The case against torture

Published: Daily Dot (March 31, 2015)

If there was any doubt that Jeb Bush would repeat his brother’s mistakes on the use of torture if elected president, it has been decisively dispelled.

Last December, the Senate published a report that harshly criticized the use of torture by George W. Bush’s administration. Although it noted that the president himself wasn’t informed of the details of these “enhanced interrogation” techniques until 2006, Bush nevertheless offered a characteristic defense of the people who worked for him, declaring on CNN that “if it diminishes [the CIA’s] contributions to our country, it is way off base.”

Now pay attention to the similarity between George W. Bush’s language and the rhetoric employed by Jeb earlier this month. When asked whether the United States should close its controversial base on Guantanamo Bay, Jeb Bush replied that “closing it down for political purposes is not the right thing to do. Unless there is some compelling alternative, I believe we should stay the course.” Just like the last Bush to serve in the White House, Jeb’s priority isn’t discussing the morality or usefulness of torture itself but is deflecting those questions by preemptively challenging the motives of those who might oppose it.

This would be bad enough if it was done to protect a policy that had some merit. It is absolutely unforgivable when used to preserve something as irredeemable as torture.

“The CIA’s torture program was even more ruthless than we were led to believe,” explained veteran DEA interrogator Donald Canestraro after the Senate’s report was released. “Waterboarding, beatings violent enough to break bones, assault, mock executions, electric shocks to sensitive areas. … It didn’t prevent any attacks and or gain information that couldn’t have been gained legally through rapport-based interrogations.” That point bears repeating: Torture doesn’t work. Indeed, not only was torture in no way responsible for discovering Osama bin Laden’s location, as many wrongly believe, but it has never been proven to have led to the apprehension of a terrorist.

Why is the practice so ineffective? Reed College professor Darius Rejali put it best in an interview with Medical Daily: “The problem of torture does not stem from the prisoner who has information; it stems from the prisoner who doesn’t.” While a prisoner who has legitimate information may cough it up while being tortured, “the torture of the informed may generate no more lies than normal interrogation.” By contrast, Rejali explains that “the torture of the ignorant and innocent overwhelms investigators with misleading information.”

Recent research has only served to reinforce this point. Referring to the notion that torture can break a bad guy into telling the truth as “folk psychology,” neurobiologist Shane O’Mara of the Trinity College Institute for Neuroscience was quoted in Newsweek as saying, “Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.”

Needless to say, all of this evidence strongly suggests that John McCain (who experienced torture as a POW during the Vietnam War) was right when he told the Senate that the use of torture “actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for good in the world.”

That last phrase—“our reputation as a force for good in the world”—is particularly instructive. For all of America’s faults, we used to have a reputation for taking the high ground. During World War II, for example, our military intelligence specialists understood that it was important to choose interrogation methods that played to the psychological weaknesses of their subjects.

“You don’t get people to talk by beating them or waterboarding or anything of that nature,” explained former Nazi-interrogator Rudolph Pins to CBS News. Pins and his colleagues, who were hired to extract information from captured Nazis, understood that the ideal strategy was to trick prisoners into letting their guard down. Pins said that he would get his prisoners to talk after making life for his prisoners “fairly easy,” causing them to relax. Once he introduced the prospect of losing their current cushy conditions (such as, in the case of World War II, being handed over to the Russian military) sets in, the secrets spilled.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to obtain quality information. Returning again to America’s interrogation of Nazi prisoners during World War II, former Air Force interrogator and trainer Steven M. Kleinman told the Atlantic that questioners at Fort Hunt “had graduate degrees in law and philosophy, spoke the [German] language flawlessly” and spent hours preparing for questioning. As a result of this superior preparation, they were in a position to develop an intimate familiarity with their inmates and, as a result, use their status as captors to gain the upper hand in conversations even with the staunchest hold-outs.

Setting aside the fact that precedent exists for the existence of superior alternatives to torture, the bottom line is that when America became notorious for its use of torture, our nation’s moral reputation (the one to which McCain alluded in his speech) took a major hit. A fundamental respect for the dignity of human life is the bedrock of all meaningful democratic government; after all, a state that allows people to vote but doesn’t value their lives can very easily become the hostage of a tyrannical majority.

It’s one thing to consider non-citizens as lesser people in our handling of foreign affairs (such a move is often necessary for practical reasons, as evidenced in the differences between our military and civilian judicial systems), but it’s quite another to decide that the ostensibly universal values we profess in our everyday life can be suspended during periods of crisis.

The problem isn’t that the use of torture forces us to sell our souls in the name of protecting freedom. On a deeper level, the problem is that it perpetuates the misconception that freedom can exist in any meaningful sense without a humanitarian moral foundation. When we try to break our own rules to preserve our freedom, we inevitably do far more damage to it than any terrorist attack ever could.

It’s time to #CloseGitmo, once and for all.

A Great Cosmic Joke: The Hilarious Human Body

Published: Good Men Project (March 31, 2015)

Human beings are clumsy, hairless monkeys obsessed with looking beautiful. How is that not funny?

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For as long as I can remember, I have found the emotion of awkwardness to be endlessly amusing. It’s why I enjoy TV shows like “Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job,” so-bad-they’re-good movies like “Troll 2,” and reciting anecdotes from the Darwin Awards to my always-politely-uncomfortable parents. Explaining why I tend to crack up at awkwardness (including my own, although that’s usually in retrospect) is as difficult as deconstructing why my favorite food is salami or my favorite color is green. For whatever psychological and/or biological reasons, my taste in comedy runs in that direction. It is what it is, for better or worse, with the salient point here being that possessing a healthy appreciation for the comedy in awkwardness helps you notice its presence when others don’t.

