Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

They Said It:

Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment.  Once I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding.  I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion.  But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal.  No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine.  When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness.  But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.  Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am quite alone.

The final lament of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, uttered just before it goes off to end its own life.   Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley, 1818.

 

A WORLD WITH NO SECRETS, REDUX.

For the high-minded or wannabe-high-minded among us, the terms most often used to describe the United States include words and phrases like “freedom,” “liberty,” “justice,” “individual rights,” “greatness,” “opportunity,” “exceptionalism,” and other such encomia.  And to be sure, each of these is descriptive of the nation, its history, and its values.  Nevertheless, the single word that might best describe the country – at least over the last century or so – is much different, much less self-congratulatory and much more blandly descriptive.  That word is “cars.”

Yes, we know that the nation and its revolutionary constitution existed for nearly a century-and-a-half before the automobile was invented.  And we know that a great deal happened over that time span, including a bloody civil war that ended the practice of slavery, the industrial revolution, and the introduction of the American answer to European Leftism, the “Progressive” movement.  Still, America’s global dominance, the extension of its global reach, dates, more or less, to the Second World War, and the history of the nation since, is, in many ways, the history of the car.

You don’t just have to take our word for it, of course.  Countless articles and books have been written about America’s love affair with cars and about the automobile’s impact on the nation.  Once upon a time, as GM’s President Charles Wilson put it, “what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”  Perhaps the greatest – and most indulgent – feat of infrastructure engineering in the world, in the post-War era was Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system.

The defining book of the beat generation and the prelude to the baby boomer rebelliousness was Jack Kerouac’s ode to the road, to the nation’s immensity, and to seeing it via automobile, On the Road.  John Steinbeck – an old favorite of The Political Forum’s – won a Pulitzer for Grapes of Wrath, but didn’t win his Nobel until after he wrote and published the (largely fictitious) travelogue Travels with Charley.  P.J. O’Rourke, the surprising conservo-libertarian force behind National Lampoon magazine, was also a correspondent for several decades for Car and Driver and the author of his own very well-received history of the American automobile.  And on the occasion of General Motor’s government-arranged bankruptcy in 2009, he wrote the following for the Wall Street Journal:

Foremost are the horses.  Cars can’t be comprehended without them.  A hundred and some years ago Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Ballad of the King’s Jest,” in which an Afghan tribesman avers: Four things greater than all things are, — Women and Horses and Power and War.

Insert another “power” after the horse and the verse was as true in the suburbs of my 1950s boyhood as it was in the Khyber Pass. . .

In 1970 a Pontiac GTO (may the brand name rest in peace) had horsepower to the number of 370.  In the time of one minute, for the space of one foot, it could move 12,210,000 pounds.  And it could move those pounds down every foot of every mile of all the roads to the ends of the earth for every minute of every hour until the driver nodded off at the wheel.  Forty years ago the pimply kid down the block, using $3,500 in saved-up soda-jerking money, procured might and main beyond the wildest dreams of Genghis Khan, whose hordes went forth to pillage mounted upon less oomph than is in a modern leaf blower. . . .

Early witnesses to the automobile urged motorists to get a horse.  But that, in effect, was what the automobile would do — get a horse for everybody.  Once the Model T was introduced in 1908 we all became Sir Lancelot, gained a seat at the Round Table and were privileged to joust for the favors of fair maidens (at drive-in movies).  The pride and prestige of a noble mount was vouchsafed to the common man.  And woman, too.  No one ever tried to persuade ladies to drive sidesaddle with both legs hanging out the car door.

For the purpose of ennobling us schlubs, the car is better than the horse in every way. . .

Once we’d caught a glimpse of a well-turned Goodyear, checked out the curves of the bodywork and gaped at that swell pair of headlights, well, the old gray mare was not what she used to be.  We embarked upon life in the fast lane with our new paramour.  It was a great love story of man and machine.  The road to the future was paved with bliss.

