Non-state surveillance

In an op-ed in the NY Times Sunday Review, Jeffrey Rosen discusses James Madison’s views on privacy and surveillance. In particular, Rosen argues that Madison made a slightly odd distinction between government invasions of privacy (which he wanted restricted) and the same from businesses or other people (which he didn’t really care about much). Then Rosen asks whether that distinction is valid or even still up to date.

In practice, the neo-Madisonian distinction between surveillance by the government and surveillance by Google makes little sense. It is true that, as Judge Pauley concluded, “People voluntarily surrender personal and seemingly private information to trans-national corporations which exploit that data for profit. Few think twice about it.”

But why? Why is it O.K. for AT&T to know about our political, religious and sexual associations, but not the government?

[…]

That distinction is unconvincing. Once data is collected by private parties, the government will inevitably demand access.

More fundamentally, continuously tracking my location, whether by the government or AT&T, is an affront to my dignity. When every step I take on- and off-line is recorded, so an algorithm can predict if I am a potential terrorist or a potential customer, I am being objectified and stereotyped, rather than treated as an individual, worthy of equal concern and respect.

Justice Louis Brandeis, the greatest defender of privacy in the 20th century, recognized this when he equated “the right to be let alone” with offenses against honor and dignity.

But he also lamented that American law, unlike European law, was not historically concerned with offenses against what the Romans called honor and what in more modern terms we call dignity. European laws constrain private companies from sharing and collecting personal data far more than American laws do, largely because of the legacy of Madisonian ideas of individual freedom, which focus on liberty rather than dignity.

What Americans may now need is a constitutional amendment to prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures of our persons and electronic effects, whether by the government or by private corporations like Google and AT&T.

 

Europe is way more aggressive about trying to curb private amassing of data. Meanwhile, both the U.S. government and private mega corporations — aided by the gushing of the American media — are pitching the concept of “big data” as a godsend and cure-all, thus necessitating mass collection and indefinite storage of data. Can’t throw all the data points in the data stew if you haven’t held on to all of them, the logic goes.

And it’s a fair question raised in this article. The phone company or the internet businesses knowing all our private information (and movements and habits) is allowed freely. Yet the government is supposed to be following various restrictions, due to the Bill of Rights — but why? Why don’t the protections extend to the private corporations? We’ve seen time and again that they willingly turn over all their data for “national security” and “public safety” reasons, sometimes without even being asked through a court order.

Our government need not construct a surveillance state unconstitutionally when corporate America will do it for them.

Addendum: On a partially related note, I highly recommend this article by Virginia Eubanks in The American Prospect: “Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities.”

Marginalized groups are often governments’ test subjects. Here are a few lessons we can learn from their experiences.

Repeating Collective Failure, Long After the Great War

wwi-italian-frontAlmost a century after the start of World War I, Italy is still recovering bodies of those killed in action high in the Alps. Starting in the 1990s, the Earth’s mounting temperatures melted enough ice to free some of those long-frozen souls.

In recent weeks, Britons got to read in their newspapers a war of words between Education Secretary Michael Gove and actor Sir Tony Robinson, over the latter’s TV representation of the first world war as a colossal, tragic mistake.

Sadly, that was indeed a fairly accurate summary of a war that began almost accidentally and rapidly involved every European country that had nothing to do with it.

A local assassination, excessive hubris, illogical military plans and a general unwillingness to stop a war’s wheels from grinding into action let things get out of control faster than any diplomats could rein in it – even if they wanted to.

Soon, officers were ordering wave after wave of young men into barbed-wire-tangled moonscapes, as machine guns raked across their ranks and shells exploded around them. The metric for victory became a few feet of meaningless dirt.

It is a cliché to note that the “War to End All Wars” was certainly far from the last conflict, but it seems to have become accepted wisdom that no countries could be so foolish a century later as to initiate a cascade of mistakes on that scale.

The irony, of course, is that the recently recovered Austrian and Italian bodies from the mountain front were likely only disgorged due to the melting of glaciers and once-permanent snow packs as a result of man-made global warming. Will unrestrained climate change be 2014’s tragic answer to the epic, collective failure of 1914?

The phenomenon has until recently been, in effect, a slow-motion collision of the different economic plans of nations everywhere. Our diplomats had more warning this time – but again had no support from their home governments to negotiate a solution that might head off the impact.