This brings us to the concept of beauty, and with it that fleshy vessel that hapless homo sapiens are saddled with finding attractive – the human body.

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From a purely physical standpoint, human beings are pretty unremarkable. That is to say, although our bodies are bio-mechanical wonders produced by eons of evolution, they are distinctly lacking in those qualities that are most likely to stir up a sense of beauty in the eyes of beholders  that aren’t instinctively predisposed to perceive us as attractive (i.e., other human beings). In appearance, we’re no more or less interesting than our fellow higher primates, aside from how we have considerably less hair than most monkeys. Without clothes or technology, we fail to stand out from the other animals in terms of colorfulness, agility, grace, symmetry, or any of the qualities that might make an organism visually pleasing to a total outsider. What’s more, the human body—like most organic matter—produces an inordinate share of revolting stenches, undignified sounds, and unsightly blemishes, before inevitably succumbing to the aging process in a sort of pre-mortem process of ongoing decay. Our one truly remarkable quality is our intelligence, which manifests itself in our disproportionately large heads and prolonged periods of child-rearing (more on the implications of those big brains in a moment).

The very fact that one of our most popular platitudes is the proclamation that every woman is beautiful only proves that the problem of female objectification has very deep roots. After all, you don’t hear comforting cliches about how every woman is intelligent or every woman is athletically gifted—or, for that matter, insisting that every man is handsome.

I would argue that this is true of both genders, although depending on one’s sexual orientation, the chances are you’ll find one sex distinctly more appealing than the other. For a standard heterosexual male perspective, we can turn to Jerry Seinfeld’s observation: “The female body is a work of art. The male body is utilitarian. It’s for gettin’ around. It’s like a Jeep.” Certainly this captures how I’ve always viewed my own body. For most of my life I haven’t cared one whit about fashion or neatness. My sole concern has been hygiene, and since a rumpled shirt and mismatching socks are as inoffensive to the nose as smoothly-pressed color coordination, I tend to not care very much about what I wear so long as it’s been thoroughly washed. Even my one concession to vanity, my facial hair, is as much a sentimental as it is an aesthetic decision; since the child Matt Rozsa used to daydream about having a beard, the adult version grows one as a sop to his pre-pubescent counterpart.

This is only one example of male vanity, and a rather paltry one at that; it would help enormously if I had a plethora of male friends who obsessed over developing ripped muscles (to use one popular gauge for male “beauty”) or being fashionable (to use a comparatively newer, but no less prevalent, masculine ideal). Then again, because women are far more likely to be judged predominantly or even solely based on their physical appearance (both within and outside of the dating world), it’s probably for the best that I devote a tad more attention to their gender here. Since I’ve already written about this subject from a feminist perspective before, I won’t reiterate the profound moral problem with female objectification, and instead quote an essay from H. L. Mencken that assesses women with the same detachment that Seinfeld used for men. “Below the neck by the bow and below the waist astern there are two masses that simply refuse to fit into balanced composition,” he observed. “Viewed from the side, a woman presents an exaggerated S bisected by an imperfect straight line, and so she inevitably suggests a drunk dollarmark.”

In other words, women are just as ridiculous-looking as men, even though society places cruel demands on them to appear otherwise. The very fact that one of our most popular platitudes is the proclamation that every woman is beautiful only proves that the problem of female objectification has very deep roots. After all, you don’t hear comforting cliches about how every woman is intelligent or every woman is athletically gifted—or, for that matter, insisting that every man is handsome. That would be self-evidently absurd, since we know that neither nature nor nurture are that kind in how they dispense the most treasured attributes. Because women are far more likely to have their social value tied to their perceived attractiveness than men, however, the whole subject of an individual female’s aesthetic and sexual appeal is very sensitive.”To tell a man flatly that his wife is not beautiful is so harsh and intolerable an insult that even an enemy seldom ventures upon it,” Mencken wrote. “One would offend him far less by arguing that his wife is an idiot.”

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Inevitably, a topic this densely packed with raw nerve endings is prime real estate for awkwardness. Some of the hilarity is more slapstick than psychological (see: the huffing, puffing, grunting, and sweating of someone trying and failing to lose weight), but a great deal is based in a philosophical recognition of how absurd it is that we care so much about looking good. We go to extraordinary lengths to please contemporary sensibilities—make-up is frantically applied and re-applied, hair is chopped off or ripped out by the root, fortunes are sunk into clothes and jewelry—and waste countless hours passing judgment on the successes and failures of others (and, at least in private, ourselves) in the so-called “looks department.” And to what end? Simply that, for those of us fortunate enough to reach old age, all of our efforts will deteriorate into a mass of wrinkled, flabby flesh, at least until the great equalizer comes and reduces us even further to a pile of long-forgotten dust and bones. Viewed from this perspective, it’s hard not to see the awkward struggles of those who place a premium on being beautiful as inherently comical. When those efforts are successful, it’s at least comedy with a temporary happy ending; when not, there is an insensitivity to it that can cross over into mean-spiritedness.

When you learn to appreciate the inherent comedy in the notion of human beauty, you learn how to fall in love. And once you’ve experienced true love, you can leave superficiality to the chumps.