O’Rourke goes on to explain that cars are responsible for “suburbia” as well.  As the cities crumbled in the face of post-war Liberal permissiveness and self-reproach, people who wished to stay safe moved away from the cities and created their own, new communities, communities that wouldn’t have been possible without cars:

[C]ars didn’t shape our existence; cars let us escape with our lives.  We’re way the heck out here in Valley Bottom Heights and Trout Antler Estates because we were at war with the cities.  We fought rotten public schools, idiot municipal bureaucracies, corrupt political machines, rampant criminality and the pointy-headed busybodies.  Cars gave us our dragoons and hussars, lent us speed and mobility, let us scout the terrain and probe the enemy’s lines.  And thanks to our cars, when we lost the cities we weren’t forced to surrender, we were able to retreat.

In a recent piece for National Review Online – on the subject of health care reform, believe it or not –  Kevin Williamson took O’Rourke’s depiction one step further, arguing that how one feels about cars, as opposed to public transportation, is, in many ways, a reasonable proxy for political ideology.  If you love cars, love driving, and appreciate the importance of the “spontaneous order” that cars deliver, then you are likely a fan of spontaneous order in other settings as well; you likely appreciate individual liberty and the right of Americans to go and to do as they please.  Conversely, if you’re a fan of “high-speed” rail, and public transportation, and new Metro lines all the way out Tyson’s Corner, then you’re probably a big fan of “central planning;” you probably like big government, collective solutions to individual problems, and the state dictating when and where you may go.  Williamson put it this way:

Progressives love trains and despise cars — remember Arianna Huffington’s daffy campaign against the SUV? — along with “car culture.”  This is a consequence of the fact that our politics are rooted in our aesthetics, that “politics is downstream from culture,” as Andrew Breitbart memorably put it.  Progressives prefer urban life to suburban or rural life (if you dislike car culture, chances are you’ll truly hate truck culture and gun culture) and desire to live in communities that are scaled to pedestrians rather than scaled to the Santa Monica Freeway.  Lots of people who are not politically on the left prefer that sort of life, too: TriBeCa really is a more interesting and pleasant place to foot around in on a Saturday afternoon than is Houston, if that’s your thing.

Trains are the preferred mode of transit if your ideal is central planning.  Automobiles are the preferred mode of transit if your ideal is spontaneous order.  It is in the nature of trains that they tell you where to go; it is in the nature of automobiles (for the time being, at least!) that you tell them where to go.  If you have ever lived in New York and relied on the trains to get around, then you understand both the virtues and defects of the planning model: If everything goes according to plan, the system works pretty well.  When the plan breaks down — which it always does — it is a mess, often a mess that leaves you with no choice but to go outside the system for an alternative.

Likewise, if you’ve spent much time in Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, or any American city that got most of its growth in the post – World War II era, then you appreciate the virtues and defects of the spontaneous-order life . . . .

Last August, at the height of Hillary Clinton’s email controversy and attendant fallout from the Wikileaks release of information embarrassing to the Democrats, we warned that Hillary’s problems were just the beginning, that all of us would, in the very near future, live in a “world without secrets.”  With respect to the subject du jour, cars, we wrote the following:

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.

Obviously, we mention this today because we now have new information about cars, TVs, phones, tablets, and heaven knows what else, all of which have been spying on you.  Seven months ago, we warned that, in the future, no one would have any secrets from anyone, and especially from the government.  Turns out that “the future is now!”

Thanks to Wikileaks, the entire world now knows that the Central Intelligence Agency is perfectly capable of using almost any web-connected electronic device to spy on anyone it wants.  It can listen to your conversations – in your living room, in your bedroom, in your kitchen, or in your car.  It can turn on the camera on your laptop and watch as you swear about the crummy ESPN 3 feed.  It can do almost anything it wants, frankly, and that includes using your car against you.  Literally.  Last week, in the wake of the new Wikileaks revelations, the nice folks at The Washington Post – an anti-Trump newspaper and thus a reflexively anti-Wikileaks news source as well – conceded that the CIA can indeed control your car and can indeed use it cause problems for you.

