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The Political Animal

Syria, the Limits of Interventionism, and the International Order

Geschichte / Deutschland / 19. Jh. / Friedrich Wilhelm III.  / Regierungszeit / Vormärz / Wiener Kongreß 1814-15Noted in the comments to the previous post, “A Plague: Contesting Syria, in Context,” is the posting of a reply to it at his blog from my ever wry blogging compadre, Snoopy the Goon. Please do  read it here. Below is my response to, ahem, the Goon.

Dear Snoopy,

How do we go on after that John Lennon crack? I believe forgiveness is all. (Well, something, anyway.) And then there is your introduction. Okay.

I think there is not that much disagreement between us, some points needing just some clarification and refinement.

I note your eloquent and just paean to the “warriors of the cold war,” and what their sacrifice meant to those on the other side of the “curtain.” I agree, too, that the dollars of that war were well, if not all necessarily, spent, but the strategic purpose of my overview of the arms race was not to address the justness of the mission or overspending on it, rather the pattern of hyperbolic fear mongering often to be found in it. That purpose was a foundation to arguing that a variation on such heightened stirring of the passions toward war can be found in much commentary and journalism on Syria, including that compassionate solidarity journalism you reference.

I happily take your point that most Americans on the left and right are opposed to a Syrian intervention, however different the foundations for their feelings. My criticism, though, was of those on the far left who oppose it for thoroughly dishonorable reasons and those on the right – the “superpower imperialists” – who promote it so disingenuously.

Joined with superpower imperialists are those of the left not defined here by anti-imperialism, but internationalism, and a belief in humane interventionism – the “responsibility to protect.” I share this philosophical attachment and you echo its humane considerations. I claim, too, that this heightened attention to the lives of others, across national boundaries and cultures, is a product of already existent achievements in the “slow-developing international order” that challenges your credibility. But there is an irony in this.

I often call attention to the expanding web our affective associations woven by technology. It brings us, for instance, more completely and immediately, and with more vivid reality, news of the horrors of Syria. However, what informs your (and my own) skepticism of that international order is that other human abilities – the capacity, for instance, to act in concert and successfully against the horrors in Syria – have not advanced in conjunction with technology. Because our access to the reality of war is greater than ever before, that does not mean we have learned to end any and all wars whenever our best selves simply feel they cannot bear it anymore. We learn, we witness, we think we should act – our best selves cry out for our action – but we do not know in many cases, including Syria, I argue, how to act in ways that will not make matters generally worse.

When you say that you already perceive, awfully, that Assad has won, I respond, first, that by all appearances, whatever the ultimate varieties of outcome long down the road, what was Syria before will not be again. In that sense, Assad will certainly not have won. Beyond that, as I already argued, it was not previously American or Western policy militarily to overthrow Assad or any of the other tyrants who afflict the world; we need not have been made committed to that end by the outbreak of a civil war. To the degree that Obama’s earlier rhetoric seemed to make that commitment, it was an error of which his general critics regularly remind us and for which he should be criticized. Why, now, should he be criticized for failing to live up to a mistaken promise?

Round-the-clock cable news and Twitter cannot now by their mere existence have morally enjoined us to rush foolishly to intervene in all conflicts. You put it well about Iraq; I argue it to an nth degree about Syria, that

people who commanded the invasion, which was truly a work of inspiration and meticulous planning as far as military part of it was concerned, didn’t have a smidgen of an idea what to do with the hot potato, which was post-war Iraq. Still don’t, which sad fact costs so many lives and will continue to do so for a long time.

On the other hand, about the chemical weapons disarmament program in progress in Syria, the political rather than tactical nature of the response to this development is quite remarkable.

