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Friday, September 26

Fall from Favour 


It looks like the power struggles within the US government are actually doing some good. The Orwellian "Total Information Awareness" (or "Terrorism Information Awareness" as it was renamed, even after they hid the overt Masonic symbolism) has been terminated by a joint house and senate committee. Wow.
"The Poindexter program was over the line, and what has been decided by Congress is the lights are going out on what John Poindexter conceived."
He's out of office, his work is unraveling... and perhaps most tellingly The Washington Post is openly referring to his "terrorism futures" idea as a "program to establish an online gambling parlor to predict Middle East terrorist attacks." If the media is willing to call it like it is, he must be out of favour!  This certainly was not the language they employed when he first aired the notion.

Yet, while I cannot help be feel relief that the US Congress and Senate are putting the brakes on TIA, one must ask whether this signals any improvement for all of us provincials.  After all, as the ACLU points out:
The bill, however, does authorize a separate, classified program for “processing, analysis, and collaboration tools for counter terrorism foreign intelligence” but the legislation prohibits its domestic use against Americans. [emphasis mine]
As Senator Wyden said, "Americans on American soil are not going to be targets of TIA surveillance that would have violated their privacy and civil liberties.” It's the non-Americans that need to worry (or the Americans abroad).  

And Lest any "Americans on American soil" rejoice too soon, let me note that there is still a legal loophole that would allow state governments (namely those of: Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Ohio, and Utah) to utilize the technologies developed by TIA.  This is the MATRIX, or "Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange" (and yes, that is really its name).  And, as the Register notes:
It also appears that the scheme is geared more towards data mining in quest of garden-variety criminal activity than anything to do with international terrorism. When you combine that with federal interest, it's hard to resist seeing the MATRIX as a sneaky way for three-letter agencies to keep tabs on ordinary folk and their foibles, side-stepping restrictions on domestic spying instituted since the Church Committee.

And the conspicuous use of the phrase 'anti-terrorism' does send up a red flag, being the standard incantation with which assaults on the liberties and privacy of ordinary citizens are justified.
So, we are left wondering how much of this change is a real, and how much of it is merely window dressing to placate the American voters.  In Rome, when a faction fell from power (or an Emperor) it was common to denigrate everything that they had done, and to proclaim that from now on things would be different.  But they rarely were very different, and much of the criticism of the formerly favoured represented nothing more than an attempt to curry favour with the new "in group."

Does Poindexter's fall represent a new set of political ideals in the Empire (i.e. respecting the liberties of its citizens), or is it merely a palace intrigue?  My inclination is to be pessimistic.

Friday, September 19

Remembering Maher Arar 

I've already mentioned the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen whom the US deported to Syria 11 months ago. His case has won sporadic coverage. Now his wife, Monia Mazigh, is renewing her calls to make the Canadian government stand up for the rights of its citizens, and has been told that "the House of Commons foreign affairs committee will look at Arar's case and other cases in which Canadians have been imprisoned in foreign jails."

They had better hurry, since Mr. Arar is scheduled to go on trial very soon, and according to Amnesty International:

There are no known cases of anyone being acquitted by the court and there is no indication that the proceedings will be open to Canadian diplomats or independent observers...  "This is a highly politicized tribunal that has nothing but contempt for international standards for a fair trial."

Yet the Canadian response dodges the real issue in Arar's case -- the way in which the US chose to intervene. It was the US that chose to send him to the Middle East, instead of Canada (where he and his family lived). It is because of that decision that he is suffering in jail today, almost certainly under torture.  Nevertheless the US has washed their hands of the matter, saying that "it's up to the Canadian government to get its own citizens out of trouble."

Of course, Canada should do all it can to pressure Syria on behalf of Mr. Arar. But the reality is that the US wields far more power. Why then has Deputy Prime Minister John Manley failed to raise the matter in his recent talks with the US?   Could it be that he dares not challenge the Empire? That he is trying hard to return Canada to being a mute and peaceable province? "Improving relations" was the point of the meeting, not improving the lot of Canadians like Mr. Arar.

Wednesday, September 10

Flash of Insight 

Even though "it's a fad that's almost over" that stalwart bastion of satire, Doonesbury is tackling the "phenomenon" of Flash Mobs.
About a month ago the CBC picked up on the story and was running with it as if it were pretty hot stuff, never mind that this has been a commonplace in the blogosphere since at least March.

But what, pray tell, do Flash mobs have to do with the American Empire or ancient Rome?  