Ultimately, though, my sense is that this appreciation for the cosmic absurdity of human beauty has more pros than cons. By recognizing that we are all going to be fat and old in the blink of an eye, and that most of us have to struggle constantly to even remain un-obnoxious (indoor plumbing wasn’t invented until two centuries ago, so the mere act of not smelling awful was pretty tough until recently), much less aesthetically presentable, catching the joke can help us keep an even keel. We learn to avoid the error that Mencken attributed to the truly stupid man, who “succumbs to a pair of well-managed eyes, a graceful twist of the body, a synthetic complexion or a skillful display of legs without giving the slightest thought to the fact that a whole woman is there, and that within the cranial cavity of the woman lies a brain, and that the idiosyncrasies of that brain are of vastly more importance than all imaginable physical stigmata combined.” Instead we strike a balance between our carnal instincts, which demand a reasonable amount of intangible physical chemistry, with a desire to discover to develop a meaningful and intimate connection with someone who we can value for reasons that far transcend all considerations of the flesh. On the occasions when we find such a person – a woman or man who makes us break into a goofy smile whenever we think about them, and whose brain we always want to pick for musings on the topics that fascinate us, who laughs at our weird jokes and can make us genuinely laugh in turn, and who we can trust when we seek confidential advice or need to just be around someone who will put up with our bullshit – when that happens, we count ourselves inestimably fortunate.

In other words: When you learn to appreciate the inherent comedy in the notion of human beauty, you learn how to fall in love. And once you’ve experienced true love, you can leave superficiality to the chumps.

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Before concluding, I feel compelled to emphasize one thing: I have nothing but the highest regard for women and men who are able to make their own bodies beautiful (mostly women in my opinion, obviously, although the typical American heterosexual male vantage point is only one in a broad spectrum). Creating and maintaining physical beauty is, like most gifts, the product of fortuitous genes, developed skill, and hard work. It is just as admirable to be beautiful as it is to be intelligent or athletically gifted – and the rewards of the former, though unnecessarily cruel in how they depart, are only somewhat more fleeting than either of the latter. As we contemplate the inherent transience of everything that is truly valuable about the human experience, we should at least take comfort in the knowledge that there is a whole lot of hilarious awkwardness that occurs between the extremes of joy and pain. If you can just see the humor in it, it makes the journey a lot more bearable.

 

It’s Time for Civil Disobedience in Indiana

Published: Good Men Project (March 30, 2015)

It is time to bring the nonviolent protests of the 1960s civil rights movement to anti-gay Indiana.

I don’t live in Indiana, and because I don’t own a car, there is little chance I’ll be visiting anytime soon. Nevertheless, like most decent people, I am horrified by Indiana’s recent so-called “religious freedom” bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against homosexuals (they claim that pro-gay rights modifications to the measure are pending; I’ll believe it when I see it). As similar bills continue to get pushed in states throughout the country (including Georgia, Michigan, Arkansas, Texas, and Nevada), it is time we take a look at the revered American tradition, one that half a century ago resulted in a civil rights act that guaranteed “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

I’m referring to civil disobedience.

The term was first coined by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau in 1849, when he wrote an essay about his refusal to pay a poll tax in 1846 due to his disgust with the Mexican-American War and the institution of slavery. After spending a day in prison, Thoreau concluded that he had upheld an important standard, one that he felt was integral to the preservation of human freedom:

“It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right…. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”

Of course, although Thoreau was forced to take a stand against unjust policies that could be clearly traced back to the actions of the state, many of his successors have had more nebulous targets. By the 1960s, civil rights protesters were performing sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South which refused to serve African American customers. Unlike Thoreau, their target wasn’t the federal state itself, but rather bigoted men and women who were allowed to enforce social discrimination with their local governments’ acquiescence. Additionally, the civil rights protesters of the 1960s were motivated by more than a simple desire to make peace with consciences; as inhabitants of the post-TV era, they knew that garnering publicity for the act of  being brutally arrested and incarcerated simply for wanting to be treated like equals would compel popular opinion to act on their behalf.

They weren’t wrong. Moreover, their logic still applies today.

Perhaps one of the first signs that America would need a renaissance in civil disobedience appeared in 2010, when then-Senate candidate Rand Paul argued that while he would have supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he was concerned that enforcing it today would imperil “freedom of speech.” This isn’t dissimilar from the position commonly presented in defense of “religious freedom” bills, in that both lines of reasoning argue that an individual’s right to express a despicable opinion – including, in this case, enforcing a culture of social ostracism by refusing to do business with men and women they choose to hate – trumps the need to protect potential victims from acts of discrimination.

The problem with this argument is twofold. For one thing, it subordinates the constitutional right to equal access (and its implied but all-important brother, equal opportunity) to the doctrine of individualism. Just as my right to lash a whip ends where your body or property begins, so too does a business owner’s right to decide who shall patron his or her establishment cease to matter once they use that liberty to deprive others of their own freedom. Indeed, there is something particularly perverse about seeing these measures characterized as acts that protect the “religious freedom” of others, as it is yet one more unsettling echo of the rhetoric that was used to thwart civil rights for a century after the Civil War. In those days, of course, it was the doctrine of “states’ rights” that was supposedly being protected, with a white citizen’s right to local laws of his or her own choosing trumping a non-white citizen’s right to a non-discriminatory social environment. Today, even though no one is being prohibited from their First Amendment right to “the free exercise” of their religion by being forced to serve homosexuals, the measures that enable them to persecute members of the LGBT community are justified on libertarian grounds.

