go to baseball games, continue to go to events. We can’t allow these people to shut us down.”

I suspect that the very word "terror" fit not just this horrific and brutal crime but the emotional reaction itself - just as it's designed to do - and not just greater Boston's but our general American reaction. Terror, with its modern-day insinuation of international plotting and violent religious zealotry, has spawned a decade-long over-reaction in our society. "The homeland is the battlefield,” proclaimed Senator Lindsey Graham last night, urging the Obama Administration to treat the captured and seriously wounded 19-year-old suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, even though he's a naturalized U.S. citizen who came to this country when he was eight.

When you can scare a United States Senator so easily that you force him to reveal his own terror in all its chilling depth - well, the tactics of brutality and random murder might well appear to be profitable indeed to those lacking humanity.

Boston's declaration of near martial law might seem protective and just playing it safe - what Michael Cohen of the Century Foundation called "cover your ass business by public officials" - but doesn't it also prescribe a precedent? I was cheered at the Obama Adminsitration's decision to process the junior Tsarnaev in criminal court and not whisk him off to military detention. But it's also troubling that authorities invoked the "public safety exception," which allows investigators to question a suspect without reading his Miranda warnings against self incrimination and the right to counsel. I often disagree with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian on some of the nuances of civil liberties, but he was exactly right in his latest column when he noted that this decision is one in a long line of other cases that have gradually eroded the basic rights of criminal suspects to the extent that it makes the invokation of such an extraordinary civil liberties exemption so mundane a choice.

I'm a fan of the cops, the firefighters, the EMTs, the first responders, the members of public service unions who risk their necks for the rest of us. And though I believe that since 9/11 we've over-militarized civilian police forces to a regrettable extent, I still think that most peace officers work to keep the peace. They faced a horrible, rapidly unfolding challenge in Cambridge and Watertown, no question. And they protected the populace. Certainly no one can exempt the omnipresent media for stoking the kind of paranoia our society generally shares during one of these events. Via Digby, I found Rick Perlstein's post in The Nation to be on point about terror and the cost of that mass paranoia:

As ghastly, evil, overwhelming, tragic, as the events this week in Boston, Texas, the Capitol mail rooms, have been, it's easy to forget, in our oh-so-American narcissism, enveloped in the wall-to-wall coverage that makes our present catastrophe feel like the most important events in the universe, how safe and secure Americans truly are by any rational standard. Terror shatters us here precisely because ours is not a terrifying place compared to so much of the rest of the world. 
And also not really an objectively terrifying time, compared other periods in the American past: for instance, Christmastime, 1975*, when an explosion equivalent to twenty-five sticks of dynamite exploded in a baggage claim area, leaving severed heads and other body parts scattered among some two dozen corpses; no one ever claimed responsibility; no one ever was caught; but pretty much, the event was forgotten, life went on, and no one anywhere said "everything changed."

These days, events like the Marathon bombing are no longer just about the victims, the perpetrators and the cops. We come to believe they're about us. And we almost seem to revel in lockdown mode, even in the Cradle of Liberty.

*Note: Rick links to a 2002 story about that bombing at LaGuardia Airport, which I remember as a young teen. As I recall, no one in those days ever talked about a "homeland" unless they were studying European politics of the 1930s.

Acknowledgements: thanks to Lance Mannion and Pamela Leavey for their spirited discussion last evening on Twitter. It led to this post. Also, Blue Girl and Peter Daou. And this post by Charles Pierce on the combat scene near his own blogging lair is required reading.

February 04 2013


Heckuva Job, Beyonce


Just seven years after the very halls of the Superdome were a national symbol of abandonment, the failure of government, and the disproportionality of society's response when it is so clearly divided by race and money, the National Football League turned its back on the people of New Orleans with a mammoth expression of glitz and electronics - a display every bit as pompous and crass as Air Force One tilting its wings so that George W. Bush could catch of a fleeting glance of flooded glory.

I don't blame Beyonce, really. She did the job she was contracted for, donned the latex and leather corset, and slunk professionally around a stage drunken with LED lighting and dozens of dancers who mimmicked her moves. Yeah call me a geezer, kiddies, but I thought the idea was that what happened in Las Vegas stayed in Las Vegas. Or is that just a slogan?

The NFL itself didn't even lip sync a concern for New Orleans, or the recognition that a national tragedy unfolded in the Dome, in the streets outside, and in the parishes to the south and east, where hundreds died waiting for help that never came. Last night's gaudy casino fest could have been in any dome, from Tampa to Minneapolis, Seattle to Indianapolis. It spoke not at all of the incredible city of culture that is New Orleans, one of the rare large-scale urban places in the United States that has heroically resisted the pull of social and cultural homogeneity.

What a disgrace. Where was the music? Where was the glorious sound of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and its deeply emotional tradition of New Orleans jazz, a form that to this day thrills the tendons, muscles and bones that lead human beings to move and dance and sway. Where were the modern jazz artists who call New Orleans home? Where were the blues artists who find NOLA to be one of the few places in the U.S. with enough venues to play two shows a day and sleep till noon? And where were the marching bands? Man, the halftime of any Ole Miss-Tulane game has better, more authentic music.

There was blackout in the third quarter last night. Perhaps it represented the still fragile state of New Orleans' recovery, and the city's delicate infrastructure. Or maybe the stadium simply blew a fuse with the technological schock-o-thon at halftime. The game itself was pretty good. But the blackout had another meaning to me. It may have featured Destiny's Child - but it most surely lacked destiny's children.

Shame on the NFL (and their sponsoring Pepsi overlords) for ignoring one of the great seats of American culture. Heckuva job, Beyonce.

February 03 2013


Ed Koch's New York

This video gem is just B-roll from the New York subway in 1986 - 42nd Street, the shuttle, and Times Square. Trains, graffiti, grime, old signs from the 50s, and suits with shoulder pads. That was Ed Koch's New York.

The man was picaresque character, a giant whose corners would be knocked off by today's anodyne culture before he ever attained high office. Koch was a piece of work, alternately a racially insensitive bully who swung hard right during Reagan and sold the city to developers - and a surprisingly kind man in person who treated regular people like taxi drivers, waiters, cops and little old ladies with genuine respect.

In the mid-80s, he planned a big affordable housing initiative with his pals in the real estate industry. One particular development was to go up in the southern end Kingsbridge, just down the hill from Riverdale, about a thousand units. There was vocal protest. I was deputy editor and political reporter for The Riverdale Press at the time, and Buddy Stein and I traveled to City Hall one afternoon for a meeting with Koch and his team.

The man was civility itself: we lunched with the Mayor and his deputies in his private dining room as he tried to sell the plan. At one point he turned and repeated a quip he was to use dozens of times in his (unsuccessful in the end) quest to build the housing complex.

"Tom, you know how it is in Riverdale, don't you? It's last one in, shut the door!"

The line, delivered loudly with that familiar rising cadence, carried all of its inherent 'Kochness' like the blast of tunnel wind from the IRT as it hit Times Square in the 80s, covered with the tags of teenagers from the outer boroughs. That was a New York we won't see again. Grimy, full of fear, without the polish and the brass plaques and the property values.  There was no better place on earth for a young reporter to go out, collect stories, and write. I miss it.

April 19 2012


Social Ventures: My Columns at Forbes

I'm late in announcing this here (on my own blog - the cobbler's children run barefoot, I know) but I've signed to write the new Social Ventures blog over at Forbes. I admire what Forbes is doing in terms of bring in a variety of new voices, and I'm enjoying engaging a new audience there around social entrepreneurship, causes, philanthropy, nonprofits, social media, technology and the public commons. Yes, that's (intentionally) a very wide beat and I'm digging it immensely. Here are the first dozen Social Ventures columns - hope you become a regular reader.
Assange Launches Agenda-Driven Show on Putin’s Network: First Guest Is Hezbollah Chief
Springsteen’s Causes: Shifting Views of The Promised Land
The Masters and Augusta: Where’s the Outrage (and the Network)?
A Year Later in Japan: GlobalGiving and the Long Road
Obama’s Surprising World Bank Choice: Health Care as a Human Right
Smashing the World Bank Fortress: Sachs, Obama, and the Public Data Challenge
The #StopKony Backlash: Complexity and the Challenges of Slacktivism
The New Networked Feminism: Limbaugh’s Spectacular Social Media Defeat
Giving Days vs. Giving Daze: Looking for Engagement
Murdoch, Assange and the Need to Know
Pinterest and the Hype Factor
Who Are the Social Entrepreneurs?

December 14 2011


The Human Touch - Occupy and the Outstretched Hand

[Cross-posted from the Sidney Hillman Foundation]

For all the splashy immersion in code, data, platforms, and techniques that generally soaks the discussions and analysis of the democracy and civil rights movements among the digerati, it was striking how little technology asserted itself Monday night at Personal Democracy Media’s “instant” conference on Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party organizing at New York University.

While the network itself was at the center of the rangy panel discussion, there was little on Facebook and Twitter, text messaging and video platforms from those on the stage, and not much from the audience either. This was surprising in some ways, because from where I sat, the 10th floor of the Kimmel Center was basically Geek Central, East Coast Chapter, convened by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej.

Yet the web seemed almost a side player, a stipulated tool in the hands of craftspeople making something shinier and more valuable. To some, it was the network itself, with a perfect circle of actor/activists signaling the highest purpose of our digital connections. This is a standard point of view among those convinced that social networks and the digital ties that bind necessarily offer a brighter future for democracy and the public commons.

But there was another factor in last night’s discussion of how Occupy and the Tea Party captured hearts and minds and moving feet that clearly rivaled the network and its much-studied effect: human empathy.

To my ear, speaker after speaker stressed the appeal of an empathetic connection within organizing groups to challenge the powers that be.

“Communities and networks are becoming communities of care–we care for each other space,” said grassroots organizer Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of The Engage Network. She said much of the success of Occupy’s core group of organizers came from their collective realization that in today’s society, “there's no one coming for us." Pulling together into “small circles of trust “ isn’t a technique – it’s a necessity, she said. “People are coming together and they’re re-knitting the broken fabric of our broken communities by standing together.”

Jessica Shearer, executive director of SEIU ‘s Healthcare Education Project and a veteran political organizer, talked with disarming directness about organized labor’s lack of the human touch. She told of fleeing the scene of domestic violence as a child, and how her mother had called the union for help. “No response. Not a single word. Not ever. In desperation she turned to the evangelical church. By nightfall we had a place to stay and a turkey stew.”

