Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

They Said It:

One does not need sophisticated political theory to know that not very long ago politicians were disqualified by personal moral failings, including lechery (remember Gary Hart) or even divorce (remember Nelson Rockefeller). A sympathetic press hushed up John F. Kennedy’s womanizing precisely because it was assumed that, were it known, it would be politically deadly. I doubt if there has been much change in “the national soul,” although what has changed may well, in time, change the national soul. What has changed is that the combination of Bill Clinton and the multiplication of media—especially tabloids and talk radio—has made it impossible to keep secret the man’s egregious transgressions. What has changed is that the prestige media, so eager for his victory, and his opponents, so eager not to seem nasty, decided that the man’s wretched character is a political nonissue.

Ten or thirty years ago, there were no doubt many Americans who were quite blase about politicians’ personal derelictions. Then as now, they may even have rather admired them as lovable rogues. The difference is that our intellectual leadership, the media, and the then-mainline churches did not tell the morally slovenly sector of the electorate that they were right in their indifference to character. This time they did precisely that, so desperately did they want Clinton to win. As FDR is reported to have said of a Latin America dictator, “He’s an SOB, but he’s our SOB.”…

As I say, this may be working a change in the national soul, but we shouldn’t blame the national soul for what is done by very specific people who should know better. “America” did not decide one afternoon that it would be a good idea to put on the newsstands a magazine with center-fold pornography. The peddlers of pornography decided that, and they were supported by judges who are real people with names. “America” did not decide it is all right for women to kill their babies at whim. Seven lawyers on the Supreme Court decided that. And on and on. I certainly do not deny that there is such a thing as public morality and it may, with care, be called the national soul, which may be changing for the worse. I do very much question whether the reelection of Bill Clinton is to be attributed to a popular embrace of Machiavelli’s anti-virtue. For calculated partisan reasons, often publicly admitted, those who control the commanding heights of the political culture decided to appeal to the weaknesses rather than the strengths of the populace, and persuaded enough voters that virtue does not matter.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “A Mirror of the National Soul,” First Things, March, 1997.



For much of the 1990s, but especially near the end of the decade, the late, great William Safire dedicated an inordinate amount of his column space to the question of personal privacy in the digital age.  Or at least we thought at the time that it was an “inordinate” amount.  Whenever he ended a column by urging his readers to “pay cash” – which he did often – we thought that he was being more than a little overdramatic.  Of course, we also figured that as an alumnus of the Nixon administration, he’d come by his paranoia legitimately.  Still, we paid his plaintive concerns about privacy very little mind.

And then came 9/11 . . . .

When al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the American government suddenly became more serious about fighting terrorism.  Unfortunately, the political mores of our era prevented said government from taking the most obvious and most reasonable measures to fight the Islamist scourge.  Instead of addressing the central issue of political Islam and the related question of religiously motivated violence, the Bush administration chose – or was compelled – to fight something fallaciously called “terrorism” and to do so on an ad hoc basis.  And so while President Bush was careful to be solicitous of Muslim sensitivities and to call Islam “a religion of peace,” he and almost everyone else in government ever since were somewhat less concerned about the privacy of normal, everyday, law-abiding Americans.  “Privacy,” such as it was, became a casualty of the war on terror.

Safire shook up the world when he warned us all of the threat that the war and its inevitable bureaucracy posed to our privacy.  In a column penned just over a year after the attacks, the New York Times’ token conservative detailed the lengths to which our government – purportedly of, by, and for the people – would go to catch terrorists while refusing to indict Islamism more generally.  In the now-famous column “You Are a Suspect,” published on November 14, 2002, Safire noted the following:

If the Homeland Security Act is not amended before passage, here is what will happen to you:

Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every Web site you visit and e-mail you send or receive, every academic grade you receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book and every event you attend — all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as ‘‘a virtual, centralized grand database.’’

To this computerized dossier on your private life from commercial sources, add every piece of information that government has about you — passport application, driver’s license and bridge toll records, judicial and divorce records, complaints from nosy neighbors to the F.B.I., your lifetime paper trail plus the latest hidden camera surveillance — and you have the supersnoop’s dream: a ‘‘Total Information Awareness’’ about every U.S. citizen.