This brings us to the other big problem with the bill: In dealing entirely with legal abstractions, even inaccurate ones, it disregards the human element of this story.

Hence the role of civil disobedience. If anything, the cultural atmosphere today is more conducive to the theatricality necessary for a successful high profile civil disobedience campaign (emphasis on “high profile,” since these efforts rarely do much social good unless there is a large audience). Thanks to the Internet, virtually anyone can upload a video of themselves being arrested simply for being gay in the wrong restaurant. What’s more, so long as the social justice subculture continuing to thrive online, there is an assured audience of millions for those who choose to take this stand. Finally, because of the seismic shift in national attitudes toward gay rights in this decade alone, potential civil disobedient protesters have the inestimable advantage of finding themselves on the right side of history. So long as they follow the three cardinal rules of effective civil disobedience – i.e., remain nonviolent and courteous no matter what; accept the legal consequences of your actions as the necessary price to be paid for breaking the law, even an unjust one; and do everything you can to publicize your actions – they will face support from all but the most staunchly prejudiced.

It isn’t a coincidence that this article has intermixed discussions of the civil rights movement with the gay rights movement. In the end, laws like the “religious freedom” bill in Indiana aren’t simply a threat to homosexuals, or even to other groups that have previously experienced widespread social discrimination. The same logic that can be used to wrest an African American’s or homosexual’s social rights in the name of “liberty” can be used against anyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of their background. Standing against this sort of thing is only right… and nothing could be more American than doing so with acts of civil disobedience.

Inside the Texas bill that stops you from filming police brutality

Published: Daily Dot (March 30, 2015)

Those with power must be held accountable for how they use it.

This may seem like a self-evident proposition, but it is actually facing a considerable challenge in Texas right now. If passed, a new bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) would define the act of “filming, recording, photographing, or documenting the officer within 25 feet of [a police] officer” as “interfering” with their duties and, consequently, as being a crime (the limitation extends to 100 feet for residents carrying a concealed handgun). In short, H.R. 2918 wants to address the problem of police officers abusing citizens’ rights by making it harder in the future to prove that such abuses actually happen.

From a constitutional standpoint, this issue is about as cut-and-dried as they get. As one United States Court of Appeals explained, it is “fundamentally and virtually self-evident” that individuals who videotape police officers do so in order to spread information about the conduct of the individual officer(s) in question. This means that it is clearly protected by the First Amendment (which, we must remember, was created in large part because our founding fathers were being hounded by overzealous officers working on behalf of King George III).

Preventing a citizen from acquiring evidence of law enforcement wrongdoing is akin to prohibiting him or her from taking notes when witnessing an abuse. Unless you believe that one of those responsibilities is being able to harass, beat, or shoot innocent people with impunity, it’s pretty hard to effectively argue that last point.

Perhaps an even greater tragedy, though, is that this bill takes attention away from the possible good that can be wrought from modern technology. After San Diego police officers began wearing body cameras, complaints against police have fallen by 40.5 percent. Furthermore, the use of “personal body” force by officers has dropped by 46.5 percent, while the use of pepper spray has decreased by 30.5 percent.

Similarly, when Chief Tony Farrar of the Police Foundation completed a comprehensive year-long study on the effect of body-worn video cameras, he concluded that “the findings suggest more than a 50 percent reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly 10 times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t downsides to using body cameras. In addition to the financial costs and understandable privacy concerns, there is also the possibility that “the credibility of police testimony against defendants could be discounted in the absence of footage to corroborate the officer’s version of events,” as Uri Friedman wrote in a December article for the Atlantic. Similarly, as the report that Farrar co-authored with experts like criminologist Barak Ariel made clear, there was a lack of consensus as to whether the initial promising results caused by body cameras were due to “a deterrent effect on the police, the public, or both.”

Of course, even if there is debate over whether mandatory body cameras for police officers are more pro than con, there isn’t much intelligent question over whether it should be illegal to record them in the line of duty. Unfortunately, this observation has yet to dissuade Rep. Villalba in Texas; indeed, he is far from the first politician to consider such a measure.

Last year, the State of Illinois passed an “anti-eavesdropping” law that would have made it illegal to record interactions with anyone (including police officers) without the other party’s express permission. In its ruling striking down the bill, the Illinois Supreme Court noted that because citizens’ encounters with police were by definition “public,” they couldn’t classify recordings of their conduct as an invasion of their privacy.

By the end of the year, the Illinois legislature replaced their first law with a new one that made it a felony to secretly record any conversation in which at least one person has a “reasonable expectation” to privacy, broadly defined to include “ any expectation recognized by law, including, but not limited to, an expectation derived from a privilege, immunity, or right established by common law, Supreme Court rule, or the Illinois or United States Constitution.”

Indeed, as jury decisions like the one in the aftermath of Eric Garner’s choking makes clear, it is entirely possible for bad cops to be caught red-handed and still get away with it. So why is there any traction behind the movement to make it illegal to record them?

One reason is so obvious that it doesn’t need much elaboration here: Namely, that many of these cops know they are guilty of racial profiling and/or disregarding people’s constitutional rights and wish to avoid getting caught.

