Point and Shoot, Martha Rosler
Dear Friends and readers,
As anyone who has watched TV in the last few months, read periodicals of any sort, read articles on the Internet, knows freedom of speech. of the press, and the right to assemble are just now under relentless, fierce, shameless attack. A push back and defense has been mounted since the exposure of the long time partly privately contracted out surveillance programs of NSA. Its instruments are many, but the one I want to focus on here is the Patriot Act, with its business section, which makes legal the demand for three months from the US security and intelligence apparatuses to require that companies with records of their customers’ phone conversations or emails hand them over en mass — to be kept, researched, or acted upon by the gov’t agency as it sees fit. This includes direct arrest, long-term imprisonment (if it’s deemed by the people involved what this gov’t agency “needs”) without trial. The immediate method pursued ruthlessly and increasingly openly is to threaten the people who provide the sources of information journalists need to reach and publish information.
There have been many articles and talk on the public media as well as demonstrations on behalf of the importance of retaining these rights and exposing the fallacies of “national security” justifications. The first I want to center on here which I doubt has had that much circulation concerns the cut off from legal redress by people who don’t have money to defend themselves either for a short or longer time by the de-funding of agencies like public legal aid. In the London Review of Books issue of 35:11, May 9th, 2013, Francis Fitzgibbon, a barrister, describes how this has been done and justifed in the UK where the same sort of assault on the public has been going on for about the same three decades. I’ll copy out his opener:
A fundamental shift in the relationship between the government and the governed is taking place: by restricting access to the law, the state is handing itself an alarming immunity from legal scrutiny. There are several aspects to this: the partial or total withdrawal of state financial support for people who lack the means to pay for legal advice and representation; and for those who can pay, a restriction on which kinds of decision by public bodies can be challenged.
Fitzgibbon’s point is the people who run the state are working to allow themselves to do what they want without the public they are said to be working for knowing what they are doing. The American version of this is Norman Solomon’s open letter to Diane Feinstein informing her that the bill of rights exists
Rather than call for protection of the Fourth Amendment, you want authorities to catch and punish whoever leaked this secret order. You seem to fear that people can actually discover what their own government is doing to them with vast surveillance.
The second has many varieties but the central point over and over is to highlight that the companies doing this work are often private contractors with political agendas (rightest, pro-corporate rights and militarist, which of course the companies often are, e.g., Blackwater, Bouz Allen Hamilton) and to reveal typical uses made of information gathered by agencies. The information is used for on behalf of the interests of those people who network with the company’s people. I can’t find just now an article which described how a private contractor took information about the private lives of individuals in a liberal democratic campaign and leaked it to the republicans and helped enable the Republicans to win that campaign. (I’m not a reporter by profession.) So I’ll use this one by Jacob Chamberlain which focuses on the lack of oversight and accountability for what is done with this information.
I think it important not to get caught up with personal attacks or defenses of the people who bring such information to reporters, be it Julian Assange (who I grant does not bother go to reporters but releases information directly onto the Internet), Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden. Or the reporters themselves: Glen Greenwald and the Guardian, Laura Poitras; before them Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times. These names and news organizations are only the people who have caught the public eye. The criminalization (and demonization or mockery) of those who reveal what should be and is in morality criminal behavior is what we must keep our eyes on. The three I’ve named have revealed the gathering of files by the most powerful agencies of the gov’t. I don’t know the names of the sources of the AP press that were garnered a couple of weeks back under a legal court order.
Less known but still sufficiently individualized are animal rights activists who have gone to jail for long term prison sentences (including the experience as routine of the torture of solitary confinement) as “eco-terrorists”. Across the south where corporate groups have taken power in state governments laws have been passed to define as criminal anyone filming what happens in corporate farming.
Of interest to me in particular (as someone who values her freedom of speech which here on the Internet amounts to freedom of the press), there has been scapegoating of people disseminating information which under the increasing Draconian interpretation of copyright in order to attack the freedom to connect to others through the Internet since 1995. Most famous here is Aaron Scwartz, literally bankrupted and hounded to death. The threat of many decade-long punishments for a minor infraction was used there: it’s become commonplace in the last 20 years for prosecuting attornies to terrify people into cooperating by menacing them with near-life imprisonment.
The very right to a trial is threatened over and over again and is denied in the case of Middle Eastern people. If the Obama administration genuinely had information which could prove that Anwar el-Alwaki was plotting to kill US citizens, they could easily have captured him in the small village he lived in and brought him to trial. They chose instead to murder him because they have no such evidence; he was a figure preaching against the US empire’s interests and had a large following. The murder of his son and outrageous reply that he was not being a good father caring for his son so that’s why the boy died is analogous to the incident which opens Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities where the aristocrat runs over a small child in the street and then mocks the grieving father by accusing him of not being a good parent.
The criminalization of those who expose criminals is seen in what has happened to the men who outed the Steubenville rapists. This coheres with the determined attempt to control women’s bodies for the sake of men: compulsory pregnancy for women, no recourse to help if you are raped is fundamentally helped when Deric Lostutter who exposed the Steubenville rapists is himself sent to prison for 10 years exposing them. This is an attack on the Internet too.