Largely because of Safire’s warning, privacy advocates and civil libertarians protested the snooping provisions of the Homeland Security Act and were able to stop the Total Information Awareness program (TIA) from being implemented.  Sort of.  The following January, the Senate made TIA unenforceable against Americans without prior Congressional authorization.  And then, in September, Congress zeroed out the funding for the project.  But not really.

As it turned out, the warnings provided by Safire were enough to make some people in Congress uncomfortable, but were not enough to compel them to take any serious action regarding the protection of Americans’ privacy.  On February 23, 2006, Shane Harris, now the national security and intelligence correspondent for The Daily Beast, penned an investigative piece for National Journal showing that Congress had made a big public production of stopping TIA, but had, in truth, merely shuffled the program around.  TIA’s components were renamed and much of it was placed under control of “classified” intelligence programs.  To wit:

A controversial counter-terrorism program, which lawmakers halted more than two years ago amid outcries from privacy advocates, was stopped in name only and has quietly continued within the intelligence agency now fending off charges that it has violated the privacy of U.S. citizens.

Research under the Defense Department’s Total Information Awareness program — which developed technologies to predict terrorist attacks by mining government databases and the personal records of people in the United States — was moved from the Pentagon’s research-and-development agency to another group, which builds technologies primarily for the National Security Agency, according to documents obtained by National Journal and to intelligence sources familiar with the move.  The names of key projects were changed, apparently to conceal their identities, but their funding remained intact, often under the same contracts.

It is no secret that some parts of TIA lived on behind the veil of the classified intelligence budget.  However, the projects that moved, their new code names, and the agencies that took them over haven’t previously been disclosed.  Sources aware of the transfers declined to speak on the record for this story because, they said, the identities of the specific programs are classified. . . .

Earlier this month, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, one of TIA’s strongest critics questioned whether intelligence officials knew that some of its programs had been moved to other agencies.  Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and FBI Director Robert Mueller whether it was “correct that when [TIA] was closed, that several. . . … projects were moved to various intelligence agencies. . . .  I and others on this panel led the effort to close [TIA]; we want to know if Mr. Poindexter’s programs are going on somewhere else.”

Negroponte and Mueller said they didn’t know.  But Negroponte’s deputy, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who until recently was director of the NSA, said, “I’d like to answer in closed session.”

In the decade since the publications of Harris’s piece, we have, of course, learned that TIA and its descendants were but the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Thanks to journalists like The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman and to traitorous whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, today we know that the government is watching, recording, aggregating almost everything everyone does.  And it’s not just the government.  Your wireless carrier, your internet provider, your search engine, your credit card company, your cable company, and virtually anyone and everyone else you can think of is collecting data on you, watching your online activities, recording your every step.  And that’s just what’s legal (or legal-ish).  It doesn’t take into account spyware, malware, hackers, and assorted other nogoodniks who are stealing your information, reading your emails, and doing God knows what with your Social Security number.

A few weeks back, in a piece about Obama and race, we discussed the concept of the “hidden law,” noting that it’s nigh on impossible for this law to remain “hidden” and thus to function in our spy-riddled digital age.  “Today,” we wrote, “with the ubiquity of technology, of social media, of dashboard and lapel cameras, the hidden law can no longer function in law enforcement.  There is no longer anything that is ‘hidden.’  There are no longer any secrets.”  The same applies to contemporary life in general, not just to law enforcement and the hidden law.  You no longer have any secrets.  Indeed, no one has any secrets.

A few years ago, the big shots of the tech industry – including Microsoft and Google – wrote an open letter to the federal government “demanding” privacy reform.  According to the tech giants, the danged ol’ government was destroying public trust in the internet and was ruining everything for everybody.  What the folks at Microsoft forgot to mention, of course, was that they were partners with various government entities in subverting any remaining semblance of privacy.  The pervasive public surveillance cameras in New York City, for example, are a part of a joint project pairing the NYPD with Microsoft.  Three years ago, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg proudly proclaimed that within five years, the entire city would be under 24/7 surveillance thanks to Microsoft.  For those of you scoring at home:  5 minus 3 equals. . . . 2; two years until New York is every bit as creepily scrutinized as Oceania ever was.  As for Microsoft’s partner in “crime” – and we use that word advisedly – a few months before the letter was penned, Nathan Newman, the Director of Data Justice, explained on the Huffington Post how Google was behaving itself:

Google’s illegal “wi-spy” program of collecting user data over home wi-fi hubs using its Street View cars has led to investigations and fines for violations of the law in countries around the world.   Investigators were outraged when they reviewed the downloaded data and found Google had collected massive amounts of personal emails and data revealing everything from people’s medical histories to their sexual preference to marital infidelity.  (Google’s defense that it was all okay because they never looked at the illegally collected data is eerily similar to the NSA’s).

When challenged on its illegal data collection, the company lied and stonewalled investigators around the world, with the Federal Communications Commission finding the company guilty of “willfully” ignoring subpoenas to delay investigations into the scandal, fining the company in a 25-page condemnation in April 2012 that concluded “Google’s failure to cooperate with the Bureau was in many or all cases deliberate.”

Both Google and Facebook were charged with violating privacy laws in launching their social media networks and both had to agree to 20-year consent decrees to monitor their privacy policies. But a year after entering its consent decree, the Federal Trade Commission found Google had secretly placed “cookies” to track the online activities of people using the Safari web browser, despite having publicly “told these users they would automatically be opted out of such tracking.”  Google had deliberately found a vulnerability in Safari’s “default cookie-blocking setting” in order to collect the information for its advertising data collection purposes, while publicly misrepresenting to users that it was not doing so.   The company paid a $22.5 million fine for this illegal data collection operation. . . .

Google and Facebook and other data mining companies are trying to position themselves as defenders of user privacy, but when California tried to pass simple law this year to allow users to simply find out what data has been collected about them by online companies — the privacy equivalent of a credit report — those same companies mobilized and killed the bill dead in its tracks.

In 2007, Gawker Media outed PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel simply because it could and wanted to.  In 2015, Gawker outed former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s brother, again, because it could and because it wanted to.  Gawker, of course, is currently in bankruptcy proceedings for publishing a 2006 video of the wrestler Hulk Hogan having sex with a married woman.  It published the video because it could and because it wanted to.  Last week, the aforementioned Daily Beast published and then removed a story in which a straight editor/reporter outed several Olympians by posing as a gay man on the “hook-up” app Grindr.  Some of those athletes are from countries in which homosexuality is a criminal and perhaps a capital offense.  The Daily Beast published the story anyway because it could and because it wanted to.

In short, no one has any secrets.

A few weeks back, we read a story in Technology Review entitled “Why the Rise of Driverless Cars Has Got Detroit Spooked.”  As it turned out, the piece wasn’t what we thought it would be.  It was a pretty dull and colorless article about how American car companies are slow-footed dinosaurs.  Who didn’t know?  Nevertheless, the title of the piece struck a chord with us.

As a general rule, most people, particularly in politics and technology, tend to see the rapidly approaching advent of driverless cars as a blessing, an exciting and beneficial advancement in technology.  We’re not so sure.  Think about it for a minute.  Who are the biggest players in the driverless car arena?  Tesla, obviously is one big name.  But the other big player is Google – the same company that knows what you look at on the internet, that has the means and the motive to read your g-mail, that knows where you live, with whom live, and what your house looks like, etc.  And now we want to turn over control of our transportation to them?  There are countless essays, novels, nonfiction books, and empirical analyses documenting the American love affair with the automobile and the connection between cars and the American conception of freedom.  We don’t mean to sound paranoid here, but does anyone really think it’s a good idea to give up that freedom in the name of convenience, handing control of your transport over to a mega-corporation that knows where you’re going and why before you even do?  That strikes us as not just creepy, but a dramatic, if unintended, strike against what liberty we have left.  And it’s probably not unintended.

Aha, you say, but I live in a city.  I don’t drive a car.  I take public transportation.  Google can’t control where I go and what I do.  Are you sure about that?  Did you happen to see this June 27 piece in The Guardian?

Sidewalk Labs, a secretive subsidiary of Alphabet, wants to radically overhaul public parking and transportation in American cities, emails and documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.