That said, as someone who personally has friends and family members that work in law enforcement, I can say from firsthand knowledge that there is an additional reason besides this one. Many law enforcement personnel have, after years of hearing sharp criticism directed at their fellow officers, adopted a mentality which argues that one is either pro-cop or anti-cop, with no room existing between those two extremes. Even Rep. Villalba hinted at this when he referred to the 25-foot perimeter surrounding a cop from being recorded as a “halo.” By using literal angelic imagery to justify his proposed law, he implicitly used their virtuousness as a shield to protect them from accountability.

That premise, of course, is absolutely right, and it goes a long way toward explaining why holding cops accountable is so critically important. We do need police to protect innocent citizens from crime and generally uphold the law. Their services are absolutely essential to the maintenance of a stable and free society, and as such, they are entrusted with enormous power.

As incidents from the beating of Rodney King to the choking of Eric Garner clearly demonstrate, however, police officers—like all other human beings—can abuse that privilege. Hence why the new Texas law is utterly contemptible: At a time when the focus needs to be on how we can hold cops accountable while allowing them to do their jobs effectively, this bill attempts to remove responsibility from power.

It’s time to kill the PATRIOT Act

Published: Daily Dot (March 26, 2015)

It’s doubtful that the PATRIOT Act will be repealed in this legislative session, but make no mistake about it: Dispensing with this bill, one of the more pernicious legacies of the post-9/11 erosion of American civil liberties, is long overdue.

First, here’s an introduction to the measure that could theoretically pull this off: the Surveillance State Repeal Act, which was sponsored by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). If implemented, it would do more than simply repeal the PATRIOT Act; after all, getting rid of that one bill won’t eliminate National Security Agency spying and other surveillance state activities anyway (especially since the PATRIOT Act is already set to expire in June).

As such, the SSRA would also revoke the 2008 FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Amendments Act, a spying law used by the NSA to justify collecting millions upon millions of private online communications. It would also reform the secret court that oversees our spying apparatus, add further protections for whistleblowers, and prohibit the government from requiring technology companies to include “backdoors” in their products.

Naturally, this last detail has won some powerful Silicon Valley firms to the anti-NSA agenda. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Wikimedia, and Mozilla joined civil libertarian advocacy groups in issuing a letter to the White House urging “a clear, strong, and effective end to bulk collection practices under the USA PATRIOT Act,” “appropriate safeguards in place to protect privacy and users’ rights,” and “transparency and accountability mechanisms for both government and company reporting, as well as an appropriate declassification regime for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decisions.”

Although these businesses recognize the importance of protecting America from domestic and foreign terrorist threats, they object to “the scope of the United States’ surveillance and bulk collection activities,” particularly that which has come to the public’s attention since the Edward Snowden leaks.

Indeed, revelations about the scope of American online surveillance have actually undermined faith in the digital revolution. “The Internet is global, and as a global leader, the U.S. helps set the standards for acceptable behavior,” writes Sascha Meinrath in the Christian Science Monitor. “Mass domestic and foreign spying legitimates the same behavior by other regimes while simultaneously creating a perverse incentive to create a more fractured global communications system.”

Elaborating on this last point, Meinrath wrote a piece in the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk which explained that the ongoing international movement to disconnect from American internet hegemony can be linked to a post-Snowden backlash that “is being fueled not by democracies that oppose American ideals, but rather by allies that resent Washington’s betrayal of its own overarchingly positive vision.”

Unfortunately, the political smart money still says that the SSRA will probably fail, if for no other reason than Washington is notoriously reluctant to risk being viewed as soft on terrorism. Although President Obama could set things off on the right foot by revoking Executive Order 12333—a relic from the Reagan years that would be the last foothold used by the surveillance state to continue its current scope of spying if the SSRA was actually passed—the reality is that the unprecedented Republican obstructionism toward Obama’s agenda could guarantee a right-wing backlash against the measure by simple virtue of him taking a step to push it forward.

The fact that the SSRA isn’t likely to pass, however, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate it. Understanding the political dynamics and policy implications of the SSRA can help guide us toward a future in which the civil liberties infringements of yesteryear remain a thing of the past.

Unfortunately for supporters of the PATRIOT Act and NSA surveillance programs, there is little evidence that either of those programs have actually made us safer. “Almost every major terrorist attack on Western soil in the past fifteen years has been committed by people who were already known to law enforcement,” writes Mattathias Schwartz of The New Yorker, later adding: “In each of these cases, the authorities were not wanting for data. What they failed to do was appreciate the significance of the data they already had.”

What’s more, the oft-repeated line about the NSA having thwarted 54 terrorist attacks with its spying program has been decisively debunked, leaving supporters of domestic surveillance without the sweeping and concrete pattern of accomplishment necessary to justify continuing their program.

Without a clear-cut case for their necessity, the only notable legacy left by these measures is their unconstitutionality. As the ACLU explained in a 2010 article about the PATRIOT Act (one that, notably, was written before Edward Snowden’s leaks made its points even more relevant), the measure violates the First Amendment by “by prohibiting the recipients of search orders from telling others about those orders, even where there is no real need for secrecy” and “effectively authorizing the FBI to launch investigations of American citizens in part for exercising their freedom of speech.”

Similarly, it violates the Fourth Amendment by allowing federal authorities to “conduct a search without obtaining a warrant and showing probable cause…that the person has committed or will commit a crime” and by “failing to provide notice—even after the fact—to persons whose privacy has been compromised.”