Shearer said that big unions like SEIU struggle to reach people in real ways, and really empower their members. “Everywhere unions stagnate, we shrink. Unions fall victim to our own scale and sophistication. We know that Occupy is important but we’re still learning our lesson.”

She contrasted organized labor’s response to the Tea Party and said that while unions were altogether smarter and more sophisticated with their “large professional call centers and mass mailings,” the truth was that “the Tea Party, you” – turning to California Tea Party Patriots founder Mark Meckler, who sat next to her on the dais – “kicked our butts.”

Shearer talked about the October 5 march in New York, when organized labor first endorsed Occupy Wall Street and swelled its numbers to more than 12,000 marchers (including me). A month later on November 17, the crowd grew to more than 30,000 people including major union leaders. But she pointed out that those numbers, while large for the Occupy movement, are tiny compared to the millions of potential boots on the ground. What’s lacking still, Shearer asserted, is the visceral connection to people, to members, to workers who might want to organize: “Labor is on the edge of a cliff. What we lack -- what we feel we can no longer afford -- is human scale outreach.”

The crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo just might have the opposite problem, according to social analyst Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina, who has spent time with the networked revolutionaries and written about freedom movements on her technosociology blog. The Egyptian freedom activists gravitated toward the rewarding and now-familiar human interaction at Tahrir, missing their moment in the recent elections. Tufekci scratched a bit at the sacred hide of “the network” during her talk, worrying aloud that small groups of organizers can fall in love, in essence, with organizing itself and their own perfectly-formed (and basically closed) circles, while ignoring models like the U.S. civil rights movement which, led by goal-oriented visionaries, plunged ruthlessly on in pursuit of legal and societal change – and succeeded. Yet she couldn’t help but tell the wonderful tale of the Twitter-powered creation of ad hoc field hospitals in Cairo to treat the hundreds of casualties from the clashes with authorities.

But the three organizers who ran the field hospital creation network weren’t faceless drones in a network in which each member is an exact equal. They were leaders – just as there are leaders of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, whether they accept those monikers or not. Some of it is indeed based on hubs of information and sharing data. Author and NYU professor Clay Shirky remarked (correctly in my view) that “the person who collates information often becomes the go-to person.” And despite being the only self-identified Tea Party member in the room, Mark Meckler elicited a sea of nodding liberal heads when he said that these movements “are not leaderless, they’re ‘leaderfull.’”

Meckler painted a different painting of Tea Party organizing than is generally accepted by progressive critics – one that reflects both a sharing ethic among organizers and a lack of support from the big institutions (the national GOP, Fox News, and the Koch Brothers made their appearances in discussion and on the Twitter feed for the event). His description closely aligned with the vision of Ori Brafman, co-author, The Starfish and the Spider – the concept of “emergence” and the bubbling up of movements from “starfish” organizations that regenerate their myriad parts and adapt. In a digitally networked world, asserted Brafman, “this is going to be the platform for activism going forward.” In Brafman’s “small circles of trust” the technology drops away.

Occupy organizer Beka Economopolous brought the broad sociological concepts down from 30,000 feet to the pavement in Zuccotti Park. “What's great about OWS is that it gets people out of their houses and off their computers,” she said. Occupy has a strong sense of its own dramatic presence to the left – “we stage defiance and sacrifice and that captures people's imaginations.” And at some level, it’s about “touching people's hearts and fulfilling peoples needs.”

Shirky had the take-away question in my view: at what point, if ever, does Occupy “go all the way” in altering our relationship with government? Or better stated, in a democratic republic, when does it change government – since we have no relationship in theory.

The answer’s unclear, of course. Yet it was heartening to me to hear Shearer’s account on the burgeoning impact of Occupy on organized labor. It’s not quite that the Occupiers are standing over an operating room gurney, charging a couple of electronic paddles, and yelling “clear!” Maybe it’s closer to an ice cold Gatorade to a long distance runner. But I had to agree with her conclusion:

“Occupy Wall Street is not an alternative to real organizing – it is real organizing.”

October 07 2011


Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

Ows blog
The news of Steve Jobs' death at 56 flashed on the television screen above my head in a neighborhood bar on Fulton Street, about five blocks from the spot where cops were swinging their truncheons at the subset of protesters who were trying to invade the holy shrine that is the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets, a  symbolic corner that represents the American public stock markets that made Jobs a billionaire.

Many of those taking a blast of pepper spray and a crack on the head from the dreaded "white shirts" of the NYPD - the pot-bellied, middle-aged ranking officers - are too young to care that this corner has been in lockdown mode since the day after September 11, 2001, when downtown New York and its public markets came under attack. They're also too young to realize that they can't do what they're doing: that they need leaders, and a cohesive strategy, and tighter messaging, and structure, and hierarchy and consultants like me.

And because they realize none of those things, they and their nascent Occupy Wall Street movement are succeeding - wildly, improbably, uncontrollably succeeding - in shaking and bending the iron chains of low expectations and gray conventional wisdom that makes us hunker in our cubicles, thankful every few months for a new gadget launch or sitcom to distract us from society's slow-motion fall.

The juxtaposition of Jobs' death, tragic at a young age with much still to be achieved, and the mosaic mob I'd just marched with from Foley Square down to the now-iconic encampment at Zuccotti Park was so obvious, so seemingly contrived as to seem like a screenwriter's wastebasket filler. There was CNBC announcing the sad death of America's most successful (and indeed, truly beloved) capitalist, the man most responsible for an explosion in portable digital entertainment. In the watering hole of the neighborhood that can safely be described as the backyard of the New York Federal Reserve, our gaggle of technophiles gasped aloud at the news. At the table there were a couple of iPhones and one majestic iPad - that sleek George Jetson consumer device that seems straight out of Vonnegut to me - along with the usual sad copycattish Android screens (including my own). To Twitter we did go, like we're supposed to.

I was thinking about the famed '1984' Apple Super Bowl ad that helped launch the Mac, a spot credited to Jobs as if he were the actual creative ad director (a role played in real life by another visionary, Jay Chiat, and his team) and I couldn't help but think of the rows of minions all watching the big screen. We didn't know then that the screens would be legion (and smaller and cooler) but the futuristic vision often seems pretty apt, and not just because Apple is the exceedingly rare corporate entity with hordes of cultish fans who treat retail shops like churches and product launches like encyclicals. We're the zombies lined up in rows and the firehose of digital media is the constant lithium drip, at least to some of the Occupy Wall Street revolutionaries.

Their vision of technology is far more utilitarian and radical. They look up from their screens. They unplug their earbuds. They keep the message short and wide. Chants and drum circles, cardboard signs and masks. Tiny performance art pieces and costumes. Derided as spoiled trustafarians stinking of patchouli, they don't seem to care. Radically, they're using decentralized digital technology to power a massive amplification of their movement. Twitter and Facebook are just the glaze on their sweet profiterole network, with hashtags used to effectively lure tens of thousands of more casual supporters and hangers on. Anonymity is given real currency in this crowd, and its leaderless quality is taken seriously. As Nick Judd effectively illustrates in TechPresident (which may have to change its name to TechOccupy shortly), anonymous messaging services like Vibe blast the messages out to smartphones. As in the recent Middle East and North African uprisings, direct text messages are an old school standby. Twitter and its hashtags are for amplification outside the zone of conflict.

As is video: the use of LiveStream images from the park and from the marches, highlighting brief but violent clashes with police, has been as brilliant an example of live mobile video catalyzing involvement as I've ever seen. The crowd on the Brooklyn Bridge last weekend numbered perhaps 2,000. There were 700 arrests. And at any given time, 20,000 people watched the LiveStream, which was cannily set up to repeat the juiciest bits of conflict when the "streamer" lost a signal.

Personal stories - single individual tales - are told in simple, effective photos on the brilliant Tumblr site, We Are The 99 Percent. To flip through this site any day this week was to surf down the jagged, steep front of our economic collapse - an emotional and moving trip through what's left of the middle class. This is close-in, user-generated journalism and a real model for how to tell a vastly complex story through hundreds of individual contributors.

Then there's Facebook. Much derided by the techno-commentariat, the most social site in the world is once again at the center of public organizing (remember Egypt), the creation of local hives of activity around the general Occupy theme. As Dave Winer said, "occupying Facebook is every bit as good as occupying Wall Street." Micah Sifry has cannily focused on the Facebook activity over the past week, and picked up the sheer velocity with which OWS-themed groups took off:

Of the original 201 "Occupy X" Facebook groups that we had identified as of 4pm EST Tuesday October 4, two days ago, the number of people signed up has vaulted from 384,889 to 480,079 as of 6am this morning. That's a 25% growth rate, matching what we've seen since we starting monitoring the explosion of Facebook groups last Saturday. Our larger dataset of 461 groups (which leaves out any group with less than 6 members) shows 633,606 "likes" in all, up about 20% from yesterday.

Clearly, Occupy Wall Street is tapping into something far deeper than just the energy of its core group of organizers. And by remaining open and not trying to control the message, it is encouraging thousands of people to paint their own version of what the Occupy movement means. It's also fascinating (at least to me) to watch the evolution of groups like Anonymous, the hacking collective that has previously engaged in a form of activism that included silencing speech online by taking down websites. There are Guy Fawkes masks in Zuccotti Park, but they're few - and they're coming off. The Occupy movement was partially stoked by the young technologists of Anonymous; this may be their moment of change and maturity - when boldly acting in public comes to mean more than long-distance dilletantism.

I have no idea where Occupy Wall Street is going, but I'm impressed so far. As Allison Fine says, it's "a delicious and irresistible idea." And I think a mass expression of anger and outrage - even without specific demands, although as Bruce Bernstein noted their crowd-sourced Declaration of the Occupation is "coherent, insightful, and moving - is both appropriate to our times, and needed to get others off the sideline. It's the advance unit of what may come next: the kind of economic and social reform that can heal this democracy of ours. As Harold Meyerson wrote this week: "Here’s hoping the disparate groups of protesters come together, grow and stay in the streets. It will take a massive, vibrant protest movement to bring America’s subservience to Wall Street to its overdue end."

And on the day when the last beloved CEO died, the use of media and technology was changing - not in the labs of Silicon Valley, but on the streets of New York.


Lance Mannion (who I marched with, gaining a cherished Teamsters cap in the process),  is filing a series of reportorial impressions at his place, which are well worth catching (including a short interview with an iron worker we conducted together).