Tucked into WikiLeaks’ analysis of a trove of documents allegedly from the Central Intelligence Agency is a stunning line: That the agency has looked into hacking cars, which WikiLeaks asserts could be used to carry out “nearly undetectable assassinations.”

In making its claim, WikiLeaks links to meeting notes from 2014 listing “potential mission areas” for the CIA’s Embedded Devices Branch, which includes “Vehicle Systems” and “QNX.”  The leaked documents, which The Washington Post could not independently verify and the CIA has declined to confirm, do not appear to suggest the vehicles be used for assassinations, and even WikiLeaks admits “the purpose of such control is not specified.”…

The fear that your car can be hacked and made to crash is not new, and it’s not completely unfounded.

In 2015, security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek hacked into a 2014 Jeep Cherokee and managed to “turn the steering wheel, briefly disable the brakes and shut down the engine,” the Post’s Craig Timberg reported.  The pair found they could also access thousands of other vehicles that used a wireless entertainment and navigation system called Uconnect, which was common to Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler vehicles. . . .

“It doesn’t appear that any manufacturers currently have detection/prevention methods for such attacks,” Valasek said via email Tuesday.  “Remember, Charlie and I did all this research in our spare time with limited resources. ” . . . .

Researchers from the University of Washington and the University of California at San Diego published papers in 2010 and 2011 showing that vehicles could be compromised when hackers gain access, either in person or remotely.

Last year, researchers in Germany released a study showing they could unlock and start 24 different vehicles with wireless key fobs by taking control of the device remotely and amplifying its signal, Wired magazine reported…. Perhaps the greatest car-hacking fear is the idea that someone could take control of your vehicle and drive it over a bridge or into a brick wall.

The WikiLeaks release even renewed suspicions about the death of journalist Michael Hastings, who was killed in a single-car accident in Los Angeles in 2013.  “You could envision doing all sorts of things, such as waiting until the car is going above a particular speed limit and then apply one of the brakes or steer [the wheel] in cars for which you can control the steering,” said Stephen Checkoway, an assistant computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That fear is not without merit. . . .

Also listed in the WikiLeaks document of “possible mission areas” is QNX, a popular operating system for in-car entertainment and navigation technologies.  Since 2010, QNX has been owned by the company now known as BlackBerry.  The system has been used in more than 50 million vehicles that range from Audi to Ford to Maserati, according to the company . . . .

The “nearly undetectable” assertion in the WikiLeaks claim likely stems from the fact that it’s difficult to determine when a car has been hacked, experts say.  “Today, manufacturers really have no idea what’s going on,” Heilbronn said.  “They have no idea if it’s been hacked or not.”

The writers from the Washington Post – along with almost all of the other writers in the mainstream press who covered this story – go to great lengths to stress that there is no evidence that the CIA used any of these techniques against civilian automobiles or even that the Agency had any definitive plans to do so.  The CIA had the capability, they all say, but that doesn’t really mean much.  They didn’t do it, and as far as we know, there was no coordinated effort to turn the theoretical into reality.

That is very small comfort indeed.  We are, as it turns out, not dealing with a full-grown Big-Brother-like intelligence agency, keeping tabs on all of us, listening to us, and watching our moves.  But we are dealing with Big Brother as an infant or, worse yet, with Big Brother as an adolescent – growing stronger, fully empowered, and yet completely unaware of its own strength and the large-scale implications of its newfound capabilities.  We’re dealing with Big Brother without the fully developed moral sense of a civilized adult, without the full grasp of the consequences of its actions, and without any restraint on its actions short of that which it places on itself.  Imagine a 12 year old behind the wheel of a Ferrari 458 Spider.

In another recent piece, the aforementioned Kevin Williamson warned that we mere mortals are unable to see the future and are thus unable to know what sort of dystopia awaits us.  Maybe it will be 1984.  Maybe it will be Brave New World.  Maybe it will be something completely and utterly different, even unimaginable.