This brings us to the other, and by far most important, reason why the SSRA should be celebrated: By simple virtue of being brought to the House floor, it demonstrates a long-awaited effort by our legislators to reconcile the security needs faced by 21st century Americans with the ideals of our founding fathers. Even though this effort is almost bound to fail, it represents a coming sea change; it might seem like too little, but it’s never too late to get it right.

The real reason Ted Cruz will never be elected president

Published: Daily Dot (March 26, 2015), Salon (March 28, 2015)

Despite what he wants you to think, Ted Cruz is not the great anti-politician of our time. In fact, he may be our most potent symbol of everything that is wrong with modern politics.

This would be hard to believe if you’ve been listening to him, of course. He desperately wants to be thought of as the one principled man in Washington—at least if your values hew closely to those of the Tea Party—but that posturing has alienated much of the party establishment. Ted Cruz attributes that development to them being “squishes,” while the rest of the world suspects it’s because Cruz is the kind of guy who goes around calling his co-workers names like “squishes.”

Of course, being a showboat is forgivable in American politics; if it wasn’t, Bill Clinton wouldn’t still be as popular as he is today. The bigger problem with Cruz is that the thematic basis for his showboating—that he won’t sell out like the rest of the Washington phonies—is a whole lot of bunk, like the rest of his campaign. After all, Googling “Ted Cruz lies” pulls back an astonishing 7,890,000 results, and on Twitter, the two phrases are basically synonymous.

We can start with the lies, which have been lovingly chronicled by pundits like George Zornick of the Nation. “Politicians lie. It’s almost non-controversial,” Zornick notes, before adding that “elected officials are advocates who want to show themselves and their causes in the best possible light. Nobody tells the whole truth.” The Cruz-ian fibs that he lists include such claims as the federal government threatening to shut down churches and hospitals which don’t alter their religious beliefs, ISIS crucifying Christians in Iraq, and crime rates rising in areas with stricter gun control laws.

As Ana Marie Cox of the Daily Beast explains, there is a possibility even worse than Cruz merely being a liar. “We take it for granted that politicians lie to gain votes, to make themselves more appealing, or to make someone else look bad,” she writes. “But what if Cruz wasn’t craven, but instead as sincere as he sounds. What would that mean?”

As she convincingly demonstrates, it would mean that Cruz is shockingly delusional. How else to explain a man who overestimates the number of IRS agents by almost 100,000 or claims that his wife Heidi immediately assented to sinking their life savings in his Senate campaign, even though her account of the events that took place drastically differed from his? There is a reason why Cruz’s Politifact profile only found him to have told the truth or half-truth on 18 percent of the nearly fifty cases they’ve investigated. Almost no politician on the site has a worse track record.

Screengrab via Politifact
Screengrab via Politifact

Cruz is actually very much a part of the financial corruption in the Beltway that Americans find so repugnant. Even as he denounced “crony capitalism” during his 2012 campaign, he neglected to mention his wife’s career as managing director of the Houston branch of Goldman-Sachs. Similarly, after forming a Leadership PAC to get around campaign finance law restrictions, Cruz proceeded to solicit and receive contributions from Big Money. According to Bill Moyers, Cruz has been backed by “American Bankers Association, Lockheed Martin, Intel, Northrop Gruman, CSX Corporation, Altria Group (parent company of Phillip Morris), and Comcast,” among others.

Having dispensed with the myth of Cruz as anti-politician, the next important question to ask is simply this: Why does he get away with making such an obviously fraudulent assertion about himself?

Part of the problem is that we live in an era which mistakes dramatic gestures for substantive idealism. Cruz’s infamous filibuster of Obamacare in 2013 is a classic case-in-point: Even though Cruz made headlines for his perceived defiance of the Obama administration, it was well-known among regular followers of Washington politics that his maneuver never had a chance of either repealing Obamacare or convincing other Republicans to join Cruz in an attempt at shutting down the government, lest it not be defunded.

The conventional wisdom, both then and now, is that Cruz was smart enough to have already known both of these things long before he commenced with his 21-hour speech. Even though it would accomplish absolutely nothing in the way of repealing the Affordable Care Act, Cruz understood that his base would lap it up for the sheer melodrama of the spectacle. What’s more, because most of the other Senate Republicans were working with Democrats to avoid another government shutdown, Cruz managed to make himself look like the one principled guy in the room.

All of this for a guy who recently announced he’s signing up for Obamacare.

For a less egregious demonstration of the same trait, look no further than Cruz’s recent speech announcing his presidential candidacy in 2016. Speaking to an audience of Liberty University students (who were required to attend), Cruz made wildly exaggerated allegations against the Obama administration, ranging from an assertion that they wanted to ban all forms of ammunition (the administration bill only targeted a specific type of armor-piercing bullet) to claiming that the Affordable Care Act had cost millions their insurance and forced millions of others into part-time work. Experts state that Obamacare has actually granted the benefits of insurance to 10 million people since its implementation, while placing the number of involuntary part-time workers caused by the bill as “likely” a few hundred thousand.

In addition to Cruz’s penchant for bloated duplicity, however, his reputation as an anti-politician is helped by the fact that he is stands no chance at actually winning an election. Thus, it’s easy to mistake his marginal status within the political ecosystem for genuine iconoclasm or ideological fortitude. As a society that instinctively sympathizes with underdogs, it is natural to assume that the long-shot is in his or her current situation because they are somewhat a threat to—or at least deviate in some meaningful and positive way from—the “establishment.”