Lindsay Beyerstein's photos are here, and she's filing posts at the spiffy new Clear It With Sidney blog of the Sidney Hillman Foundation (disclosure: a client, and it was great to march with executive director Alexandra Lescaze, the documentary filmmaker).

Deanna Zandt says I'm known as a curmudgeon (I'm cool with that) but her post earlier this week does a great job of laying out the right reasons for her own skepticism.

Finally, two must-follows on Twitter:

Liza Sabater, who's all over the story and has great sources, and exiledsurfer, who had the first inklings of Occupy early in the summer.

September 02 2011


The End of WikiLeaks

Last fall when the news broke that WikiLeaks was in possession of a quarter million U.S. diplomatic cables, I wrote that the putative pro-transparency organization was in fact a detriment to a serious movement aimed at more openness in government. Mine was among the few voices on the left at the time to take this position, but I believed in my bones that WikiLeaks founder and leader Julian Assange was more interested in fame and power (and money, as it later turned out) than he was in a true democratization of government secrets and data. Further, I came to believe that the flamboyant and outspoken Assange was WikiLeaks - that his voice, his decisions, his direction, his personal politics, and his personality were fused permanently to the organization.

Finally, I asserted that openness by force in a democratic society without the consent or participation of the governed isn't really openness at all. "Wikileaks is resolutely anti-engagement, anti-development, anti-cooperation, and anti-peace, " I wrote last December. "And virulently to its very DNA, anti-democratic."

The events of the last few days prove that my 2010 assertions were entirely correct, but there's not much joy in the realization. You see, WikiLeaks could have been a contender.

Releasing the full database of unredacted cables has exposed scores of U.S. information sources to the world (and to the intelligence services of regimes that would do them harm). WikiLeaks' original media partners in the carefully redacted and researched initial tranche of limited releases - The Guardian, The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel - excoriated the organization in an extraordinary joint statement today:

We cannot defend the needless publication of the complete data – indeed, we are united in condemning it. The decision to publish by Julian Assange was his, and his alone.

I believe my friend Micah Sifry, author of WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency and one the most important voices for more transparent government data, correctly sketched the epitaph for WikiLeaks in his TechPresident post today.

WikiLeaks has now indiscriminately dumped the whole cable set into the public arena, and in doing so it has tossed away whatever claim it might have had to the moral high ground. The argument that others were doing it already, or that bad actors were already getting access to the leaked master file and thus this was a mitigating step to reduce coming harms, or that it's somehow The Guardian's fault for publishing what it thought was a defunct password, doesn't absolve WikiLeaks of its large share of responsibility for this dump.

People are human; to err is human. But refusing to admit error, that is hubris. Assange, like Icarus, thought he could fly to the sun.

And in doing so, Assange may well have set the cause of more open public sector data on a backward path. Do we need an independent international organization to safely traffic in verified secrets, and responsibly see that those documents are distributed to journalists and the public, while at the same time protecting whistleblowers who often risk all to tell vital stories?

Yeah. We do. WikiLeaks promised all of that - and delivered none of it. And in failing so spectacularly, WikiLeaks almost assuredly discouraged those who would come to trust others with secret information.

Tonight, the Guardian's James Ball finally told the inside story of his three months as a WikiLeaks staffer during those tumultuous months after the cable leak was first made public. It's bravely told; Ball understands that he will come in for a tidal of opprobrium from the cohort of hard-core Assange fans who prowl Twitter and other forums. But even for this WikiLeaks completist (I find the entire story fascinating) Ball's tale is pretty shocking:

I joined WikiLeaks last November as a staffer for a three-month stint. Culture shock came just a few days in, when Julian Assange gathered core staff and supporters at Ellingham Hall, a manor house owned by the Frontline Club founder and WikiLeaks supporter Vaughan Smith.

Around the dining table the team sketched out a plan for the coming months, to release the leaked US diplomatic cables selectively for maximum impact. Phase one would involve publishing selected – and carefully redacted – high-profile cables through the Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais. Phase two would spread this out to more media organisations.

But clearly a large volume of cables would remain, of little interest to any media organisation. Several at the meeting – myself included – stressed these documents, which would probably number hundreds of thousands, could not be published without similar careful redaction. Others vehemently disagreed.

Johannes Wahlström, Swedish journalist and son of antisemitic WikiLeaks activist Israel Shamir, shouted: "You do realise the idea of not putting ALL of these cables up is totally unacceptable to people around this table, don't you?"

Julian took Wahlström's their side. One way or another, he said, all the cables must eventually be made public.

Ball goes on to detail financial misdealing, psychological pressure, an atmosphere of total personal domination by Assange, allegations of providing assistance to interior ministry of the repressive Belarus regime, and "a growing cultlike ethos at the centre of the group." Finally, he recounts conversations with activists and aid workers fearful that their cooperation with U.S. diplomats or other actors would come to light and endanger their work, and their lives.

Before the first publication of carefully redacted cables, human rights activists, NGOs, and organisations working with victims of horrific crimes contacted WikiLeaks begging us to take steps not to publish any names. To be able to assure them details would be protected was an immeasurable relief.

These cables contain details of activists, opposition politicians, bloggers in autocratic regimes and their real identities, victims of crime and political coercion, and others driven by conscience to speak to the US government. They should never have had to fear being exposed by a self-proclaimed human rights organisation.

Indeed. This is the end of WikiLeaks. The story of Julian Assange and his downfall of his organization remains a fascinating one - but it is not a story of transparency, of openness, or of an informed and empowered society.

July 10 2011


Perp Walk Squawk

Here it is: the parade of the accused known for a century or more among cops, prosecutors and reporters as the "perp walk" is fine by me.

Sure I know the arguments against  the perp walk, highly charged into an international debate about how the rights and figure of accused sexual predator Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and a leading French politician, were debased by the Manhattan District Attorney and the NYPD. The pro-elitist writer Bernard-Henri Lévy argued in the Daily Beast that DSK's perp walk "could only degenerate into globally observed torture—high punishment for a crime, which no one, at that point, knew whether or not he had committed. This vision of Dominique Strauss-Kahn humiliated in chains, dragged lower than the gutter—this degradation of a man whose silent dignity couldn’t be touched, was not just cruel, it was pornographic."

Yet there's a liberal's view of this that goes beyond the culturally instinctive side-taking with a poor, immigrant maid against a wealthy and powerful man (the real circulation-based bias the tabloids, by the way). Of course, it helps that this particularly liberal spent a decade as a print report in the Bronx, and - uh - participated in several prominent perp walks of the borough's corrupt political establishment, London Fog-over-handcuffs style. I offer three points in favor of the perp walk:

- The accused is alive, generally un-abused, and in good health. (Though in the case of one history's most infamous perp walks, that of Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, that condition didn't last long).

- The alleged perpetrator moves publicly from the status of police detainee - the arrested - to the jurisdiction of a court, as a defendant legally entitled to a liberal and long-test web of rights and privileges. (Transferring defendants from holding cells to arraignment in public - with a tip-off to the press - is basically the essence and necessary origin of the perp walk).

- The rights of the free press to witness the operations of the justice system (including police agencies and prosecutors) are enhanced, banishing any hint of prior restraint or secret extra-judicial proceedings. This matters deeply, especially to this free speech absolutist; we are entitled to see the accused and see, through the news media, the turning of the gears of justice.

Inelegant, old school, and staged as it might be (and obviously serving the purpose of a victory lap for police and pre-trial leverage for prosecutors), the perp walk is part of the public's participation in the justice system. Much of the argument against hauling DSK before the cameras on the way to his arraignment focused on his status as an accomplished person, a liberal politician, an important man. In this country, we perp walk all the top accused felons, from the Son of Sam to corrupt cops and once-powerful politician to drug dealers and rapists. As Jay McInerney put it: "New York's a tough place. Deal with it."

As I recall from my days on the beat, the system is simple. In practice, perp walks are reserved for major violent crimes, large-scale busts (like organized crime or drug operations), or anything approaching strong public interest. When a suspect was due to be arraigned, an advisory would be sent: such and such a Precinct, this time, side door. And that'd be it. You'd race over there with a photographer to "make the perp" (I never shouted questions - some things are beyond the pale - but sometimes defendants would make statements on their own, usually defiant).

For all its evident faults, the perp walk is part of system of justice that is deeply at odds with the U.S. response to crimes of terrorism. Since 9/11, we've sadly moved toward a secret system of tribunals, torture, rendition, and deep secrecy. When Glenn Greenwald writes of "the always-expanding National Security State," it  makes you yearn for the simple, public prosecution of terror suspects in open court. In a more confident, less frightened justice system, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have been perp-walked in New York on his way to trial by the citizenry the 9/11 killers attacked. Instead, he's hidden away and headed for tribunal; he and four other 9/11 terror suspects will face a military trial at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, under orders of the Obama Administration.Their images are closely controlled by military authorities. This is secret justice and, in my view, comes close to no justice at all if the quality of judgment and punishment is directly linked to the will of the people.

So call me crazy you lovers of the elite, I'd rather see the criminal defendants in a democratic society wedged between two burly detectives enroute to arraignment, cameras whirring and flashes lighting up the justice system like daylight itself.

June 28 2011


With This Ring


Marriage is much on my mind of late, as it should be with tomorrow's 25th anniversary of our own nuptials. On Saturday, we rode the stately and elegant MV Commander up into the Hudson Highlands, as we did a quarter century ago in that summer of 1986. Farther in in Albany, of course, the definition of legal wedlock was shifting - frankly, something that would have not been imaginable in the 80s. And while laurels for political bravery are rightly laid on the noggins of Governor Cuomo (whose father held the State House when the Artist and I tied the knot) and the legislators who crossed the aisle, but I think it's also important to credit a movement for gay rights that grew every broader and more organized.

From my vantage point (which is partly formed by the factors of my age and work), this is the story of classic long-tail organizing - and of the successful evolution of a tenacious movement. Forged not so much by the Stonewall riots as by the scourge of the AIDS epidemic, the coalition was once narrow, angry and poorly focused. Yet it grew, in savvy and professionalism - and it also surfed the breaking waves of real societal evolution, the demographic shift to a younger generation that lacked ingrained prejudice against homosexuality.

I'm filled with joy at this development - for my gay and lesbian friends, certainly. But also for New York, and for society. This is real change; the dying embers of a legalized prejudice hissing in a final smoking spark.