Reading the free Toronto weekly, Now magazine, I came across bit of analysis that put it in perspective:
Dave Meslin, of the Toronto Public Space Committee, sees flash mobs as a form of reclaiming space, much like Reclaim the Streets or Critical Mass. "People want to get out of their cubicles and out of their cars and interact with other beings in a way that isn't commodified, branded or sponsored,' ...  flash mobs, he says, are a sad reflection of what we have become. "Our streets are covered in advertising but devoid of culture, so anything you do in public, even when it's on public space, becomes a subversive act."
These silly events, where people suddenly manifest and then dissipate, are a form of protest.  They are comparable to similar acts by the Dadaists after the first world war.  They are not inherently political, nor particularly menacing, and I seriously doubt that the participants act in them as a conscious act of resistance.  Yet people do participate for some reason.  And I do not think it an accident that the phenomenon has been far more popular in the US than up in Canada.  

In a small way these demonstrations allow individuals to reclaim their own public spaces from the corporations who have acquired them.  More importantly they allow people to assert their own autonomy, their freedom to jump up and down like chickens (in the case in Toronto's Yorkdale Mall).  Why is this resistance?  Because it is a way of publicly flaunting the mores of modern society by redefining the aims of public spaces.  

Remember that "Public" spaces in cities are unnatural creations, built to serve particular aims.  For example, in the 19th century public parks were created to better the working classes, as well as provide a "healthy" dose of nature for the wealthy.  Parks had rules, just like everywhere else, that aimed to maintain certain social aims -- no drinking, no indecent behaviour, etc...  Just clean Christian living.

In Rome (yes I was getting to it!) public spaces like the forum served to celebrate the powerful families, in particular the emperor under the principiate.  It is not an accident that one of Augustus's great contributions to the city of Rome was the Forum Augustum.  He built it largely on his own land, and placed two rows of statues on either side: one of Rome's heroes, the other of Augustus's own family -- both culminated with statues of Augustus himself.  Indeed this forum, like so many of Augustus's other contributions to Rome, clearly served ideological aims in addition to filling social needs.  They glorified the emperor and reaffirmed his right to rule.  Public spaces did not exist solely as propagandistic displays, but invariably this was an important aspect to them, and a reason for the powerful few to build them for the masses.

Today public spaces are increasingly functioning as profit making ventures.  I recently wrote about the craze of privatization but the trend goes deeper.  It is not merely that outdoor spaces like parks are expected to make money, today the dominant form of socializing consists of either spending money, or pondering ways to spend money.  People go to malls "for fun."  This is probably the most developed consumer culture to have ever existed.  Spending money, buying products, is understood as a social good and public spaces are designed to further that aim.

This is no secret conspiracy.  Companies need to show profit, and to do that they must sell goods.  Hence companies sponsor developments like Times Square in New York, or Dundas Square in Toronto (its second cousin twice removed) as public spaces to foster their products.  Likewise companies sponsor politicians to further their aims.  Neither is a new development really, just the scale at which it is done and the degree to which there are few other prevalent social mores left to compete.  

The nature of the American Empire and the Roman Empire are similar in some respects but different in others.  Whereas much of the Roman Empire's identity was linked to the emperor himself, the American Empire is far less connected to the political head of America.  The American Empire expands less through open conquest than through the international adoption of its beliefs and ways of "doing business" -- for business is at the heart of the American Empire's interests.

Roman Emperors strove to proliferate an image of a powerful ruler, eventually turning him into a god, who was legitimate and beloved.  The American Empire focuses less on the Emperor (although Bush's disingenuous photo-op on the aircraft carrier is a good example of the phenomenon) than on the proliferation of laws, governmental systems, and beliefs conducive to doing business.  Which brings us back to the Flash Mobs.

Flash mobs are not about to overthrow the social order.  They are not revolutionary, or even dangerous.  Yet they are a form of protest against the Empire's social meme of continuous consumption, an unobtrusive form of protest that fits a pattern.  I've discussed the concept of "political terror"
before.  In ancient Rome open dissent against emperors was almost unknown, largely for reasons of self-preservation.  There are still today open protests against various aspects of the Empire (its war in Iraq, the WTO, etc...) but the popularity of Flash Mobs may indicate a growing disinclination to overtly challenge the Empire and its social ideals.  People are acting out against these social ideals, but not in a manner designed to evoke change.  Rather Flash mobs appear to be frustrated expressions of dissatisfaction, comparable to the reactions of men in ancient Rome who disagreed with Imperial policy but dared not overtly oppose it.