Its high-tech services, which it calls “new superpowers to extend access and mobility”, could make it easier to drive and park in cities and create hybrid public/private transit options that rely heavily on ride-share services such as Uber.  But they might also gut traditional bus services and require cities to invest heavily in Google’s own technologies, experts fear.

Sidewalk is initially offering its cloud software, called Flow, to Columbus, Ohio, the winner of a recent $50m Smart City Challenge organized by the US Department of Transportation.

Using public records laws, the Guardian obtained dozens of emails and documents submitted to Challenge cities by Sidewalk Labs, detailing many technologies and proposals that have not previously been made public.

Some will be controversial, including spending transport subsidies for low-income residents on ride-sharing services such as Uber, requiring cities to upgrade to Sidewalk’s mobile payments system, and modernizing public parking to boost city revenues.

Sidewalk Labs was spun out from Google last June with a mission to “improve city life for everyone”.  Since then, it was part of a consortium that deployed several hundred free Wi-Fi kiosks in New York and is rumoured to be designing a city from the ground up for self-driving cars.  Now, it’s offering Columbus a three-year demonstration project consisting of 100 Wi-Fi kiosks and free access to Flow.

Again, we don’t mean to sound paranoid, but this just strikes us as both creepy and potentially dangerous.  Or to put it another way, we’re not entirely sure that Google’s motives are entirely commercial in nature.  And even if they are, how does that make it any better?

Years ago, when we still gave speeches and made presentations, we used to talk about conspiracy/espionage novels by John le Carre and the like that featured a cabal of world leaders that met clandestinely at a Georgetown townhouse to plot the future of the world.  We’d say that the authors had the right idea, but usually the wrong players, since every schoolboy knew that the real cabal included representatives from Goldman Sachs, the real mastermind of the New World Order.  In retrospect, maybe we too had the right idea but the wrong players.  Maybe, in addition to Goldman, we should expect that Google, Apple, and Facebook would be on hand.  Who needs the government, after all, when you have everything the bumbling bureaucrats could get . . . and more?

The simple fact of the matter is that the digital age is wonderful, awesome, terrible, and frightening, all at the same time.  Who among us has the personal or professional option of opting out of the digital economy?  Who would want to, if even he could?  And yet, they – the government, the tech companies, all of them in combination – have us over a barrel.  In order to opt into the digital world, we have to give up something of ourselves.  And in all cases, that “something” begins but likely does not end with any secrets we may have.

What does it all mean?  Well, we’ll be damned if we know.  We just know that it means that the world tomorrow is going to be very different from the world today, just as the world today is very different from that of yesterday.  In a macro or societal sense, we suspect that all of this will further divide a nation that is already dividing wildly.  People will keep to “their own,” which is to say that they will keep the company of those whom they know they can trust with the deepest, darkest, most intimate details of their lives, since everybody is going to know them anyway.

The longtime Leftist dream of “one world” in which everyone shares everything and everybody is part of one community is not just dead, but buried and decomposing.  Self-segregation is the name of the game today, and will be even more so tomorrow.  Just keep your head down, mind your own business, and hope that nothing you say or do attracts the attention of anyone in power.  Today’s “cosmopolitanism” will be reserved for the lucky few who share the aspirations and values of other global cosmopolitans.  The distance between the ruling class and the country class will only expand.  The country class and their bumpkin values will have no chance whatsoever to wrestle power or affluence from those blessed with a lack of conscience.

If you doubt that our conclusion that the “no secrets” future belongs to those with no conscience, consider for a moment the current presidential election.  As you well know, this contest pits a well-known congenital liar (speaking of Safire . . . ) against a well-known pathological liar.  Both candidates are reviled by the electorate.  Both are manifestly corrupt and dishonest.  And both have egos that would make Lucifer himself feel inadequate.  And yet . . . .

Over the past few weeks, various commentators have speculated on the inevitability of an “October Surprise” and the impact that it could have on the outcome of the election.  Some have suggested that there could, in fact, be dueling October surprises, at least one (and maybe more) for each of the candidates.  Two of our old friends, John Fund at National Review and John Crudele at the New York Post, have each, independently, posited a scenario in which the “no-secrets” digital world plays a part in the campaign, throwing a “surprise” of sorts at both candidates.  Three weeks ago, Fund put it this way:

Could the presidential election be decided by two competing “October Surprises” based on leaked information?

