Sunday, June 30, 2013

All For One And One For All

Last time, I proposed the notion the two major political parties merely offered the illusion of choice to distract the electorate from realizing they both answer to the same master— be it a corporate oligarchy, the ultra-wealthy one percent, or the Illuminati. Today, I feel I should revise that hypothesis by adding the media to the mix.

When I was a reporter, back in the glory days of Woodward and Bernstein, the press was truly independent, so much so it was often referred to as the “Fourth Estate.” Irish statesman Edmund Burke coined that phrase, referring to the three estates of Parliament (the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons) but we Yanks co-opted the phrase to refer to our three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial, making the press the unofficial fourth branch of our democracy. The three branches were created by the Founders with specified Constitutional checks and balances on each other, but that left the question, Who Watches theWatchmen? Enter the free and independent press to serve as watchdog over government.

My, how things have changed. Today, the news media are owned, literally and intellectually, by the same corporate overlords that control both political parties. (Eight media conglomerates dominate US news media, including newspapers, magazines, radio, and television). Two weeks ago, Americans were abuzz with the revelation by National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden that their government was spying on every citizen, intercepting and storing every email sent, phone call made, and Website visited. The public was rightfully outraged, and I detailed why it should be here and here. One week ago, the co-opted national media slyly changed the national narrative from the issue of our government spying on us to the faux issue of whether Snowden was a hero (i.e., whistleblower) or villain (i.e., traitor) for leaking the information. This week, the controlled, no longer independent media again changed the focus, devoting hours of airtime and print to speculating to which country Snowden had fled. All discussion of the outrageous, unconstitutional government spying on US citizens, an invasion of privacy on a scale never before seen in a democracy –  or alleged democracy – was buried, replaced by an international version of “Where’s Waldo”.

Democrats and Republicans, who have been unable to agree on anything the past decade, now march in lockstep chanting the whistleblower is a traitor who must be apprehended and punished for his actions. Forgotten is the fact his actions revealed horrendous actions by our own government against you and me. And that’s precisely the intent of the Powers That Be.

Last time, I told you how the same cereal manufacturer made both Quisp (Democrats) and rival Quake (Republicans). Did you know it also made a third cereal, Cap’n Crunch (the news media)? Got milk?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One Size Fits All

Cereal was one of the highlights of my childhood. Not only did each box contain a toy premium, or a box top that could be mailed in with a dime for an even better prize, but they were advertised on television with brilliant commercials specifically aimed at kids. The best of these were created by Jay Ward – the genius who gave us Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, George of the Jungle, Hoppity Hooper, and Crusader Rabbit. Ward’s cereal commercials included Cap’n Crunch, Quisp, and Quake.

Ward's cartoons and commercial made copious use of clever puns, the painful kind that you remember your entire life, such as when Bullwinkle discovered the “Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam” on the shores of Veronica Lake (The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is the title Edward FitzGerald gave his translation of Omar Khayyám's Persian poetry and Veronica Lake was a famous American actress).

Ward’s Quaker Oats cereal commercials featured comedy, adventures (often continued into future commercials), and puns, all in 30-second installments. My favorites were Quisp and Quake. Quisp was a pink alien with a propeller head from Planet Q and Quake was a hefty miner who wore a helmet with a light. (Years later, Quake was overhauled and became a slimmed down Australian cowboy with a “Quangaroo” sidekick).

What was unique and brilliant about Ward’s commercials was the marketing. Quake would always make a cameo appearance in a Quisp cereal commercial, and Quisp would interrupt Quake during his commercials. Quisp and Quake not only had their own eponymous cereals but a fierce rivalry, as well. Kids, like myself, were encouraged to choose sides: you were either on Team Quisp or Team Quake. We rose to the challenge, stocking our larders with boxes of either (but certainly not both) Quisp or Quake.

And therein lay the genius of Jay Ward and Quaker Oats. For you see, Quaker Oats manufactured both Quisp and Quake cereals. Whichever team you supported, no matter how loyal you were to one, or how much you loathed the rival cereal, Quaker Oats won. They created a false rivalry between two fictional entities, marketed the rivalry, and had millions of us fighting over what was essentially the same cereal marketed in different boxes by one company pulling the strings. More and more, I think about Quisp and Quake whenever I view American politics. It seems I have one box emblazoned with a donkey and the other with an elephant but the content of both boxes is fungible and not terribly healthy for me, and I wonder if perhaps the choice before me is a false dichotomy. What if they are both controlled by the same corporate powers?