Sure, there will be a reaction. "For every person who said after Friday night’s vote, “Hooray” or “Thank God” or “It’s about time”, there was at least one person screaming in rage," noted Lance Mannion, and he's right. But here's a prediction: New York's sheer audacity as a big state - the Empire State - will help to normalize this broadened American view of marriage. As James Wolcott wrote, "it is a victory for fairness, equality, tolerance, enlightenment, conscience and integrity."

And as I rode the Commander into the Highlands with my bride of 25 years, whose flashing eyes stir my soul even now (no, especially now), I thought a fine thought: 25 years from now, some other New Yorkers will be celebrating their silver anniversary.

June 05 2011


Let's Link to the Salt of the Earth

The annual Personal Democracy Forum unfurls its banner of Internet freedom and open digital communications this week at NYU, convening transparency geeks and "we-government" advocates from around the world for two days of wifi-powered gab and jab. I'll be there and look forward to the immersion in the networks and back-channels that powered, for example, the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

In an interesting post on his Buzz Machine blog, one of PDF's perennial voices, Jeff Jarvis, sagely scrapes the wired government question to its core: sovereignty. To what extent can governments, elected and otherwise, yield power and legal oversight - and indeed, public citizen participation itself - to the borderless, socially-networked digital polity?

As is his wont, Jeff props up an adversary to pummel in his ferocious Fight Club sparring and yeah, he's French:

The e-G8 was government’s opening volley against the internet as its agent of disruption. Oh, yes, the gathering was positioned as exactly the opposite: We come in peace, said Nicolas Sarkozy. After hearing him speak to the thousand net, corporate, technology, and government machers he’d assembled in Tuileries tents, I tweeted that I felt like a native of the Americas or Africa watching colonists’ ships sail in, thinking, this can’t end well.

I rewatched Sarkozy’s welcoming address and heard him alternately begging to be invited to the cool kids’ party–and warning them of trouble if he isn’t. “As long as the internet is part and parcel of the daily lives of our citizens, it would be a contradiction to leave government out of this massive discussion,” he said.

Then he asserted: “No one should forget that governments in our democracies are the only legitimate representatives of their citizens.” Really, Mr. President? Tell that to the people of Tahrir Square. The citizens of Egypt found their true voice apart from the government of their so-called democracy. Spring is not only overtaking the Middle East. In Spain, too, citizens are speaking for themselves, because they can. Where else will it spread?

Jeff didn't drop in the reference to the Tuileries lightly - it's pretty easy to cast a scripted old-school pol like Sarkozy as a modern Louis XVI, defensively awaiting the mobs in his garden, and he's quite right about the connected nature of the Tahrir Square crowds. But there are two aspects of  the Jarvis post that I might take issue with.

The first relates to style and culture, to the idea so resident among - well - tech machers that they're the beans on the vines of the rest of the world's population. They are not. Indeed, "tech cool" has become such a mass consumer brand proposition - the linked sans serif world of Apple and Google and Twitter - that there's no exclusivity at all, hence no "cool kids party." Take it from someone who wrote that "the big boys don't get it" in one of the early proto-blogs in 1995 that the big boys do indeed get it - indeed the big boys are it (more on this in a moment). Techno-hip is the default culture, not the province of the vanguard. Google is Wal-Mart, Apple is McDonald's, Twitter is Target and Facebook really is your father's Oldsmobile.

Yet the idea of an elite persists, even in the hallways of PDF, where organizers Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej go to long lengths to ensure a broad, diverse and grounded level of discourse. In part, it relates to the anti-government attitude so prevalent in Silicon Valley, where "self-regulation" in industry is not greeted with the peals of laughter the concept receives in the rest of the world. The great new social networks we rightly celebrate for their role in democratic movements are themselves controlled by a corporate few. For better or worse, our technology industry does think of itself as undeserving of intervention by the elected representatives of the citizenry and has often attempted to set up its own governance. So when Jarvis sets up Sarkozy as an old dude grasping for membership in the "cool kids" club, he's positioning democratic heads of of state outside the digital elite - which in fairness to Jeff, doesn't just mean the big business CEOs, venture capitalists, and A-list digerati but also the new leaders on the world stage using connected technologies to build movements.

Yet here's the rub: there should be no digital elite if this thing goes the way we'd all like it to go. Not in Egypt or Tunisia. Not in Silicon Valley. Not in Foggy Bottom. Not under house arrest in Norfolk, England. Certainly not among the anarchist hackers who attack privacy and speech. I have no interest in creating a new power structure defined by control over digital assets and audiences.

And that's my second point: I refuse to yield my rights as a citizen of the United States to any digital plebiscite, or any appointed committee of self-appointed "industry leaders" ...  or to lay down for the bullying wired brownshirts for that matter.

Sarkozy's point about democratic governments being "the only legitimate representatives of their citizens" was clumsily expressed. It implies a yolk of obedience to the state, while ignoring the vital concept of civic duty that has always been at the core of Jeffersonian democratic principles. That is to say simply: democracy is, and should be, a two-way street. Despite the failings of American government and political leaders - a constant since the founding of the Republic - that push and pull still exists, in my view. And it  defines legitimacy and undergirds sovereignty.

The rise of networks, while an annoyance to those in power at times, should actually work to legitimize elected government by connecting groups of citizens and lessening the distance between the government and the governed.

Those who believe in democracy online, and the strong worth of social media tools in both demanding representation and strengthening its every day expression, should recoil at the shenanigans of some who posture to attack the legitimacy of the elected - whether it's the Tea Party, the hard-core followers of WikiLeaks, or the digitial mobs who threaten cyber-death to any who disagree with their ever-changing demands and manifestos.

The argument that the Internet comprises a new borderless polity is strong one. Jeff Jarvis argues: "many of us — net people — have a new loyalty that inevitably undercuts old, national authority." Yet in that brave new world, where do I vote? Whom can I impeach? And where are my rights when the principles of Jefferson and the ideals of Emerson lay trampled in the digital gutter in a virtual world where coding might equals moral right?

And yet we cannot look away from the power of self organization and activism - of new alliances - partially empowered by digital networking tools. Sociologist blogger Zeynep Tufekci, who was on  PDF's WikiLeaks panel with me last December, has a great post up on the mood in post-Mubarek Egypt, and she goes inside the organizing structure - only to immediately encounter that tension between radical change powered by self organization ... and self determination powered by the the institutions of democracy. This snippet captures the essential friction of transition:

The organizers were identified with orange badges and took turns manning (and womanning as females were searched by women volunteers) the many entrances. At my last entrance, the polite young woman doing the search apologized to me, as she seemed to do to everyone she had to search, even as she did a fairly good job of looking through my small purse. Unlike regular police, she was not socialized into the idea that there is nothing disturbing about treating people as if they may do something wrong before they’ve done anything wrong. She did her job diligently, knowing it needed to be done, but also clearly uncomfortable with her role as treating people as presumed troublemakers. It was as if she symbolized the tense transition facing the idealist street activists of Cairo who are now struggling with questions of governance, of organization, how to contest elections and how to deal with the myriad of powerful forces from the Army to others.

That "tense transition" is what I'm hoping to hear more about at NYU this week. In a post previewing PDF, Micah Sifry wrote that he was looking forward to hearing Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia of Nawaat.org  and Global Voices - and points to his long essay on digital activism in the Arab world. The essay is startling, but perhaps it shouldn't be. In arguing that nascent democratic movements in the Middle East and North Africa need, more than anything else, their independence from the influence of western governments and NGOs, Ben Gharbia is mirroring an American ideal, even while opposing American influence - and his goal is to "prevent digital activism in the Arab world from losing its most genuine and cherished characteristic which is its autonomy."

While it may look easy to grasp, digital activism is a complex multi-faceted movement, varies strongly from one country to another, and changes over the course of time. It’s always evolving by adopting new tools and tactics and through a constant adjustment of its strategies of resistance and actions.


Caught in the middle between authoritarian regimes aggressively engaged in repression, Internet filtering and monitoring on the one side, and growing attention from Western public agencies and associated NGOs on the other, digital activists and online free speech advocates in the Arab world are going through one of the most challenging phases of their short history that could alter their ecosystem dramatically.

That challenge is theirs, as it should be. There is no "8th continent" or new government of the Internet. There are lands and there are peoples and there are myriad interlocked cultures. If you would not challenge the hard-won rights and sovereignty of a Northern African democratic movement in its infancy, please don't challenge mine. After all, thanks to the ever-growing growing network of networks, my democracy grows more responsive and transparent daily....doesn't it?

May 02 2011


About Last Night

We were watching The Killing, AMC's taut Seattle murder procedural drama, when we noticed the tweets about an unscheduled Sunday night statement from President Obama. National security, it seemed. No immediate leaks to the dozens of reporters and bloggers speculating on what the news might mean. So we flipped on the Mets game, which was knotted at one in Philadelphia. But my mind was already turning back to the smoke and those people covered with ash walking just below on the Manhattan streets. Sometimes the nervous system knows before the intellect.

Then Twitter spoke up. The lid was lifted. Bin Laden was indeed dead and gone, killed in a raid by American special forces. For some reason, I thought of the fighter jets and their contrails over New York in that impossibly blue sky. Those pilots may all be retired from the military for all I know. I'm a lot older, that's for certain. There has been loss. And I'm aware, day by the day, the much of this society has lost its way because of Osama bin Laden's spectacular plot to attack the United States.

My kids were in grade school single digits; one was still a toddler on that day when they waited for me to come home. Last night, they remembered the announcements at school and how they learned about the attacks. Last week, I was telling an audience of corporate grantmakers that much of the skepticism of America's youngest generation was forged in the heat of 9/11 and in the wars that followed. So it was not surprising to see the young crowds outside the White House or down at what used to be Ground Zero - this is a major event for that generation.

Like many, I've tired of the 9/11 spectacle and those who used it, and leverage its ghostly specters still. I dislike how our country has changed and what it means to some of our essential freedoms. But Goddamn it I was glad they killed that murdering bastard. Last night, I went to bed thankful for the President's word. Mainly for New York. Mainly for my home.

UPDATE: Other blogger pals o' mine weigh in, and I'm being selective toward the long-timers because of my (possibly missplaced) belief that so much of the early blogging came from the very public nature of 9/11 and our need to talk about it.