Unless one is already predisposed against Obama, which of course many are, or wishes, in part for that reason, to harp on one’s perception of the messy way the program came about, or harp on all of the things that the program is not, as would those promoters of intervention – who are bound to be profoundly disappointed by it – there is simply no downside to the program at all. Among the many previous fears attendant with the conflict (you can look it up) was the fear that chemical weapons, beyond their possible use by Assad, would fall into the hands of Islamist terror groups. Even if, unsurprisingly, and as is already suspected, Assad is trying to cheat, the volume of dangerous chemical weapons will have been dramatically reduced in a war torn region. Our knowledge of the presence and location of any smaller, still hidden stockpiles will have been enhanced, along with the capacity to strike and destroy or capture them whenever that decision might be made. All in all, the dangers those weapons pose – from Assad or Islamist warriors – will have been dramatically reduced from what it was. Other than providing a political stick with which to club Obama, the current disarmament program, had it been offered at any time outside of Obama’s threat of a military strike, would have been received by all as an opportunity to be grasped without doubt. Nothing changes that.

Finally, I assert again, withdrawal from an imperial expanse and posture in the world does not require the sacrifice of natural and sufficient economic, cultural, and political power or of necessary unilateral military power. These are an appropriate objective for one of the world’s great democracies already the most powerful nation in the world. However, the specific mission of the Cold War is not the same as a mission to ensure unchallengeable domination of the international sphere as a de facto, but by no means formally assented to, nation among nations. The political philosophy that the world shall henceforth be uni rather than multi-polar, and that it shall be so only by the dominating will and power of the existing unipolar power to keep it so, believing unwaveringly in its own justness and exceptionalism, is inherently undemocratic, even, ultimately, tyrannical in nature, if not in purpose. I do not believe the American people, unlike its militarists and supporters of an imperial presidency, would choose to purpose the future of their nation in this way. If they would, it would not be the nation they wish to think it.

The United Nations as an organization can serve as a convenient shorthand for two centuries of evolving Western and international order in various organizational and legal regimes. The deficiencies of that order are those of the humans creating it and can be likewise conveniently highlighted by such failures as the UNHRC or UNRWA. But however slow the progress, and tragic the continuing failures, I do not think many will make the argument that the world would be better were we to return to it to a time before the Congress of Vienna or the creation of the U.N.

It is slow and creeping, it is often inadequate, it is ready for mockery, but beyond a line on a map, a pistol shot in the face, and a drone strike from above, it is what we have.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Aaron Swartz and “Hactivision”

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When did it happen? When did technology become knowledge? When did code become wisdom? When did Greek gods become geek gods? When did the new product rollout or the tech-conference stage and back screen become lectern and altar, the new stained-glass backdrop for the church of futurism?

An eighteen or thirty or twenty-five year old super programmer, or hacker, is an eighteen or thirty or twenty-five year old super programmer or hacker, not the Übermensch of free flowing data humanizing itself in the transformations of digital hyperspace, the reorganization of energy into bits. To know how to code things, to know how to get things, is not the same as to know things.

I am sorry about Aaron Swartz, sorry for his family, for those who knew and cared for him. Much was lost – great talent and intelligence, a human being with, it seems, some troubles.

This is not about that.

Nor is it about the legitimacy of Swartz’s complaints against JSTOR or the severity of the Justice Department’s prosecution.

This is about revolutions in technology being confused with a revolution in human relations, the ethical conditions of being. Increasingly, the wizards themselves and their cultural acolytes, who think they see the future, cannot see the plain truths before them.

As good a newsman as there is, Warren Olney, promo-ed his To the Point radio program with a reference to Swartz’s “passion for information.” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes stated that

at the time of his death Aaron was being prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the crime of — and I’m not exaggerating here — downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.

Hayes called Swartz “one of those preternaturally brilliant, precocious hackers,” “a kind of 21st century, nerd renaissance man” who, like Hayes, was a fellow, ironically, at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics.

Much of the moral confusion of whole segments of the population derives from their worshipping digital code above the alphabetical, and the ideas that the latter should discriminate before the former acts to disseminate them.