Every vanishing glacier that once served millions with drinking water now serves only as a catalyst for more squabbling over limited resources. Every new factory in one nation must be answered with a factory in its competitor. There is no partial mobilization of resources when economic primacy is at stake.

The world’s marginal places – the societies literally living on the margin between existence and extinction from one harvest to the next – are finding themselves drier and more prone to catastrophe than ever. They are an ecological and human powder keg that rivals last century’s Balkans.

The rapidity of South Sudan’s recent collapse – or that of nearby Central African Republic – or northern Mali in 2012 – even the wheat-driven Arab Spring – should be seen as a bigger warning of what is yet to come than any anarchist bomb or gunshot.

This warming is upon us and we are its primary cause. We can ignore the signs until an avoidable global tragedy is fully unleashed once more or we can commit our diplomats, strategists and resources to a collaborative counter-effort that will benefit all mankind.

This summer, as Europe swelters through commemorations of the Great War, we should heed the heavy cost of 1914’s chain of errors or past will again be present.

 
This essay originally appeared in The Globalist.

Communism, political Islam, and resistance

Yesterday in a post about the Uighurs wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, I made an allusion to U.S. Cold War policies toward anti-colonial movements in developing nations, which I want to explore further today:

And the United States in particular needs to stop lumping together every rural Muslim male with a gun as an “Islamic terrorist.” It’s not a helpful approach to the conflicts from southeast Europe to northwest China and everywhere south of that (including much of Africa now). It’s just as bad as our refusal to make nuanced distinctions among different Communist-affiliated nationalist independence movements in Africa and Asia during the Cold War.
[…]
We’ve heard this before, after World War II, when the United States decided to fight pro-American independence groups like the Viet Minh because of their Communist alignment, instead of embracing fellow anti-colonialists.

 
In hindsight, many American intellectuals can see that there were alliances to be made, which we rejected to our detriment. But even today, a lot of people — particularly on the conservative end of foreign policy — are still refusing to make the distinctions.

We saw this come up a few weeks ago in discussions over the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The Cold War mentality produced a lot of tangled, unlikely, and unfortunate alliances all around, for both the Americans and the Soviets. Nelson Mandela, while not a communist himself, was willing to work with communists who shared his core principles of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and often (but not always) a unitary nationalism.

The United States ought to have joined in that approach, rather than siding with the crazed white supremacist regime that Mandela was resisting. But we couldn’t see past the communist involvement in the movement.

Why communism?

The reality of the situation in much of the developing world after World War II was that the communists were often the best organized members of the wider nationalist independence movements in those nations. And their affiliation with the independence movements — while sort of contrary to original Marxian views that all borders, boundaries, and national divisions were lies intended to divide the global working classes and turn them against each other — was not a huge surprise, given the influences of Lenin on 20th century communism around the world.

Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, certainly had a range of terrible policies as a leader. But before he became a dictator, he was a key contributor to communist theory.

Perhaps his biggest contribution was toward explaining the merger of colonial economics and political imperialism. When other thinkers were still purely obsessed with overthrowing industrial governments in Europe, Lenin was actually raising pointed criticisms of colonialism and explaining how the extractive relationship was harming poor and working class people both in the colonized and colonizer nations.

(The low-cost or enslaved labor of colonized nations, Lenin felt, had made possible the manufacture of so many cheap goodies back home in the colonial powers that The People in those countries were content enough not to rise up. He further argued that colonialism was just one tool of a global financial system geared toward big business capitalism and that it provided the cheap, raw resources necessary to fuel the wealth accumulation of the industrialists’ growing mega-companies. Lenin wanted to cut the legs out from under the big capitalists and spur their European workers to rise up, and neither development was helping.)

So the Soviet Union, despite what was essentially its own colonization of the outer periphery of the former Russian Empire, ended up expending a lot of energy and resources in aiding independence movements in developing regions. The deal was that you would get help in exchange for becoming a communist and pledging to support the Soviet Union.

And so it was that many activists in the developing world joined communist movements out of a sense that Lenin’s theories and Soviet assistance offered the best route to political and economic independence for their home countries.

More broadly, they also saw communism as a way toward a more egalitarian and inclusive society than the divide-and-conquer political strategies of the occupying powers and the economic inequality they were fostering as they created ruling elites, whether white or native.