One from WikiLeaks could involve the deleted e-mails from Hillary Clinton’s private server and could be related to the FBI’s ongoing investigation of the Clinton Foundation.  Another could involve the leaking of confidential tax-return information regarding Donald Trump, who has steadfastly refused to release his returns even as he demanded to see the returns of people seeking to be his vice-presidential running mate.

Speculation about possible October surprises is rampant here among political observers covering the Democratic convention. . . .

Team Hillary is well aware that Assange’s WikiLeaks probably has other surprises in store for the fall campaign.  During a June 12 interview with Britain’s ITV, Assange was asked if he had any undisclosed e-mails.  He responded:

We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton, which is great, WikiLeaks has a very big year ahead.  We have e-mails related to Hillary Clinton which are pending publication, that is correct.

Assange strongly hinted that other e-mail releases were coming, and sources close to him say they will go beyond the DNC e-mails. . . .

“With a crew of Lois Lerners running the IRS, those returns surely will leak right after the nomination is made formal,” Quin Hillyer wrote at NRO this spring.  After all, someone in the IRS did precisely that in 2012, illegally leaking tax information about Mitt Romney.  Mitt Romney had delayed releasing his returns until late in the campaign, and the Democrats gleefully used the leaked tax info against him.  Trump himself criticized Romney for delaying release of his tax returns, saying he “was hurt very badly” by that.  Will history repeat itself again in this campaign?

In order to understand just how profound a statement this makes about our current politics and our current ruling class, you have to consider the fact that both Hillary and Trump know what could possibly be contained in any October Surprise leaks.  Hillary knows what she did, what she said, and what is in the emails she deleted.  Likewise, Trump knows what his tax returns show.  And yet, like Tennyson’s “Light Brigade,” “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them,” they charge forward, oblivious to the enemy’s shells.

Now this could mean innocence.  A clear conscience.  Although, when considering this option, it is worth keeping in mind the old saying that a clear conscience is either the sign of bad memory or low moral standards.  But, surely in the case of Hillary, and possibly in the case of Trump, it means that they know that little things like truth, honesty, integrity, and personal morals are no longer high on the list of public concerns.  Indeed, one wonders whether there is still any poetic truth in the former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edward’s famous comment that the only way he could lose an election was if he were caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.

In one sense then, there will be no October Surprises because there is nothing that either candidate could have done that would surprise anyone.  We don’t know that for certain about Trump.  Time will tell.  But we do know that it would be hard to embarrass a woman who would run as a feminist, even as she remains married to a man who had an affair with an intern half his age, is accused of sexual assault as well as sexual harassment, and has spent much of his free time over the years hanging out with a convicted pedophile who is known to “treat” his buddies to underage girls on his private “sex” island.

You wanna know the worst part about all of this?  It’s only the beginning.  Hillary and Trump are not “the worst candidates we could ever have.”  They are omens, portents of the future of American politics.  In a world without secrets, the prospective candidates for public office will come either from that small population of delightful, nearly flawless human beings who have never done anything illegal, immoral, or embarrassing, or those who are not only immune to embarrassment, but whose families are also.

Here’s what we think will happen this fall:  In October, Wikileaks will drop a bomb, proving conclusively that Hillary Clinton sold access to the State Department and knowingly and willingly compromised national security.  At the same time, someone – probably a leaker at the IRS – will drop some sort of bomb on Trump, most probably of some alleged financial impropriety.

And you know what will happen then?  Absolutely nothing.  Hillary supporters will remain Hillary supporters.  Trump supporters will remain Trump supporters.  Neither candidate will gain an advantage.  Neither candidate will lose an advantage.  Everything will proceed exactly as it was before.  The candidates won’t flinch and neither will the electorate.

Such is the state of American politics.

The complete and utter lack of secrets in the digital age is not the sole or perhaps even the most important cause of this condition, but it is a significant contributing factor.  And it will be an even bigger factor in politics going forward.  And the shameless shall inherit the earth.

Copyright 2016. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.