Swartz had a “passion for information.” And Willie Sutton had a passion for money. (He robbed banks, he said, “because that’s where the money is.”) The question is how they got them. Hayes, a very smart man, says that Swartz obtained his information from JSTOR by – he’s not exaggerating – “downloading” it. Download– what a conveniently generic term, covering up the self-delusion by which the user obscures the method and means of the download. It is as if download represents a regressive barbarity of language in which the loss of distinction leaves us only with the non-cyber “take,” and we do not pause to consider how we take – by receipt of being given, let’s say, or in purchase, by pocket picking or at gun point, or, perhaps more apt in Swartz’s case, cat burglary. Demand Progress, an organization Swartz founded, says that it runs

online campaigns to rally people to take action on the news that affects them — by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word in their own communities.

There is no reference to second-story jobs.

What Swartz did was to use, without the authorization of either MIT or JSTOR, in words from Wikipedia,

MIT’s data network to bulk-download a substantial portion of JSTOR’s collection of millions of academic journal articles.

According to sources all over the Internet, in its statement defending Swartz, Demand Progress saidthat the Justice Department’s indictment of Swartz was like

trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.

Have we truly entered an age in which so many smart and learned people cannot grasp the simple distinction between checking books out of the library and breaking into the library and taking them? Would the young genius who conceived the better lock pick and committed that transgression be feted as a wise and revolutionary soul? And we see how those who make these slap dash arguments of entitled self-justification deceive themselves by honoring the word and the idea far less than they do data and information. So much information. So little of being informed.

In the Sunday New York Times The Stone feature, Peter Ludlow, a philosopher of language at Northwestern University, fudged the language wearing a scholar’s toque. In “What Is a ‘Hacktivist’?” Ludlow expresses concern about “letting the demonization of hacktivists go unanswered.”

“Lexical Warfare” is a phrase that I like to use for battles over how a term is to be understood.

….

Over the past few years we’ve watched a lexical warfare battle slowly unfold in the treatment of the term “hacktivism.” There has been an effort to redefine what the word means and what kinds of activities it describes; at the same time there has been an effort to tarnish the hacktivist label so that anyone who chooses to label themselves as such does so at their peril.

In the simplest and broadest sense, a hacktivist is someone who uses technology hacking to effect social change. The conflict now is between those who want to change the meaning of the word to denote immoral, sinister activities and those who want to defend the broader, more inclusive understanding of hacktivist. [Emphasis added]

How simple Ludlow makes the case. How unclear. Simple and broad make for porous definitions. “Someone who uses technology,” for instance – well, that’s me writing these words on computer software. It’s also the cop tasering someone. It’s the “hacktavist” committing a denial of service attack on Bank of America – and I’m not sticking up for them – when you can’t make the online transfer of the funds you need in order to cover that check.

“Effect social change”? That’s a voter, a petition, a demonstration, a civil rights movement in which Martin Luther King, Jr. broke obscene and discriminatory laws in acts of civil disobedience and nonetheless accordingly still went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s also a revolutionary crowd swarming the Winter Palace and tanks on the streets of Santiago, Chile overthrowing Salvador Allende. These alleffect social change.

Are we clear now on the definition of “hacktavist”?

Since Ludlow marshals his own army in the lexical warfare over hactivist, I suppose, he chooses then to fail to explore more fundamentally the lexical origins of the word. It is itself a hacked term, a portmanteau joining the social and political intentions of “activist” with the meaning of “hack” and “hacker” themselves. A staid old source such as Merriam-Webster (but online!) offers as the fourth, relevant definition of the former

a : to write computer programs for enjoyment

b : to gain access to a computer illegally

Already we see the split in directions. Already we see, too, that the related but variant meanings constitute not an ongoing war, as Ludlow would have it, but a settled peace: two established definitions and the affirmative one actually given precedence over the pejorative. Why is that? It is because conceptually the pejorative meaning is formed from the affirmative. Here is the more cutting edge Urban Dictionary.

1. Hack

v.

To program a computer in a clever, virtuosic, and wizardly manner. Ordinary computer jockeys merely write programs; hacking is the domain of digital poets. Hacking is a subtle and arguably mystical art, equal parts wit and technical ability, that is rarely appreciated by non-hackers. See hacker.

2. To break into computer systems with malicious intent. This sense of the term is the one that is most commonly heard in the media, although sense 1 is much more faithful to its original meaning. Contrary to popular misconception, this sort of hacking rarely requires cleverness or exceptional technical ability; most so-called “black hat” hackers rely on brute forcetechniques or exploit known weaknesses and the incompetence of system administrators.