As with everything else about Cruz’s presidential ambitions, this notion is belied by the bald facts. If you look at what Cruz has said and done, what you see is a politician as dishonest and entrenched in establishment ways as any other. Because he hopes to be elected president in 2016, Cruz has attempted to cast himself as an honest man in a racket filled with con artists. Fortunately, it seems most Americans realize that he is just as much a huckster as the rest of them.

Why Texas shouldn’t ban the Confederate flag from license plates

Published: Daily Dot (March 25, 2015)

Whether it’s Reddit trolls or real-life ones, freedom of speech in the Internet age can be very unpleasant.

The Supreme Court is currently preparing to hear a controversial case about whether the government of Texas has the right to ban hate speech from state-issued license plates; in this case, the issue is over use of a Confederate flag-based insignia by a hate group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Given the history of the flag, the Internet rightly has some feelings about the issue.

When mulling the legal matters at hand, it’s important to bear in mind one particular quote from American history. Penned by Thomas Jefferson for his first inaugural address (one of only two speeches he delivered in his lifetime), it referred to the ongoing efforts by Federalists like his recently defeated opponent, President John Adams, to censor speech that they found offensive. His observation?

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Make no mistake about it: Jefferson’s words are as applicable today as they were in 1801. “The problem is that the First Amendment doesn’t allow the state to censor the political speech of private persons on the basis of the political content of that speech,” explains Paul Campos of Salon, who is also a professor of law at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “If messages on specialty license plates—Texas currently offers motorists several hundred different varieties of specialty plates—are considered private political speech, then refusing to issue a confederate flag specialty plate because of the political message it sends is unconstitutional, no matter how repugnant that message might be.”

While the constitutional argument is by far the most important one here, there are other factors to take into consideration. For one thing, if Texas has its way on the license plate controversy, it sets an unfortunate precedent. Although the Solicitor General insists that the only reason the state refuses to issue these vanity plates is that their message will reflect on the government’s own positions, Texas also offers a plate depicting the Florida State Seminoles’ controversial logo— which, like the Washington Redskins’ mascot, has been criticized by Native American groups as an example of “redface.” In which cases of racism does the government step in?

If vanity plates are indeed intended to reflect state opinion, then they should be as bland and nondescript as a Social Security number, containing no more or less information than absolutely required with no room for individual modification whatsoever.

By virtue of allowing vanity plates to exist, however, Texas has already conceded that they will permit individual expression on this particular “government document.” While it might feel like a slippery slope argument, if the state is permitted to pick and choose which ideas citizens may express and which ones they may not, it soon won’t be difficult for a particularly paranoid state official to decide that, for example, a plate supporting the Communist or Socialist Party goes too far. A similar debate brewed on the Internet in 2011 over a proposed Mississippi plate honoring a KKK leader.

While the state should ban plates that are indisputably threatening or advocate direct violence, allowing Texas to prohibit any vanity plate is at best a careless double-standard, at worst deliberate censorship.

On a deeper level, however, Texas’s position is dangerous because it risks imperiling good ideas along with bad ones. In one of the most infamous abridgments of free speech in American history, the House of Representatives adopted a series of resolutions known as “gag rules” between 1836 and 1844 that banned anti-slavery pamphlets and petitions from the U.S. postage system. Even as many of them argued that they were only protecting a government-provided service’s ability to control its own content, the unavoidable truth is that they aimed not only to prevent possible sedition, but to quell ideas that many of their constituents found offensive.

The fact that most Americans in 2015 would wholeheartedly agree with the abolitionist sentiments being oppressed in the post-Jacksonian period isn’t beside the point—it is the point. Ideas that may be widely regarded as kooky or insulting today could, only a couple centuries from now, be just as widely regarded as morally and/or factually unimpeachable. In order for such new ideas to take root, however, they must have a fair chance in the public marketplace of opinions. Just as an economy with fewer restrictions cultivates scientific and technological innovation, so too does a public discourse with fewer restrictions enable a stronger and smarter national dialogue.

None of this, I must emphatically note, is intended to defend the actual positions of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. This is an organization that has engaged in the most brazen Civil War revisionism, justifying slavery and promoting policies that would subordinate the civil liberties of people of color to those of whites.

Indeed, I would argue that the mere use of a Confederate flag in any situation is inherently offensive; after all, the longest, costliest, and bloodiest act of treason ever committed against the United States government was perpetrated under the Stars and Bars. Whether you attribute the cause of the Civil War to slavery or states’ rights, it was without question a violent insurrection that claimed the lives of more than 620,000 Americans on both sides. Such a history makes a mockery of claims like that of Granvel Block, a former commander of the SCV, who compared the outrage of those offended by the Confederate flag to University of Texas alumnae who might be put off by a plate with a Texas A&M logo.

But although I find the SVC’s message appalling, it’s not the place of any government to prohibit them from spreading their political ideology. Censoring them demeans us far more than their bad ideas ever could.

Ted Cruz’s birthplace matters – but not for the reason you think

Published: Daily Dot (March 24, 2015), Salon (March 26, 2015), Interview with CBC – Edmonton (March 26, 2015)

It’s the hypocrisy, stupid.