On February 2, 2017, Tom Nichols at the Federalist wrote an essay titled “We Should Fear Brave New World More Than We Do 1984.”  Also on February 2, Andrew Postman published an article in the Guardian headlined “My dad predicted Trump in 1985: It’s not Orwell, he warned, it’s Brave New World.”  Postman’s father is the late Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death.  John Feffer — “My Novel (Accidentally) Predicted Trump” — joined in at the Huffington Post, writing on February 3: “Novelists don’t write dystopias because they think the dismal future they portray inevitable.  1984, Brave New WorldThe Handmaid’s Tale — these were all calls to arms.”  On February 13, the New York Times published “Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World?”  Truthdig published a similar article on the same day.  Canada’s CBC felt the mood eight days later, publishing “Interested in 1984, Brave New World?  Try these modern dystopian books.”  John Williams, writing in the New York Times on February 19, had cited the same three dystopian novels (“the chaotic and confounding state of America in 2017 has sent readers scrambling back to the genre’s canonical texts”) in his appreciation of Philip Roth’s The Plot against America.  Discussions of the novels have turned up in the past month everywhere from obscure conservative websites to Reddit.  Diana B. Henriques, a novelist and New York Times contributor, tweeted: “Brave New World gets it best, so far.  But 1984 may be the sequel.”  Jim Geraghty weighed in here [at National Review Online] on 1984 yesterday….

It is easy to sympathize with the feeling that we are near to or headed toward either Orwell’s horrifying police state or Huxley’s horrifying utopia-dystopia.

Williamson wisely doesn’t get into the details of the dystopian future we might face, but we, rather unwisely, will.  We have written before that the legalization of marijuana coupled with the slow but sustained withdrawal of young men from the workforce reminds us, in part, of Brave New World.   Likewise, the groupthink, the present political tension, the raw partisan divisions, and advances in technological surveillance remind us 1984.  And now, after the revelations made last week, we’re beginning to think that there might be elements of a new dystopia in our future.  If you consider the revelations made about cars and specifically about the ability of outside forces to regulate the operation of all recently and future-built automobiles, then it seems to us that there might be a little bit of Mad Max in store for us.

As you may or may not recall, Mad Max is set in Australia in the aftermath of a devastating war in the Persian Gulf, which has destroyed global oil supplies and left the economies of the world in total disarray.  In the post-crash world, by necessity, driving, is a pursuit the practice of which is restricted.  Those who control the oil, hold the power.  And those who don’t have oil, but want it, will do whatever they can to get it.

Obviously, the parallels aren’t perfect – far from it.  But it’s not hard to imagine a future in which pre-computer-programmed cars are commodity in high demand.  If the government (or business or your personal enemies) can track your every move and disable your self-driving or “connected” car whenever they decide that they don’t like where you’re going, then cars from an earlier era will be invaluable.  And those who have physical possession of those cars will also hold a great deal of power and will be the object of much covetousness.  It is not inconceivable that your government would want to make such cars illegal, turning them into contraband and thereby increasing their black-market value.  It is not inconceivable that your government would offer cash to its unsuspecting population for such older cars, under the premise of wanting to fight “environmental degradation.”  (“Cash for Clunkers” anyone?)  Frankly, after what we learned last week, we have to say that not much is inconceivable where your government in concerned.

Are we being paranoid here?  Are we spinning crazy conspiracy theories?  We sure as hell hope so.  But even if we are, that doesn’t change the fact that we, as a civilization, are on the cusp of a radically different world.  Ten years from now, the society in which we live will be unrecognizable, and it won’t take a destructive war in the Persian Gulf to make it so (although that’s not entirely out of the question).

Be careful what you say.  Your TV might be listening.  Be careful what you look up online.  Your computer is sending data to anyone and everyone.  And most of all, don’t expect to have the freedom to go where you want when you want.  The great American love affair with cars is over.  And by extension, the American love affair with freedom, liberty, and spontaneous order is also largely over.  The central planners and the collectivists have won.  Your driving is bad for the earth.  It’s bad for “the children.”  And worst of all, it allows you to go to “unapproved” places at “unapproved” times.