Jim Wolcott: "It's taken so long for his death to come (although it's been rumored for years, that he was being used as a useful ghost to keep the specter of terrorism alive) that I didn't think I'd be tearful when word finally came, that his death would be a long overdue postscript to a terrible decade, but I was wrong. I was telling someone this weekend that those who moved to NY in 2004 or 2005 have no idea of what it was like in the first few years after 9/11, the shadow it cast in the back of everyone's mind; like the shadow thrown by John Lennon's murder, but more cataclysmic in its scale of shock and sorrow."

Lance Mannion: "In the grand scheme of things, Bin Laden is more responsible than George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Barack Obama for the wars and the deaths.  He was proud of this.  He wanted it.  It’s what he planned for.  He wanted the bodies piled up in the streets.  Not just American bodies.  It’s even a question as to how much he really cared about killing Americans.  We were a means to an end.  He wanted Muslim bodies in the streets all over the Mideast.  He wanted to see his world burn. If ours went up in flames along with it, all the better."

March 19 2011


The WikiLeaks War


The United States and Great Britain have fired 110 cruise missiles and French jets have destroyed four tanks today belonging to the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi, and thus the lightning-flash pivot from Western concerned non-intervention (and love for the status quo) to hellbent-for-leather regime change is complete in this season of revolt in the super-charged Arab world.

Call it the first WikiLeaks War.

Certainly all who credited the anarchist libertarian "transparency" organization with throwing the initial stones of American diplomatic intelligence judgments into the calm pool of Tunisian domestic waters must certainly embrace this new armed coalition in Libya as a product - at least in part - of those actions.

As Julian Assange is proud to proclaim, American revelations about the Tunisian regime fueled the fire in those streets, which fed Egypt and Tahrir Square, which also stoked the challenges to power in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria. Leaked secret information from the American diplomatic point of view, argued the WikiLeaks founder, gave opposition leaders "the confidence that they needed to attack the ruling political elite."

That confidence, if Assange is right, led Gadaffi's regime to teeter under the weight of mass protest. That brought the vicious military crackdown, which led - quickly and rather surprisingly - to the ad hoc American-European-Arab League partnership to squash Gadaffi once and for all. Let's face the truth: this is a regime change war, not a minor no-fly mission. Once the attack is launched, Gadaffi has to go;  indeed the French have already recognized the Libyan opposition coalition.

Understandably, this development blows the minds of liberals who have stoically supported WikiLeaks as an innovative new international information movement that would almost certainly deflate the interventionist and imperialist tendencies of the big western powers. Watching Twitter over the last 24 hours imparted the digital equivalent of progressive whiplash, as lefty voices who've been enthralled by the Middle East protests (and fully in favor of giving WikiLeaks much of the credit) either backpedaled away from intervention or went silent. Yet the smartest pro-transparency analysts have always realized that the revelations the U.S. cables represented would almost certainly lead to unforeseen consequences, if not armed conflict.

Micah Sifry has written a n incisive new book-length essay on public transparency that essentially uses the WikiLeaks saga as a news peg to discuss many of the opportunities and challenges inherent in sharing more government data, and opening decision-making. WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency attaches a significant democratic upside to transparency, and I agree with that assessment - yet it does recognize the challenges as well:

WikiLeaks, and other entities inspired by it that are beginning to spread, present the United States with an especially difficult version of the information doer problem, because the discover of new facts may now occur at any time.

This is an incredibly important concept that, quite frankly, goes well beyond WikiLeaks the organization (which I believe is doomed by virtue of its evident and fatal founders syndrome). In the unfolding Libyan crisis, it's clear that the U.S. government was not appreciably ahead of the curve in gathering actionable information compared to the entirely public network of citizen journalism and socially networked news. NPR journalist Andy Carvin is, in my view, the leading American journalist plumbing the flow of information from the field in the Middle East in North Africa. Following Andy means staying plugged in to real stories and real people.

The traditional back-channel of intelligence from regions of conflict and revolution moved to the front; anyone who was interested could plug into a firehose of news, videos, pictures, and sketchy reports from the Libyan protests and later, the fighting front.

In his fascinating "instant book" on the WikiLeaks phenomenon, Nation blogger Greg Mitchell - who has live-blogged all things WL since before the flood and can fairly be described as favorably disposed towards the leaks - cannily airs out an Assange quote that never got much attention after the WikiLeaks founder's stated opposition to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan: "People have said that I am anti-war: for the record I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about these wars."

And as wars go, this was relatively transparent decision-making by the Obama Administration, even if it did not ask Congress for permission to take military action. Consider the speed: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Libyan opposition leaders in Cairo on Thursday. She quickly changed her mind on intervention and worked along with Senator John Kerry, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and foreign policy adviser Samantha Power to push the Administration toward joining a coalition against Gadaffi.

Far from the usual palace intrigue, Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice were unusually open and up front in speaking of their policy aims, and the President made his decision quickly. There's no Bob Woodward book to be written; almost everything's already on the record. Indeed, I was thinking of indepenent diplomat Carne Ross's words from just two months ago: "The world and its dramas are complicated and difficult, traits that do not suggest secretiveness and élitism as their solution, but instead the opposite."

Of course, I worry quite a bit about a third U.S. war, about the long-term success of regime change in Libya, and what we've bitten off in attacking Gadaffi on behalf of his opposition. But I'm not worried about whether I know enough about what's going on. Heck, I've got Twitter. The U.S. contribution to the coalition - primarily naval in the early stages - has been quickly divulged. As Peter Daou just tweeted:

Ah, the age of social media, where even US military strikes get their own hashtag: #OperationOdysseyDawn

And then there was Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander and Commander, US European Command, who took a moment on the bridge to Tweet this message:

Operations over #Libya by France, UK, US -- other European nations in the mix -- busy!

Busy indeed, and Julian Assange might well approve. Certainly, it's in contrast to U.S. military action in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Yet I also think it's important to recognize the external forces at work in prompting action against Libya, a target that - let's face it - conveniently has oil reserves and a madman at the top, making the interventionist decision a helluva lot easier than, say, Bahrain.

But let's not forget the authentic voices of the opposition, which seem to have had such an effect on Secretary Clinton. This should surprise no one. For a massive government bureaucracy, the State Department is relatively plugged into the social media firehose and has encouraged the use of online tools and techniques in democracy movements.The Libyan crisis provides an almost perfect opportunity to meld social media organizing with limited superpower intervention - it's this State Department's moment.

Among the voices the U.S. and other listened to was that of  Mohammed "Mo" Nabbous, a citizen journalist whose video reports from Benghazi had become central documents to understanding the Libyan opposition. From Andy Carvin's Twitter stream today, we learned that Nabbous had been shot and killed by a sniper as he filmed a report. Here's a storyful post on his life and death. And here's his final video report - the last of his all-too-short life and career as a brave journalist and activist, but among the earliest of what I think can fairly be called the first Wikileaks War:

Watch live streaming video from libya17feb at livestream.com

March 13 2011


Counterproductive and Stupid

"What is being done to Bradley Manning is ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid on the part of the Department of Defense."
- P.J. Crowley

To pure open government advocates and many anti-war progressives, Private Bradley Manning is a prisoner of conscience, held without trial in solitary confinement in the Quantico brig for allegedly providing a vast store of secret U.S. government documents to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. To the right (and much of the military), he's a traitor, pure and simple - the supplier of secrets to American enemies all too happy to use them against the nation.

I think Manning was legitimately sickened by what he saw in America's endless, grinding war policy, but wildly misguided in his methods. The massive leak of secret gigabytes wasn't a whistleblower's case against the state's wrong-doing - an argument against crime or policy; it was vast spray-painted vandalism, devoid of a message or a real goal. And Manning's alleged choice of a partner could not have been more disastrous for the 23-year-old Army private. Assange has turned a promising new form of journalism and distribution that may have eventually promoted more open government into a widely-loathed platform of preening, anarchistic nonsense, tarred by anti-Semitism, sex abuse charges, and an increasingly insular and paranoid cult of personality. While the brave-but-misguided Manning wastes away in the brig, the posing WikiLeaks czar reworks images of himself as Che Guevara into T-shirts for sale.

This does not excuse the American government, nor its Democratic President, from responsibility in the Manning case. Reading the accounts of Manning's confinement leaves little doubt that he is the target of some rather special incarceration tactics designed to break him down emotionally, and cause him to assist the Obama Administration in its apparently still-active movement toward prosecuting WikiLeaks. Both the treatment of Manning and the pursuit of Federal charges against WikiLeaks and Assange are grave political mistakes - and the former is a serious ethical failing.

The treatment of Private Manning is well-documented. He is confined to his spartan cell 23 hours each day. He is not allowed to exercise. His contacts with the outside world are severely limited. Much of his treatment is attributed to suicide prevention, yet a United Nations anti-torture investigator has submitted an inquiry about Manning to the  State Department, as did Amnesty International to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Last week, Manning's lawyer released a letter from the prisoner in which he describes how he has been "left to languish under the unduly harsh conditions of max [security] custody" ever since he was brought from Kuwait to Virginia in July last year. From The Guardian's coverage:

The most graphic passage of the letter is Manning's description of how he was placed on suicide watch for three days from 18 January. "I was stripped of all clothing with the exception of my underwear. My prescription eyeglasses were taken away from me and I was forced to sit in essential blindness."

Manning writes that he believes the suicide watch was imposed not because he was a danger to himself but as retribution for a protest about his treatment held outside Quantico the day before. Immediately before the suicide watch started, he said guards verbally harassed him, taunting him with conflicting orders.

When he was told he was being put on suicide watch, he writes, "I became upset. Out of frustration, I clenched my hair with my fingers and yelled: 'Why are you doing this to me? Why am I being punished? I have done nothing wrong.'"

He also describes the experience of being stripped naked at night and made to stand for parade in the nude, a condition that continues to this day. "The guard told me to stand at parade rest, with my hands behind my back and my legs spaced shoulder-width apart. I stood at parade rest for about three minutes … The [brig supervisor] and the other guards walked past my cell. He looked at me, paused for a moment, then continued to the next cell. I was incredibly embarrassed at having all these people stare at me naked."

Too often since 2001, our government had made decisions in which security transcends our humanity. These decisions are, in effect, our decisions - from the disastrous and immoral Iraq invasion to the abandonment of our deeply-held judicial principles at Guantanamo Bay. I am generally a defender of President Obama and - in the main - fairly positive about his tenure in office thus far. Hell, I've been flayed as an abject apologist by lefty friends. I admire the President. But in no area am I more disappointed with the candidate I voted for rather proudly in 2008 than in the realm of civil liberties. I thought Barack Obama would lift the moral fog of the 9/11's fear-tinged national security hangover. He has not yet chosen to do so, preserving - and in some cases, extending - the security-driven abuses of the Bush era, punishing whistleblowers, and simply ignoring several of his most prominent campaign promises.