3. To jury-rig or improvise something inelegant but effective, usually as a temporary solution to a problem. See noun sense 2.

Number 3 provides the link between 1 and 2. The clever, virtuosic wizardry of meaning number 1 leads to the jury-rigging and improvisation of meaning number 3. Jury-rigging and improvisation lead to finding ways to “break into computer systems” in meaning number 2, yet  “inelegant but effective” in 3 denote the aesthetic response that meaning 1 offers as a critique of meaning 2 – the separation of the good hack from the bad, the good hacker from the bad hacker. And the goodhacktavist from the bad one? It’s like the aesthetic quality of scientific theory: the good ones, theorists believe, the accurate ones it is their faith, are simple and beautiful. So, too, apparently believe the hackers. However, there is something more to the distinction, a little time bomb in the definition that blows a hole in personal responsibility: notice that in meaning number 2, bad hacking is breaking into computer systems with “malicious intent.” Notice that in the Merriam-Webster definition above, the distinguishing term is not intent, malicious or otherwise, but “illegality.”

The hactivist’s hack is only bad if it is malicious. If the hacker is teaching his favorite political bogeyman a lesson, or through the bogeyman the rest of us – by pointing out the corporation’s cyber vulnerabilities, or challenging a non-profit’s regulation of its content, or questioning the legitimacy of government secrecy – then all is well. Because the hacker means well. He’s not malicious.

Ludlow is at rather comical pains to make hacktivists warm and cuddly. When he is not looking very deeply into the language he claims to be analyzing, he is recounting his attendance at a

birthday party in Germany for Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who was turning 34. As it happened, Domscheit-Berg had also been the spokesperson for Wikileaks and, after Julian Assange, the group’s most visible person. He had left the organization in 2010, and now he had a new venture, OpenLeaks. The party was also meant to be a coming out party for OpenLeaks.

What does Ludlow find there?

When I arrived at the house the first thing I noticed was a large vegetable garden outside. The second thing I noticed was that a tree out front had been fitted out with a colorful knit wool sweater. This was the effort of Daniel’s wife Anke — “knit hacking,” she called it. And around the small town I saw evidence of her guerilla knit hacking. The steel poles of nearby street signs had also been fitted with woolen sweaters. Most impressively, though, a World War II tank, sitting outside a nearby former Nazi concentration camp for women had also been knit-hacked; the entire barrel of the tank’s gun had been fit with a tight colorful wool sweater and adorned with some woolen flowers for good measure.

One is surprised not read of the knit wool sweaters in their hair. Apparently Ludlow traveled to somewhere outside of Berlin by way of San Francisco 1967, and where the tanks have been beat into key strokes.

It is not merely that a lot of untutored or sloppy thinkers – or lexical warriors – are missing the point, the point of taking responsibility for one’s actions in the collective that is any society and its regulating rules of behavior; we see in the disparity between the Merriam-Webster and Urban Dictionary definitions that the abandonment of responsibility is built in: all that matters for the hacker and his supporters are their intentions, as they judge them, and not any social obligation to abide by laws or – if conscience so directs them – to accept responsibility for breaking laws. They claim not only the right to determine on their own what laws, what regulations, what terms of service, what secrets are legitimate, but freedom from review, from judgment by others, from facing the price of transgressive acts.

Some defenders of Swartz have argued that JSTOR itself declined to pursue charges against him. Does a business owner’s decision, for whatever reason, not to pursue civil action against an individual for breaking and entering into his property absolve the individual of criminal violation? Some of Swartz’s defenders have criticized MIT, from some vague sense of intellectual solidarity, for not also speaking in his defense. In defense of what, Swartz’s hijacking of MIT’s data network in order to break through the JSTOR’s access walls?

The cocoon of like-minded, ill-considered, self-justifying and aggrandizing rationalization of this culture is a site to behold. But it’s not a vision of the future. It’s the same old blinders.

AJA

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