For years now, various organizations in various industries have warned that technology is “improving” too quickly for anything like morals or ethics to keep pace.  Thanks to Wikileaks, we know that our government doesn’t especially care and that it can do just about anything it wants to, at least in terms of surveillance.

For the better part of the last quarter century, we have argued that “character counts,” that the moral integrity of our political leaders is of the utmost importance.  Now, you see why.  In a world in which there are no secrets and in which a government can do anything it wants and can do much of it without ever getting caught, the only safeguard we have against tyranny is political leaders who know what a government ought not do and are willing to declare that just because they can do anything that that doesn’t mean that they should.

In 1954, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, testified before the United States Atomic Energy Commission on the subject of his reaction to the Soviet Union’s testing of its own bomb.  “It is my judgment in these things,” he said in his own defense, “that when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.  That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.  I do not think anybody opposed making it . . . .”  This, we’re afraid, is the current attitude among our so-called “intelligence” community.  When they see something “technically sweet” they go ahead and do it and argue about it later.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, it became the policy of the United States government to assassinate its own citizens, without anything remotely approaching due process, as long as they just happened to be on foreign soil.  These assassinations were carried out by “technically sweet” drones and were justified in the name of the “War on Terror” – or whatever the hell the Obama-nauts called it.  Worse still, as Kevin Williamson notes, “no one has convincingly ruled out assassinations at home.”

Yesterday – less than a week after the world learned that the CIA can and will use technology radically to change the relationship between the individual and the state – various news sources reported that President Trump has, by virtue of a “secret” order, granted this same agency the power to conduct drone assassinations that were formerly the exclusive purview of the military.  Now, don’t get us wrong.  We’re all for gettin’ the terrorists.  We’re just not sure that we trust the people who will now be getting them to keep their sites focused on the bad guys.

And someday, in the future, when the CIA’s drones come for you, don’t bother trying to outrun them.  Getting in your car and racing off will just make it that much easier for them to find and trap you.  In the Wall Street Journal piece we cited at the top of this essay, P.J. O’Rourke noted that “In the far boondocks a few good old boys haven’t got the memo and still tear up the back roads.”  He continued, lamenting that “Doubtless the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation is even now calculating a way to tap federal stimulus funds for mandatory OnStar installations to locate and subdue these reprobates.”  How prescient.  We only have one question:  who needs OnStar?

Too preachy?  Well, not any more so than Madame de Staël’s observation in 1810 in reaction to the sanguinary events that had been so much a part of the French Revolution.

I shall go further: Scientific progress makes moral progress a necessity; for if man’s power is increased, the checks that restrain him from abusing it must be strengthened.

Or Winston Churchill’s warning made in 1931, more than a decade before the appearance of the atomic bomb.

Certain it is that while men are gathering knowledge and power with ever-increasing and measureless speed, their virtues and their wisdom have not shown any notable improvements as the centuries have rolled.  The brain of a modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and lived here millions of years ago.  The nature of man has remained hitherto practically unchanged as the centuries have rolled.  Under sufficient stress-starvation, terror, warlike passion, or even cold intellectual frenzy – the modern man we know so well will do the most terrible deeds and his modern woman will back him up . . . We have the spectacle of the powers and weapons of man far outstripping the march of his intelligence; we have the march of his intelligence proceeding far more rapidly than the development of his nobility.  We may well find ourselves in the presence of ‘the strength of civilization without its mercy’.

It is therefore above all things important that the moral philosophy and spiritual conceptions of men and nations should hold their own amid these formidable scientific evolutions . . . There are secrets too mysterious for man in his present state to know, secrets which, once penetrated, may be fatal to human happiness and glory.  But the busy hands of the scientists are already fumbling with the keys of all the chambers hitherto forbidden to mankind. Without an equal growth of Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, Science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable. There never was a time when the inherent virtue of human beings required more strong and confident expression in daily life; there never was a time when the hope of immortality and the disdain of earthly power and achievement were more necessary for the safety of the children of men.

Sleep well, nuestros amigos.

Copyright 2017. 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.