We saw what the right of peaceful assembly was worth in this country when we watched on TV the violent destruction of the Occupy movement. These cohorts of terrifying armed groups of men were most recently seen on the day after the Boston marathan bombing; the lack of aide for people who need it on the same day a Texas factory exploded. I wrote about this too: Wild and cruel in Texas and Boston.
I want also to make the connection between companies who seek to frack our environment (and use water as part of what is under threat) and journalists who can expose what fracking is. This affects all of us directly; last night I read a blog by a friend on Barnesville and Fracking in whose community individuals who don’t understand how this will destroy the environment (or if they do) have decided to sell out and escape elsewhere. I want to be able to write a blog on the film Gaslands without worrying who will read the blog inside a private contractors’ access to materials where someone can search out anyone writing about fracking.
It may seem that for now the right to vote has been reaffirmed by the US courts but powerful people in whose interests it is to curtail the right to vote have deep pockets; the NAACP is continually at work to fight the efforts of ALEC and its contributors like the Koch brothers, but we can see today in North Carolina the ruthless attempt to silence people in order to take from them any right to protest when their jobs are cut, their pensions destroyed, health care access denied and any redress in the form of throwing those out of office who are doing this. The right to vote itself has been nullified by gerry-mandering, by the unlimited amounts of money corporations are able to allocate without reporting it, by disenfranchising many people who go to jail (and there we have mass incarceration of black men).
A couple of nights ago my husband made fun of David Brooks on PBS reports defending extending war into Syria (against the ever intelligent humane Mark Sheilds). Brooks’s (apparently) unassailable argument against Edward Snowden’s action was he was disloyal to those who gave him a job. Jobs are very hard come by which pay well and thus crucial of many desperate and unemployed people: the federal gov’t has maintained a steady silence under Obama against any program simply creating jobs to do social good which would employ people.
Thus inane talk like Brooks’s matters. The immediate impetus for this little blog essay is in fact a TV CNN news show I was forced to listen to last night. CNN is among those TV channels boomed at people in waiting rooms. I heard the most transparent nonsense about the next 9/11 being a nuclear threat and that if the gov’t does not track everyone someone with a bomb will make 9/11 look like candyland. And then, said this person, there will be a tremendous reaction implying literally the people of the US will rise up in crazed wrath, but meaning that the gov’t will really crack down on everyone. It was a veiled threat. The news person behind the desk was all avid listening. See The Terror Con:
Defending Friedman’s column, Keller wrote Sunday:
“Tom’s important point was that the gravest threat to our civil liberties is not the NSA but another 9/11-scale catastrophe that could leave a panicky public willing to ratchet up the security state, even beyond the war-on-terror excesses that followed the last big attack.”
So it’s the panicky public’s fault and not the ill-informed work of establishment journalists like Friedman, who led the charge to war with Iraq based on phony claims about terrorism.
I could go on but have said enough. I’ll close now with Tariq Ali’s classic (in some circles) Street Fighting, recently republished,
with a new introduction surveying the increasingly successful shutting down of public schools, privatization of of public service broadcasting, silencing of the press and control of mass media that way, re-engineering the economy in such a way as to live the middle class life people had been enjoying, many went into massive debt, and others simply to make ends meet or pay medical bills, and an overhaul of the tax system which creates artificial deficits that are used to make as a norm
precarious economic arrangements that product insecurity … and a reserve army of employees rendered dociele by these social processes that make their situations precarious, as well as by the permanent threat of unemployment. This reserve army exists at all levels of the hierarchy, even at the higher levels, especially among managers. The ultimate foundation of this entire economic order placed under the sign of freedom is the structural violence of unemployment, of the insecurity of job tenure and the menace of layoff that it implies.
When I was young, the 1960s, jobs were a dime a dozen; interviews were perfunctory. Rent for apartments was cheap. These things have changed because starting in the 1970s powerful groups in this and other countries have worked successfully to re-engineer the social order. And now they want to shut us up, cut us off from one another. There was an attempt to close the open Internet last year spearheaded by the movie industry; it failed, but another group of lawyers, politicians and individuals within corporations will be back to try again. As of the 1970s, the situation has been as Pasolini described in the earliest 1930s during the rise of Nazism:
oh unfortunate generation
you’ll weep, but lifeless tears
because perhaps you won’t even know how to return to
what, not having had, you couldn’t even lose;
poor Calvinist generation as at the bourgeoisie’s origins
adolescently pragmatic, childishly active
you sought salvation in organisation
(which can’t produce anything but more organisation)
and you’ve spent the days of your youth
speaking the jargon cif bureaucratic democracy
never departing from the repetition cif formulas,
for organising can be signified not through words
but through formulas, yes,
you’ll find yourself using the same paternal authority,
at the mercy of that ieiffable power that willed you against power,
Growing old, I saw your heads filled with griif
where a confused idea swirled, an absolute certainty,
an assumption cif heroes destined not to die -
oli unfortunate young people, who’ve seen within reach
a marvellous victory that didn’t exist!
– Piero Paolo Pasolini