Yesterday, the White House fired State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley for saying out loud at an MIT forum on Friday what most on the diplomacy side of the Federal government's foreign policy apparatus believe: that the treatment of Bradley Manning is "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." It's not as if Crowley, an Air Force veteran, is a huge fan of Manning's actions or WikiLeaks; indeed he also told the panel "nonetheless, Bradley Manning is in the right place," and "there is sometimes a need for secrets ... for diplomatic progress to be made."

Yet Crowley's remarks - ironically transmitted by a blogger in these more open days of government communications - prompted a question about Manning's treatment at the President's press conference. As CNN's Ed Henry reported, "Sources close to the matter said the resignation, first reported by CNN, came under pressure from the White House, where officials were furious about his suggestion that the Obama administration is mistreating Manning, the Army private who is being held in solitary confinement in Quantico."

 In a single ill-timed move, President Obama has squelched even polite, mild public dissent in his Administration, appearing both in thrall of the security hawks who have governed too much of U.S. policy since 2001 and thin-skinned about being asked a semi-tough question at a press briefing.

That the White House would make such a move on the very eve of Secretary of State Hillary's Clinton's crucial trip to the Middle East to meet with transitional leadership in Egypt and Tunisia, and with the Libyan revolutionaries, frankly reveals just how much stock the President himself puts in message cohesion on his Bush era national security stance.

John Cole, not exactly a political enemy of the President's, may have put it most colorfully (and correctly):

You don’t screw with the national security state. They do what they want, and if you speak up, you just gotta go. So much for that team of rivals shit.

And if you are wondering why we will stay in Afghanistan for as long as Obama is President, wonder no more. The mildest disagreement with the national security state and the war pig is cause for immediate dismissal.

I am no fan of WikiLeaks and its naked political ambition, but it's impossible to justify the Obama Administration's reaction to what is a minor threat and a major opportunity to pivot U.S. policy and practice on a new axis and seize the high ground. The firing of P.J. Crowley will, I think, have repercussions well beyond a single spokesperson's tenure. And Bradley Manning just became a prisoner of conscience for many more Americans - including me.

February 25 2011


Facebook, Egypt and The Social Network

On Sunday night, Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network will be one of the two or three betting favorites for the year's best picture at the annual Academy Awards extravaganza in Hollywood. The film tells the (largely fictionalized) early story of Facebook, wrapped in the coming-of-age tale of founder Mark Zuckerberg and the compromises he chose to make on the road to creating what is fast becoming the privately-owned dial tone of social media. Yet that Graduate-meets-Silicon Valley story, fascinating as it is, may only be a prequel to a more significant epic - the role of Facebook in worldwide freedom movements and the real coming-of-age story that represents for our networked world.

I don't know if Sorkin plans a sequel, but if not surely the last three months in Facebook's brief history qualifies for a sweeping cinematic treatment. Pity David Lean no longer walks this mortal coil, because the follow-up would clearly channel Lawrence of Arabia more than The West Wing. If Facebook is to help lead in the modern world, and to move beyond its mere multi-billion-dollar valuation to grasp the social value Zuckerberg is always talking about, the lessons of Egypt and the revolts roiling the wider Arab world must not go unlearned.

My friend Micah Sifry has a must-read post up at techPresident that serves as a sort of challenge for Facebook and he nimbly puts his finger on the nub of that challenge: the investors' imperative to continue to grow the vast online service and reap ever greater revenue and profit rewards versus the more idealistic goal of building a vital social graph to encourages (and indeed, helps to guarantee) human freedoms, particuarly free speech. "While Facebook is a company built by young techies who care about openness and transparency," writes Sifry, "it is also struggling to expand into countries like China, which abhor those values."

This is a struggle that all nonprofits and NGOs - and the less formal movements beyond - must consider before investing their time, their networks, and their intellectual capital with Facebook and other social networks. While I cannot help to advise clients to "go to where to the people are" and therefore recommend a strong Facebook presence, I'm conscious of the fact that Facebook is a private enterprise, currently wired to make money and reward shareholders; and I think the ownership of data and relationships - the DNA of the social graph - is dangerously tilted towards ever-larger centrally-controlled private concerns that (despite great intentions) are non-democratic.

Sifry cites the example of the disappearance from the Facebook page of Cairo University professor Dr. Rasha Abdullah of a video showing the murder of an Egyptian protester by security forces. It mirrored Facebook's takedown of Wael Ghonim's iconic "We Are All Khalid Said" page last November - the page eventually credited with powering the January 25th revolt. "Young people using the site as a "democratic republic" need to know that their rights will be protected--including their privacy in settings where governments may not be so friendly to democratic conversations." And indeed, Newsweek reporter Mike Giglio's article in the Daily Beast shows how Facebook's "policy" toward human rights campaigns and democratic organizers is so much chewing gum and bailing wire; it took the the behind-the-scenes intervention of a Facebook executive in Europe to keep Egypt's most important young activist on the site - and Ghonim has been effusive in his praise of Facebook as a brilliant organizing tool for young Egyptians. Giglio's piece showed the ambivalence at the company.

“Facebook has seemed deeply ambivalent about this idea that they would become a platform for revolutions,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. “And it makes sense that they would be deeply ambivalent.”
The former Facebook official says of the company: “There’s a bit of schizophrenia in trying to think that you’re operating a neutral platform. People at Facebook definitely have pro-freedom views. And there’s also a desire to not get shut off.”

It's understandable that Zuckerberg and Facebook face competing forces, and Zuckerberg has favored a more libertarian view towards his platform (he once griped about having to take down the pages of Holocaust deniers).

Yet clinging to an anodyne Terms of Service to bounce anything controversial seems - I dunno - so damned last year to me. The world is changing rapidly, and open social communications are leading the way, at least in part.

Those of us who reject so-called "hacktivism" displays of preening "civil disobedience" - you cannot legitimately support free speech by shutting down speech on the web by DDos attack, however much you disagree - are intellectually cornered, in a way. We need to root for the big semi-open platforms - Facebook, Google, Twitter - while wearing down the finish on our worry beads over their monied, private control. Yet it's almost as if, in the argument over social media and its role in revolution and resistance, Facebook argues against itself. Witness the lame spokesman speak evident in the company's comment for a recent New York Times article on its reluctant role in Egypt:

“We’ve witnessed brave people of all ages coming together to effect a profound change in their country. Certainly, technology was a vital tool in their efforts but we believe their bravery and determination mattered most.”

Who wrote that, Malcolm Gladwell?

Compare that corpspeak mess to the enthusiasm of Wael Ghonim. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him, “Tunisia, then Egypt, what’s next?,” Ghonim replied succinctly “Ask Facebook.” He then went on to personally thank Mark Zuckerberg, and said he’d love to meet Facebook’s CEO. Clearly, Ghonim (who works for arch-competitor Google, ironically) was channeling the Mark Zuckerberg who, upon hitting 200 million registered users, placed Facebook at the center of social change: "Creating channels between people who want to work together toward change has always been one of the ways that social movements push the world forward and make it better."

[As an aside, I'm very much looking toward some deeper reporting and analysis on the role of networked activism, social media, citizen journalism, and street-level organizing in the Egyptian revolution. Luckily, my friend Al Giordano and his compadres from the Authentic Journalism school - which I wholeheartedly support - are headed to the Middle East to find out. In an excellent post this week, Giordano wrote: "The media, including that part which has been sympathetic and in solidarity with the Egyptian revolt, has proved so far completely incapable at the task of coldly and rationally documenting what exactly the young organizers, authentic journalists, bloggers and other change agents in Egypt did, under extremely difficult conditions, to end a thirty-year dictatorship in eighteen days. That’s where the story remains, largely unreported."]

The choices Zuckerberg and Facebook make now really do matter for the networked future. Last week, Rebecca MacKinnon wrote a well-considered assessment for Foreign Policy of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's second major address on Internet freedom:

Clinton was certainly right to highlight the fact that corporations running Internet platforms and telecommunications services have equally serious obligations to uphold universally recognized rights to free expression and privacy, particularly when governments fail to respect these rights. Companies around the world face strong pressure to censor, monitor, and silence users and customers when it suits government interests. The Egyptian government's shutdown of Internet and mobile services could not have succeeded without the private sector's cooperation. Research In Motion, the owner of BlackBerry, has been asked by a range of governments to comply with surveillance requirements.
Some activists are concerned that Facebook is making it easier for governments to track them down by enforcing terms of service requiring the use of real names, no matter where in the world you live. It was thus encouraging that Clinton called on companies to join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by companies, socially responsible investors, human rights groups, and academics to help companies make and uphold such commitments. Unfortunately only Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have had the cojones (as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would put it) to join.

Secretary Clinton's speech was the most important a major American political figure has ever made on the subject of an open Internet and a more networked government. And it signaled a major step in the movement to open up governments - even superpowers - t0 the increased scrutiny and a participation of the citizenry.

Yet I thought the weakest part centered on private companies and their role in freedom movements, online and off - and the power relationship they have with data. Media technology is one of the strongest financial and cultural assets the U.S. has, and it's clearly thought of as a vital national asset by the Obama Administration; Clinton's speech (and ongoing State Department collaboration with social media companies) and President Obama's well-publicized dinner with a gaggle of Silicon Valley machers were clear signals to this effect. So I guess it was understandable that Clinton didn't push the private data control aspect too hard.

In any event, I'm fairly certain we cannot rely on government to guarantee a Facebook that's as socially aware - as socially vibrant - as it is socially wired. No, that'll take the crowd itself.

More than its investment bankers, Facebook listens to its network and adjusts its practices accordingly. Sure, the company has long been guilty of "launch, fail, react" cycles - but it has been responsive to its users. There have been many uprisings in Facebook's brief history, and to Zuckerberg's credit, he's never played the Hosni Mubarek role.

Who knows if The Social Network's tale of youth and founding moments will grab the Oscar on Sunday, and in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia and Iran, I doubt if anyone cares. Sorkin's film had a clever marketing tagline: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies." Nor do you create real social change without making the tough choices.