The Soviet Union, while actually quite socially progressive compared to much of the West at the time, was of course deeply flawed in many ways and extremely brutal at times.

But from the perspective of someone already living under a brutal, unequal, and impoverished colonial occupation (or post-colonial system like the apartheid regime in South Africa), it makes sense to consider communism as a way out.

Communism was offering colonized and occupied peoples self-determination, a path toward industrialization, and the promise of widely distributed and improved living standards that were probably higher than what colonialism and apartheid were offering. Even if the improvements communism could achieve might be less than what well-regulated and politically free market-capitalism might have been able to achieve, neither of those — simply put — were on offer under colonial and white supremacist rule. So communism would have looked pretty good at that point.

Rebuffing potential friends

Even so, many communists in emerging nations during their independence and early post-colonial movements actually tried to befriend the United States because they saw it as a freer alternative to following the Soviet model and they believed Americans — who had thrown off mercantilist colonial rule first and held certain truths to be self-evident for all men — would be sympathetic to the struggles of people who wanted freedom from colonialism, national independence, and upward social mobility for all.

Unfortunately, Americans were often too blinded by ideological taxonomies — and, of course, concerns over maintaining business interests of American multinational firms in developing nations. This resulted in classifying everyone as Red or Not-Red, even if that meant opposing friendly movements that identified as predominantly communist during their resistance phase against oppressive colonial and post-colonial regimes.

It also often meant supporting brutally undemocratic regimes who happened to identify as anti-communist, usually because that country’s main national opposition was communist or because pitching one’s self as a guardian of American business and political interests was a convenient means of acquiring military aid to suppress one’s populations.

Nelson Mandela wasn’t communist himself. But in the communists, he saw brothers-in-arms who shared many of the same beliefs and were willing to help oppose the apartheid regime of the Afrikaner white minority rulers. The United States was ambivalent toward the regime at the best of times and actively refused to oppose the apartheid government at the worst of times.

Rather the criticizing these past associations as we consider the passing of Mandela, Americans should reflect on how ideological blinders have warped our global relations in past eras and what we can do to ensure we are helping the right people and not helping the wrong people in future.

The more we provide help to those who need it and the less we offer aid and comfort to oppressive regimes, the less likely people will be to join radical and violent movements or to associate with movements and ideologies we consider harmful.

The United States must lead by example, not lecture, and must help economically and politically oppressed populations wherever we can.

The challenge today

With the end of the Cold War and the fizzling of many of the remaining “communist” movements in the developing world, “communism” is no longer the source of dangerous American foreign policy conflations. These days, as I suggested in my earlier post, the United States needs to do a better job of making distinctions between resistance movements that use political Islam as a convenient and unifying force against their oppressors or poor living conditions (but which do not pose a threat to the United States and likely don’t even oppose us) and those movements that use an extremist twisting of Islam as part of a delusional plan for a “global caliphate” or whatever.

The latter are angry, unemployed young men who have heard too many conspiracy theories explaining their circumstances and just want to watch the world burn. The former are also dissatisfied with present conditions and see the organized structure and shared identity of political Islam as a means of reorganizing a society away from corrupt and failed rule that benefits a few and toward a system that distributes benefits to the needy and provides basic social services as well as law and order. Some in that category also see a need to incorporate the militarism of early Islam as a motivating force to overthrow the status quo whether it derives from bad local/domestic leadership, a distant and unrepresentative central government (as in Russia or China), or foreign occupation. But this doesn’t automatically mean anti-Western/anti-American views. It’s just one type of response to local conditions.

We shouldn’t be the arbiters of the right to armed resistance oppression, but we do need to recognize who is resisting their oppressive local circumstances — poverty, corruption, occupation, inequality, dictatorship — and isn’t just trying to burn down everything for the sake of it. Between alienating moderate Islamist political parties and frequently blowing up civilians accidentally in predominantly Muslim nations because they might be near someone with a gun, we’re doing pretty badly on that front right now. And again, we don’t need to arbitrate the issue of whose armed resistance is most legitimate if we are pursuing policies that support liberation of all oppressed populations and encourage non-violent solutions.

Unlike with the past “threat” of “global communism,” there are way more people today who identify as Muslim than those who identified as communist at its peak. Learning to employ and display a nuanced understanding of who the real enemies are — the dangerous radicals who seek global revolution, chaos, and general violence — will be crucial to earning trust and good will from a large portion of the planet, whether they live under oppressive or free governments.