What if both political parties offer the illusion of choice to distract the electorate from realizing they both answer to the same master— be it a corporate oligarchy, the ultra-wealthy one percent, or the Illuminati? Was Jay Ward a modern Machiavelli, whose satire formed the foundation of our current political state?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

1984 Is Not An Instruction Manual

Memo to Senators Diane Feinstein & Lindsey Graham: 1984 is not an instruction manual.

These senators, and much of the co-opted US media, are touting the government line: If you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from the government collecting and storing your emails, Facebook chats, Web browsing, and phone records. This is a disingenuous rationalization from individuals who should – and do – know better.

The concern is not that the government is reading every one of the billion emails a day it collects, or listening in on billions of phone calls. It doesn't have the manpower to do that. But what it is doing is building a database. A very, very large database. Perhaps the largest database on Earth. And everything about you will be in it. Forever. Now, pay attention, and I’ll tell you why that’s a lot worse than it sounds.

A computer can cross-reference information in a database, compiling a profile. Years, or decades, of your Facebook posts, IM chats, Instagram and Pinterest photos, emails, phone records, and Website visited will be accessible as a dossier on you with a click of a button. All that information is being collected and stored for possible future use. And there’s the rub.

With enough material collected, anyone can be made to look bad. Even someone innocent like you, with nothing to hide. Selective culling of the material collected and stored over the years in the government database: That drunken photo of you and your friends at a party; the email where you told your friend you cheated on your spouse; the IM chat where you bragged about cheating on your taxes; the Facebook chat with a friend discussing your sensitive medical or mental health issue; the angry tirade you posted about wanting to blow up all the politicians in Washington. It’s all there, along with tons of innocuous stuff like photos of your cat. But in the right light, selective disclosure can cast a dark shadow on you, no matter how innocent you may be.

Say you’re running for political office. Say you’re writing an expose for a newspaper. Say you’re critical of individuals in government, or of government policies or actions. Say you’re a writer, a thinker, a reformer, a teacher, an agent of change, a dreamer, or a philosopher. Someone who threatens the status quo. Someone who needs to be – and can be—discredited, with the push of a button.

Big Brother is watching you. Big Brother has his finger on the button. The Ministry of Truth has told us not to worry, to trust the government. Big Brother has our best interest at heart. We should trust and love Big Brother, like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Or we can reclaim control of our government (you remember, the one “of the people, by the people, and for the people”?), take away the button, and tell our voyeuristic Uncle Sam a peeping Tom makes for a creepy uncle.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Glass Houses

The U.S. government is spying on your phone calls and e-mails. All of them. This shocking revelation was made public by the U.K. newspaper The Guardian this week, but anyone who’s read my book, Issues In Internet Law: Society, Technology, and the Law, already knew that.

If you haven’t bought my book yet, this is one reason you should. Smart people get ahead of the curve. They learn what’s going on before everyone else learns about it from the newscasts.

There’s a tension between the individual’s right to privacy and the government’s need for information to ensure safety. But let’s be real. There’s no such thing as total safety. If heavily guarded presidents and popes can be shot, no one is truly “safe”. Since 9-11, two administrations, with the complicity of the media, have worked to convince Americans they must sacrifice their civil liberties in exchange for safety. That’s not the American way. This country, unlike any before it, was built on the concept of individual civil liberties. Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” He didn't become one of America’s great patriots by saying, “Take my liberties, just keep me safe.”

America saved Europe, turning the tide of WWII, defeating the Axis forces. We did it without taking our shoes off or having high-tech strip searches before boarding airplanes. Terrorist win when they instill terror in our hearts. In WWII, we beat the bad guys because, as FDR told us, we had nothing to fear but fear itself. The same holds true today.

We won’t win the War on Terror by turning America into a police state reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. We don’t need Big Brother spying on our phone calls, e-mails, and Web browsing. We can only win by preserving and exercising, not eviscerating, the civil liberties drafted by the Founding Fathers and consecrated with the blood of generations of Americans fighting at home and abroad for those freedoms that embody our American values. Thomas Jefferson never envisioned a secret FISA court or that the federal government would be able to disregard the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against warrantless searches with impunity.

To those who argue the innocent among us should have nothing to hide, and therefore not mind exposing their thoughts and words to the prying eyes of snooping government bureaucrats, I suggest they first replace the walls of their homes with eight-foot panes of glass now, before the government mandates it. There’s a reason we choose not to live in glass houses, and that is, we value our privacy. So much so, the Founders declared all Americans had the right to be secure in one’s home and one’s person. The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Unfortunately, the Obama and Bush administrations have confused the Fourth Amendment with the lyrics of a pop song by a group ironically named “The Police” (as in Police State):

Every breath you take and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you
Every single day and every word you say
...  I'll be watching you

* “Every Breath She Takes” lyrics copyrighted by their respective owners, used here for educational purposes only.