History is written too quickly for the filmmakers in 2011 - and Facebook's own Tahrir Square is abuzz with change, hope, and major challenge to Mark Zuckerberg's vision of the social web.

[Cross-posted at CauseWired]

January 13 2011


Guns n' Poses

Why aren't we talking about guns? Seven years ago, the Federal law banning assault weapons was allowed to expire, putting the extended magazine in the hands of Jared Loughler in Tucson. Some of the loosest gun laws in the nation were responsible for the weapon that took six lives and changed many more forever. Just after Thanksgiving, Loughler walked into Sportsman's Warehouse and walked out with a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun.

The much-admired Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik - a man who recognized his moment and faced it with candor and competence - called his state's gun laws "the height of insanity." He railed against gun legislation under consideration that he said would let “students and teachers” have guns on college campuses. “I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state carry weapons under any circumstances wherever they want, and that’s almost where they are,” he said.

Acres of ink has been spilled about the proper use of images of firearms in politics, of armed words. Yet the link between criminally weak gun control and the massacre in Arizona is a helluva lot stronger than the line between a Republican's campaign literature and the gunman's trigger finger.

President Obama said at tonight's memorial rally in Tucson that "what we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other." And man, he's right. But we should examine the issue that's literally right there in front of us, locked and loaded.

I don't think we're a gun-free nation. It's not about that. But I think it's about perspective and appropriate scale - about what matters and what doesn't. Digby get to this point:

I'm not against the right to own a gun. I just see no earthly reason why it should be so easy for people to get them or why people should be allowed to carry them anywhere in public that they choose. It just doesn't seem like such a huge sacrifice to have some restrictions on it. Certainly the idea that having everyone armed to the teeth will somehow stop gun violence defies common sense. Unless you think drunk, angry and crazy people who have no judgment don't exist, this is a ridiculous argument on its face.

Yet my instincts are also Robert Stein who tells a story, and puts the right perspective to his experienced shoulder:

During my teens and early twenties, I fired weapons at people, who were often shooting back at me.

It was not a pleasant experience but, after V-E Day in Germany, when most of our food was being sold in British and French black markets, I was persuaded to go deer-hunting not so much for sport as out of hunger. In early morning, sighting a brown hide and preparing to fire, I realized I was about to bag a cow.

That ended my hunting career, but I brought home as a souvenir a pistol I had taken from a German officer. Years later, when my teen-age son found it in a closet, I disassembled the gun and walked a mile in Manhattan dropping parts in trash bins to make sure it would never be put together again.

In the half-century since then, the Second Amendment has been of only academic interest, but a flurry of activity post-Tuscon reawakens the sense of wonder at how bearing arms against targets that don't shoot back has become a sacred right in America.

December 16 2010


Man of the Year: The Unemployed American

Time magazine's ritual exercise in slow-motion trendspotting and well-liquored (we presume) committee mongering has reached its merciful end. Verdict? Facebook visionary Mark Zuckerberg. Which is fine, I guess. Except that Time already honored Zuckerberg's social graph (sort of) with its much-shellacked  "you!" tinfoil cover back in ought-six. There was a lot of angst in one corner of the series of tubes over the failure of Wikileaks mastermind Julian Assange to win the nod, despite triumphing in an online poll. But really, if you're going the route of exposing America's foreign policy secrets and failings being the year's biggest story, isn't Pfc. Bradley Manning the choice there, and not his publicist?

No, I think we need to move offline this year and away from the shiny and those "this changes everything!" moments that are intoxicating. I'm as guilty as the rest of the networked faithful preaching the gospel of digital transfiguration, but here's a reset button: the person of the year in this country (and very probably the next and the one after that) is the unemployed American.

After all, if you give the honor a year ago to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a man who never saw the current and ongoing financial crisis until it swept across our shares like a tsunami, you can certainly back those who suffer for his monetary policies. Time itself makes the case for one its finalists:

In early March, there were nearly 16 million Americans out of work, at least 5 million more jobless than at the peak of any of the previous three recessions. What's more, out-of-work were staying that way for longer than any other recession since WWII. In October, the average unemployed worker had been out of a job for more than 8 months. And while the unemployment rate dropped, the broader measure of job market health, the so-called U-6 — which tracks those who are working part-time but would like to work full time, as well as those who had stopped looking for work — continued to climb to a recent 17%. Most economists predict the situation won't improve anytime soon. Many believe the jobless rate, currently at 9.8%, will remain above 8% for another two years.
It's back to the 1970s, but with a less deliberative Senate, a meaner more conservative Republican Party and  no small share of malaise on the Democratic side as well. We're two years in, well past TARP, well past the frist stimulus, and now into renewed tax cuts that will continue to drive a trillion-dollar deficit that the GOP "hawks" pretend to care about. Some hawks. And frankly, some doves as well - two never-ending wars that bleed the national economy, bleed our international reputation, and bleed the soldiers whose oaths demand their attendance. The kids are noticing, at least around my house. Lance Mannion remembers another similar time:

I mean that we were sheltered from what was going on in the country by virtue of our parents being middle class or working class, which in those days, in Upstate New York, where most of the blue collar work was at the many nearby GE plants---most of the white collar and pink collar work was there too---where thanks to the Unions and GE’s manufacturing strength effectively meant middle class.

But we were also sheltered by our parents being responsible grown-ups with the attitudes and codes of parents of that time and that place, some of which were less than ideal, but one of them was the principle that adults did not share their feelings with children.

By then the Recession had hit.  I’m sure there were some kids in school who wondered why suddenly so many of their suppers featured tuna casserole or pancakes and scrambled eggs.  I didn’t.  There were six kids in our house.  I just took it for granted that my mother fed us what she was sure all six of us would eat.  I also knew she didn’t have time to make a big meal for eight every night.  I didn’t figure out until I was in college that my father’s salary was in the process of being effectively halved by inflation.

When one of us asked why we couldn’t go out for ice cream after dinner tonight or why we couldn’t have a toy or a particular item of clothing we just needed to have by this weekend if not right now and we’d have to wait for our birthday or Christmas, we accepted---because we had no choice but to accept it---my mother’s calm and patient reply, “We don’t have the money for it today.”

Chronic unemployment over a decade - the kind that breaks families and discourages a generation - will have a far greater impact on this society than a social networking site or some leaked government documents. Yeah, the unemployed American - man of the momen, man of the decade, man of the year. Cue the mistletoe.

December 13 2010


Denial of Service, Denial of Speech

On a cold morning in February, 1989 the telephone woke me at dawn with the news of a denial of service attack on the newspaper I worked for as deputy editor. Here's how that particular DoS worked, in technical terms for all you geeks out there:

Two men threw a pair of Molotov cocktails through the front windows of The Riverdale Press in the Bronx, gutting the newspaper's editorial offices and shutting down the building for five months.

Those men, like the group that declares it is defending Wikileaks  and its leader Julian Assange, were anonymous. And like the anonymous attackers of Amazon, Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, they were attempting to silence without consent or recourse the commercial speech of an institution they disagreed strongly with. They believed their cause was a just one, based upon a gross and unlawful insult, as well as their deeply-held beliefs.

In their case, it was the strong conviction that author Salman Rushdie should die for the religious blasphemy in The Satanic Verses, and that a newspaper that defended Rushdie's First Amendment rights in the United States to sell his book in any bookstore in the land must be silenced and shuttered. Who can doubt that these men (never caught) believed their cause was a just one, and that The Riverdale Press deserved to lose its editorial voice using the most expedient technology available (firebombs)?

Who can doubt that the Anonymous hackers and their supporters believe they are the righteous actors in today's battle over Wikileaks and free speech? They are every bit as certain of their cause as the men who blew up a Bronx newspaper. Yet an action that attacks the rights of self expression of others (in this case, commercial entities, like bookstores and credit card companies and newspapers) surely cannot serve, in any creditable way, to defend free speech.

On Saturday, I was privileged to take part in a "flash conference" in New York organized by the Personal Democracy Forum and its founders Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry. The discussion on press freedom, speech, distribution and modern power was far-ranging, respectful and deeply engaging. (Full video of the conference is here). I reitered my position that Wikileaks is anti-democratic and deserving of deep skepticism for its motives and structure; indeed, I was pleased to hear plenty of skepticism from my fellow panelists and the rather vocal audience. I also found myself agreeing that a distributed online outlet for whistleblowers - really a network of outlets - needs to be created and protected. And it needs to be transparent, in both governance and funding.

But I also heard a troubling idea resurfacing amidst the polite discourse: the position that a distributed denial of service attack is a form of accepted civil disobediance, that DDoS is merely a digital sit-in, the moral equivalent of lunch-counter volunteers in the south during civil rights. Nothing gets permanently broken, no long-term harm is done, and a political point is made - and all from the comfort of your keyboard, safely outside the reach of the big powers that be. At least, so the argument goes.

I strongly disagree, for two reasons:

1. Easy anonymity lacks courage and obscures ideas

Sure, it's easy to see how the Amazons and the MasterCards can lose an hour or ten of business and keep right on making money. It's fun and easy to sign up, run the software, and smash the heck out of a few servers for a while - then sit back and watch the fun on Twitter. Look at me, I'm walkin' across the Edmund Pettis bridge (and putting away a few zombies on XBox too).

The point of civil disobedience is the public act; the point of protest is the message. It takes courage to stand up against the powerful, and it takes commitment to speak. The great historic names of civil disobedience carry an emotional impact for a reason. We know about the sit-ins, the marches, and the many years on Robben Island. Those acts carry power because of their public quality. It's not a question of legality. Throughout the world, many forms of speech or public congregation will get you jailed or killed.

In her post defending DDoS as civil disobedience, the author Deanna Zandt asks the question: "how do I digitally throw myself in front of a tank?" My answer is simple: by using your real name in broad digital daylight, and by saying what you think.

 2. You don't stand up for free speech by using a muzzle

Amazon was down in the UK today, ostensibly in revenge for the incarceration of Assange on Swedish sexual assault charges and Amazon's refusal to host WikiLeaks after its release of the State Department cables. That means you couldn't purchase The Satanic Verses for a time - or my book, or any of the books written by the authors who spoke at #pdfleaks Saturday, or A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's hard to make a less-convincing defense of free speech (or damage Wikileaks more by association) than to strike down someone else's speech. While it's fascinating to follow the discussion of legitimacy and DDoS, ultimately I agree with Micah's post on techPresident:

I believe nonviolent civil disobedience is a very powerful weapon and generally support people who try to practice it. But I am not sure that it is at all wise to go try to defend free speech by suppressing other people's speech, which is what a DDOS attack does to the target. 