Much mirth has already been derived from Ted Cruz’s announcement that he is running for president in 2016; Twitter users were sharpening their rhetorical knives with cutting hashtags in preparation for his official declaration, while pundits from Jamelle Bouie of Slate to Donny Deutsch of MSNBC’s Morning Joe have gone on record to proclaim that Cruz is unelectable.

While these various observations may be valid, not enough attention has been paid to a far more important point. The fact that Cruz’s candidacy is being taken seriously at all speaks to a pervasive hypocrisy among Republican conservatives. After all, as anyone with a heartbeat from 2009 to 2012 no doubt recalls, one of the most popular right-wing claims about President Obama is that he wasn’t actually born in this country. At the height of “birtherism” in 2011, a poll found that more than half of likely 2012 Republican primary voters (51 percent) believed Obama was foreign-born and thus ineligible for the presidency, while more than one-fifth (21 percent) were “not sure” about the matter. As recently as last year, only 34 percent of Republicans could bring themselves to openly admit that their president had indeed been born in Honolulu.

Yet here we are. As the 2016 election looms ahead of us, the first declared Republican candidate—a man whom political handicappers readily acknowledge will depend on Tea Party support, who played a large role in fueling birtherism—makes no bones about the fact that he was born in Calgary, a city in Canada.

And nary a peep of protest can be heard from the right.

Before we continue on to deconstruct the long, inglorious history of right-wing double standards, let us dispel any notion that Cruz’s place of birth disqualifies him for the presidency. Although Section 1 of Article 2 in the Constitution indeed states that only “a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President,” Section 301(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act automatically extends naturalized citizenship to anyone born of an American citizen. Because Cruz’s mother, Eleanor Wilson, was born in Delaware, the senator from Texas without question passes Constitutional muster.

Of course, not even the Obama-era birthers seemed to question that the president’s mother, Ann Dunham, was born in Kansas. Even if their most far-fetched conspiracy theories about Barack Obama entering first this world in his father’s native Kenya were true, they wouldn’t matter any more than if Cruz had been born in his father’s native Cuba. Legally speaking, birtherism was as much of a non-issue from the get-go for Obama as it is now for Cruz.

Hence why words like “hypocrisy” come into play.

However, this is hardly the first example of Republican double standards. The pages of recent American political history are littered with examples of brazen conservative duplicity that match or even exceed the current birtherian farce. In the 1950s and 1960s, two presidential aspirants were attacked by conservatives as unfit for the White House because they were divorcees—first a liberal Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, and then a liberal Republican, Nelson Rockefeller—but when Ronald Reagan earned the Republican nomination in 1980, the fact that he would be (and eventually became) the first divorcee president was implicitly forgiven.

More recently, the same Republicans who chanted “flip-flop” at their party’s 2004 national convention because Democratic candidate John Kerry had switched positions on the Iraq war had no qualms about nominating Mitt Romney in 2012, despite his myriad flip-flops on issues ranging from health-care reform and abortion to gay rights.

There is even something of a pre-Cruz precedent for birther-related double standards: After all, the first Republican to challenge Obama for the presidency was John McCain, whose birth certificate has him entering this world in the Panama Canal Zone. That situation isn’t precisely analogous to the one with Cruz—the Panama Canal Zone was owned by the United States at the time McCain was born there—but it’s hard to imagine Obama getting away with the same rationale if he had been born, say, at the American embassy in Kenya.

Of course, there is a simple reason why these hypocrisies are so prevalent. When conservatives lambasted the divorces of Stevenson and Rockefeller, the anti-war positions of Kerry, or the birthplace of Obama, what they were really attacking was the cultural ethos each of those candidates seemed to represent in their minds. Because Stevenson and Rockefeller were outspokenly liberal on domestic issues, social conservatives were quick to jump on their unsuccessful marriages as proof that they were fundamentally immoral individuals. Similarly, because Kerry rose to national prominence as a heroic Vietnam War veteran who spoke out against the war to the Senate after returning home, it was inevitable that the post-9/11 GOP would find a way to attack his patriotism and steadfastness.

With Obama and birtherism, meanwhile, the underlying issue has always been a racial one. As a 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology put it, “the influence of racial prejudice in contemporary U.S. society is typically manifested in subtle, indirect forms of bias. Due to prevailing norms of equality, most whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of blacks, in part because of a genuine desire to live up to their egalitarian standards, but also because of concern regarding social censure.”

Consequently, conservatives who felt that an African American was somehow inherently illegitimate as a president couldn’t comfortably declare as much in the open political market. By focusing on a conspiracy theory that cast the president as quite literally un-American—regardless of how self-evidently absurd that conspiracy theory might be—they could tap into their emotional distrust of America’s first black president without seeming overtly racist.

By contrast, Ted Cruz is solidly conservative on racial issues. Despite being of partially Latino heritage, he is a well-known admirer of racial reactionaries like Jesse Helms and has taken right-wing positions on racially charged issues like immigration reform and affirmative action. Just as Reagan’s moral character was never questioned because he was a social conservative, and Romney’s flip-flopping wasn’t held against him because Republicans took his patriotism for granted, so too does Cruz benefit from not being perceived as a threat by conservatives susceptible to the delusional beliefs GOP operative John Avlon has aptly dubbed “white minority politics.”

The double standard on Ted Cruz’s citizenship status is only the latest entry in this disgraceful chapter of American history, but at least we can console ourselves with one fact: No matter where he was born, Cruz stands absolutely no chance of actually winning.