Last Uighurs released from Guantanamo; Here’s what to know

central-asiaIn 2001, during the opening weeks of the War in Afghanistan, the United States military — partly coming in alongside Taliban arch-rivals the “Northern Alliance” — got to experience firsthand the deeply complex and fluid border regions of (and surrounding) northern Afghanistan, which are far more vaguely defined in reality than on maps. The wider region remains home to a multitude of different ethnic groups, religions, languages, and cultures. Some of these populations are still semi-nomadic and many, at the very least, don’t constrain themselves reliably to the modern borders of the countries.

“East Turkestan”

One of the places (just barely) bordering northern Afghanistan is China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Xinjiang, sometimes formerly known as Chinese or East Turkestan, is China’s largest administrative area. It is located in northwest China, north of the Tibet region, and it shares borders with several former Soviet Republics, plus Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Xinjiang is nearly evenly split between China’s overall majority ethnic group the Han and the ethnic minority Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs) — who are the largest ethnicity in the Xinjian region, a situation which is highly unusual for Chinese minority ethnic groups nationwide.

Uighurs argue (probably correctly) that they are an oppressed minority in China. The Communist Party, in return, doesn’t trust them, both because they are dissimilar from the rest of the country and because they actively waged an Islamic insurgency during the 1950s against the People’s Republic of China. This rebellion was nominally in support of their Nationalist allies, who had fled to Taiwan after the end of the Chinese Civil War at the end of the 1940s, but was of course largely motivated by a desire for self-rule after many generations of outside domination.

In fact, Uighur support for the Nationalists was a rare exception to their historic trend of generally resisting all outsiders, including a Soviet invasion in 1934, the Russian Empire in the 19th century, and various Chinese dynasties that attempted to assert control over the area throughout history.

They are, essentially, another of the many small and diverse warrior cultures of Central Asia, which we’ve seen in action in Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the past decade — except that they happen to fall within China, on the map, as opposed to one of the “Stans.” And indeed they are more closely related to the ethnic groups in those areas than to the rest of China, which is one of the sources of conflict.

The population, as is true of much of the Western half of China (outside of Tibet), is heavily Muslim. As a result — and due to its borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan — they have been somewhat accidentally caught up in the Global War on Terror.

Wrong place, wrong time

During the confusion of the initial invasion of Afghanistan and efforts to catch those responsible for 9/11, the U.S. military rapidly detained a lot of people suspected of possible al Qaeda involvement and shipped them to the Guantanamo Bay military base in the U.S. exclave in Cuba.

Among them were 22 Chinese-born men who are ethnically Uighur and were living in exile in Afghanistan or the surrounding countries when U.S. special forces arrived in late 2001. Some of the Uighur detainees admitted involvement in the anti-Beijing “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” separatist group, which China considers to be a terrorist organization.

Beyond the specific detainees in Guantanamo Bay, some of the activists for Xinjiang’s independence are indeed associated with so-called “Islamic terrorism,” but this is arguably a new cosmetic face of a much longer resistance against Beijing. (As an aside, there’s a compelling case to be made that the same is true for the “Islamic terrorism” once again rocking the Caucasus region of Russia, in that Islam has become the latest face of a much longer resistance against a distant capital that favors a different ethnic group.)

It’s certainly true that some Uighurs have taken up arms once more against the Chinese government in the past couple decades, and many of those fighters have even gone to militant training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there’s still not much evidence that this is due to any desire for global jihad against the West, rather than due to convenience with so many nearby “experts” in the waging of modern insurgency.

Moreover, in terms of the detainees in Guantanamo, many were simply caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, while living as exiles outside China. None of those Uighurs who were taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2001, it seems, were associated with or particularly sympathetic toward al Qaeda.

Amazingly, this fact was determined by the government as early as 2003, a full decade ago. Yet, because the United States could not repatriate them to China due to their likely status as anti-governmental rebels, all the men were still in detention by 2008, when a judge finally ruled that the United States had to find new homes for them.

Suggestions of moving them to the United States — including to Newton, Massachusetts, where some of their defense lawyers lived (which seems to me like a pretty solid recommendation of their characters even after having been held for years without charge) — were universally met with unreasonable howls of terror by Americans.