Jeff Jarvis, who handled audience participation with skill at the PDF confab, posted a follow-up to the conference that laid out an amended version of his "Bill of Rights in Cyberspace" - there are lots of good arguments to be had there, but I cannot disagree in any way with the first two:

I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak freely.

Cutting that right to connect - and quashing speech - through denial of service smacks of a secretive cyber warfare. (It's the flipside of the unfortunate reliance most of us have on commericial services like Facebook and Twitter, which could shut down out social graphs in a second if they choose to..a topic for another post). Today, Amazon and PayPal - tomorrow the website of the Personal Democracy Forum or Typepad, which hosts this blog. They're commercial entitities too and you might not like them.

"We can build new systems of human relations which depend not on secrecy but on connectivity," writes Mark Pesce in his incisive post on "hyperdemocracy" and the new press. And we can root for connectivity to win over secrecy in places like Burma, Iran and North Korea - as well as Wall Street, the State Department, and local government. That secrecy should be banished as well from the movement that supports ironclad free speech and radical transparency. And to me at least, denying Internet speech to anyone is a bad tactic - and even worse ethics.

December 07 2010


Assange v. Obama


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is calling on President Barack Obama to resign. But I've got a better idea. It's time for Assange himself to go.

After all, if he truly believed in the original mission of the controversial site, he'd remove himself from the glare of international attention and let the clear light of day shine brilliantly on the government secrets WikiLeaks has exposed.

But Assange won't go. As he told a recent interviewer, “I’m a combative person. It’s personally deeply satisfying to me.” And it's now clear that his main goal is to discredit - and indeed, bring down - the administration of President Obama. As the sole face - the judge and jury of WikiLeaks - he's clearly operating on the premise of releasing what he considers the most damaging documents to the Administration.

WikiLeaks has certainly done good things during its short existence, and I am not in favor of punishing speech in any way (or, in the parlance of our insane right wing, assassinating Assange). I do not support informal Washington pressure on commercial interests to create a back-door to banning WikiLeaks; shame on Amazon and PayPal. Nor do I think an international manhunt is in order. I'm in favor of fewer government secrets and far more transparency in how government is run.

But I don't believe Assange is the harbinger of a new and better age. And I no longer believe that Wikileaks acts in the interests of societies of goodwill.

This pains me. It puts me squarely at odds with many of the progressive voices I know and respect, including James Wolcott, Al Giordano, Glenn Greenwald and Micah Sifry (who I shall quote in a moment). But there it is. 

At the risk of being labeled a tool of the government or an old media sap (I've been called worse), I don't think WikiLeaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice. While I don't favor U.S. sanctions against Wikileaks (speech is speech even if once-classified), I have abandoned personal support for the organization. I'm also distressed at so much of the American progressive support for Assange against our own democratic institution, imperfect as they may be. I think Wikileaks is resolutely anti-engagement, anti-development, anti-cooperation, and anti-peace.

And virulently to its very DNA, anti-democratic.

Here's how Assange reacted earlier this year to a request from international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, worried that WikiLeaks' Afghanistan trove would cost the lives of aid workers in that war-torn land: "I'm very busy and have no time to deal with people who prefer to do nothing but cover their asses. If Amnesty does nothing I shall issue a press release highlighting its refusal."

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Taliban was reviewing WikiLeaks' release for the names of anyone who dealt with American forces, including international groups working to advance women's rights. Erica Gaston, program officer for the Open Society Institute's Afghanistan-Pakistan regional policy initiative told the Journal: "Our concern was that the Taliban had announced it was going through the data looking for names and that it would begin targeting that. It's a very real threat that they're making. They have demonstrated over and over that if they have the name of someone that has in any way been affiliated with the international community, they will find them, they will kill them in most cases."

Then there's the admittedly longish question from the "former British diplomat" during this week's Q&A with Assange in the Guardian, which essentially boiled down to "why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function?" It was a serious question. Assange's answer:

If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

This is the new hero of so many in the open government movement.


In a scathing post lambasting the Obama Administration for considering action against Wikileaks, Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Micah Sifry quoted Secretary of State Clinton, drawing from her speech earlier this year on Internet freedom:

"...the issue isn’t just about information freedom; it is about what kind of world we want and what kind of world we will inhabit. It’s about whether we live on a planet with one internet, one global community, and a common body of knowledge that benefits and unites us all, or a fragmented planet in which access to information and opportunity is dependent on where you live and the whims of censors."

Exactly. The key value being "one global community," with all the responsibilities and human failings that entails. Too many have come to worship at the altar of pure information, and to embrace Assange as some sort of anti-hero.

Accountability matters too. Our republic, flawed though it is and always shall be, is accountable to us. That mechanism may be slow and - at times - seemingly non-existent. But it's there. We elect our officials. We approve our budgets. We determine the national course, the state course, the local course. We speak.

We are only a "hierarchical, top-down, closed fortress organization" - as Sifry called the Federal government - if we give up our constitutional rights, or spend our time paying no attention.

Wikileaks is secretive, non-transparent, and answerable to no one - indeed, Assange seems to argue that status as a virtue. It is not. Who funds this organization? Who runs it? What are its guiding principles? How is it governed? How does it attempt to represent a social good that entitles it to pay no taxes? How does Wikileaks satisfy its accountability to the social commons? Where do we the people, plug in?

One of the founders of WikiLeaks, who now runs cryptome.org, another online depot for leaked documents, New York architect John Young, told Cnet this summer that he thought the organization had lost its original focus. 

I don't want to limit this to Wikileaks, but yes, they're acting like a cult. They're acting like a religion. They're acting like a government. They're acting like a bunch of spies. They're hiding their identity. They don't account for the money. They promise all sorts of good things. They seldom let you know what they're really up to. They have rituals and all sorts of wonderful stuff. So I admire them for their showmanship and their entertainment value. But I certainly would not trust them with information if it had any value, or if it put me at risk or anyone that I cared about at risk.

While arguing eloquently that Wikileaks should not be shut down by government or commercial intervention, Clay Shirky makes an important additional point: "Over the long haul, we will need new checks and balances for newly increased transparency — Wikileaks shouldn’t be able to operate as a law unto itself anymore than the US should be able to."

If WikiLeaks' supporters on the left didn't believe in representative government, in public engagement, in the role of a central Federal actor in the well-being of a nation - or in the orderly interaction of nations in the pursuit of world comity - I would understand their praise of a rising new leader, their embrace of a new world order based on digital distribution, free of the annoying friction of law and social convention.

But I don't think that's what they believe.


The British writer David Allen Green, who I first encountered through my friendship with Labour MP and government techie Tom Watson, wrote a short consideration of liberalism in the light of WikiLeaks and his view is very close to mine:

...But transparency is not the only liberal value. There are others, and these are important, too.

For example, there is the value of legitimacy: those who wield power in the public interest should normally have some democratic mandate or accountability.

However, no one has voted for WikiLeaks, nor does it have any form of democratic supervision. Indeed, it is accountable to no one at all. One may think that this is a good thing: that with such absolute autonomy WikiLeaks can do things that it otherwise might not be able to do. One could even take comfort that WikiLeaks represents the "good guys" and is "doing the right thing".

Be that as it may: one must remember that such self-assumed moral authority is conceptually indistinguishable from the vigilante. If transparency is important, then so is accountability.


WikiLeaks remains a powerful but undemocratic and unaccountable entity that shows a general disregard for both the rule of law and the practical need for certain communications and data to be confidential. So, from a liberal perspective, there is a great deal to commend WikiLeaks, but there is also a lot that should cause a liberal to be concerned.

The latest "release" is clearly designed to be a threat to the United States and the Obama Administration: a secret memo listing critical infrastructure facilities around the world compiled by the U.S. As the brilliant government technology reporter Nancy Scola notes in New York magazine this week, Assange is deliberately telling a specific story to maintain interest.

This isn't an open government purist releasing information to the world - it's a narrative, a campaign, an agenda on open display. "For all that high-minded self-seriousness, he and WikiLeaks are now demonstrating a Gawker-like willingness to go for the gut reaction," writes Scola.

And Assange (the solo voice on WikiLeaks) is clearly taking aim at Obama. In a 2006 essay entitled "Conspiracy as Governance," Assange talked about forcing regime change through the mass distribution of a vast cloud of information: "An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think efficiently cannot act to preserve itself." In other words, he's going for Obama's political Achilles tendons.

Yes, the President's reputation with progressive Democrats is low right now, but I think it's a mistake to side with Assange against the Administration. And I tend to agree with commenter Hunter S. Tingly on Jay Rosen's excellent Public Notebook blog, where a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion is lighting up the wires:

What people don't realize is that the fallout from all of this isn't going to be a more transparent gov't, or a change in foreign policies that are "good" or "just". The fallout from this is that the current administration (sucky, but less sucky than the previous one) is going down. Obama & Clinton probably wont step down (as Assange is calling for), but Obama won't be re-electable. And the replacement isn't going to be something wonderful, the replacement is going to be the Hawks. The replacement is going to be the rightwing extremists that think they have a mandate from god to do _anything_ they need to in order to make the world fit into the four-corners of the box they call "good".

On his Rebooting the News radio show this week,  Rosen talked over Wikileaks and what it means to journalism and government with Dave Winer. It was an interesting back and forth. "I know we're being manipulated," argued Winer. Rosen said that there's "an anarchist element to what Assange is doing" but suggested that perhaps we need more anarchy.

That's a point of view I've got plenty of sympathy for. Hell, we need more radicals. We need an institution like WikiLeaks to reputably and freely publish material provided by whistleblowers - but a WikiLeaks with structure, governance, public participation, and real transparency of its own. Toward the end of the show, Jay broke into song. "Whose side are you on?" he crooned in a creditable folkie tenor.

And I thought, in the battle of Assange v. Obama, that's an easy one. After all, I voted for one of them.

UPDATE: Good additional reads and comments below.

Allison Fine: "Cablegate isn’t whistleblowing, it isn’t righting a wrong, unveiling unethical or immoral behavior. It is the theft of regular communications that makes it nearly impossible for the State Department to function."

Digby: "Right now the only people besides Wikileaks who have access to all the cables are the newspapers they've partnered with."

On Facebook, the estimable Dennis Perrin (one of my favorite bloggers) says I'm overly soft on Dems. Maybe so.

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