Gradually, some of them were resettled in various countries around the world — usually through expensive deals with the U.S. government for various goodies, in part to offset diplomatic or economic retribution from China for agreeing to take in anti-Chinese rebels.

But it was not until the final day of 2013 that the United States finally released the last three Uighur detainees from Guantanamo Bay, to Slovakia, one of the six host countries. A full twenty of them were only released in the last eighteen months — again, despite having been cleared of involvement with al Qaeda back in 2003.

Rethinking Muslim insurgencies

China is no doubt still very upset that the United States didn’t just hand over “their” ethnic minorities for punishment, particularly after Uighur militants recently staged a suicide car-bomb attack in Beijing’s Forbidden City at one of the Communist Party’s biggest symbols in the country: the huge picture of Mao.

But perhaps China should consider a different strategy to end resistance in Xinjiang, much as the United States needs to change its approach to counterterrorism in Central and Southwest Asia. Addressing the root causes of discontent — often ultimately economic more than inherently identity-based — and returning autonomous or sovereign political control to various oppressed minority populations would go much further than endless military campaigns that cost many lives and a lot of money but never truly end resistance.

And the United States in particular needs to stop lumping together every rural Muslim male with a gun as an “Islamic terrorist.” It’s not a helpful approach to the conflicts from southeast Europe to northwest China and everywhere south of that (including much of Africa now). It’s just as bad as our refusal to make nuanced distinctions among different Communist-affiliated nationalist independence movements in Africa and Asia during the Cold War.

In fact, as we heard in 2004 from one detainee, we might be missing out on opportunities to make new friends:

One of the Uighurs held at Guantanamo went before a special tribunal on Friday to argue that he was not an unlawful enemy combatant and should not have been arrested in Afghanistan and kept in the detention camp here. The man, a 33-year-old with an artificial left leg, told the military panel that he was not an enemy of the United States and that he hoped America would one day help the Uighur independence movement.

 
We’ve heard this before, after World War II, when the United States decided to fight pro-American independence groups like the Viet Minh because of their Communist alignment, instead of embracing fellow anti-colonialists.

Unfortunately, as with recent terrorist attacks in Russia, the U.S. media is already beating the war drums to label the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in China and Central Asia a major threat to the United States, even though they have nothing to do with us and aren’t opposed to us.

Let us hope that the United States government will be chastened, at least briefly, by its grave mistake with the Uighurs we picked up in Afghanistan 12 years ago.

AFD 66 – Mandela

Latest Episode:
“AFD 66 – Mandela”

I reflect on Nelson Mandela’s legacy. Guest Neal Carter talks about Millennials of Color. Then, I defend the minimum wage and unemployment insurance, and I pitch “Pelosi for President.”

Related links:

– AFD: Republican confusion on Mandela
– AFD: In defense of the minimum wage
– The Atlantic: Rand Paul Couldn’t Be More Wrong About Unemployment Insurance

Afghanistan 1978-79, unearthed

Dutch crimes-against-humanity investigators have published a list of 5,000 names of Afghans (out of tens of thousands) summarily executed by the Communist government between their April 1978 coup and the December 1979 Soviet invasion. The wave of executions was launched in response to a massive rebellion against the new government, in which 40,000 troops defected to the jihadists and rebels. Many of the victims of this Terror were given one-word charges, according to the documents, and buried alive in mass graves, according to soldiers who took part. The release of the names has provoked a huge reaction (of many emotions) this month, particularly since many senior ex-Communists are in the current government.

1992: The Great Russian Withdrawal from the Near Abroad

Flag_of_Russia_(1991-1993)-200pxA while back I posted the story of the experiences of the Soviet cosmonauts who were in space as the Soviet Union was breaking up.

While that was a pretty extreme situation, I just came across this article from 1997 about Soviet military units deployed in the non-Russian republics of the USSR (the “Near Abroad”) as it was breaking up. What were they supposed to do: withdraw immediately — hold in place? It was a logistical and political nightmare.

In many cases, ethnically Russian Soviet troops suddenly found themselves under Russian national command hundreds if not thousands of miles outside of the new country they were serving. Some units immediately started marching and driving back toward Russia, overland, abandoning in place any equipment they couldn’t take with them. Other units found themselves completely cut off and trapped in deployment locations as long-dormant ethno-religious and political conflicts broke out around them.
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