Vatican Did Not Abolish Sin In 2013–But Still A Few Hours Left

Pope Francis has been named Time’s Person of the Year, and Esquire’s Best Dressed Person of the Year. Now comes the Archbishop of Canterbury to render obeisance and agree with the papist idolaters at Time. Yes, the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, 80-plus million strong, said that Pope Francis is his guy too. In typically decisive Anglican fashion, Justin Welby remarked that “the pope has been hugely effective. I would certainly put him as my person of the year. Well, I’d probably have several, but if you want one, I’d put him there.” Welby also mistakenly claimed that he could not in any way compare himself with the pope because the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church has twenty times as many people as the Anglicans. You are at least twenty percent bigger than you think, Archbishop! Why not take this chance to invite all the Roman Catholic women to give your church a look? You should be able to handle at least 700 million new Anglicans!

In related news, scholars have unearthed proof that John Calvin named Ignatius Loyola his person of the year for 1542, and that Thomas Becket, venerated as a saint and martyr by both Anglicans and Roman Catholics, was secretly a Buddhist monk.

P.S. Today’s blog title is real news, not fake news–check it out. Would I really make up a headline like that?

Ex-NSA Chief Calls For Obama To Show Courage By Rejecting Oversight Panel’s Recommendations–Not The Onion!

On the heels of the 60 Minutes pro-NSA lovefest with current chief Keith Alexander, former (1999-2005) NSA head Michael Hayden, the same Hayden caught on video blabbing while riding Amtrak recently, is saying today that President Obama should be a man and blow off most of the oversight panel’s recommendations.  Hayden is right that if and when there is another major terrorist attack, all kinds of governmental intrusions will get poll numbers much higher than today.  But he is on much shakier ground when he asserts that “there have been no abuses and almost all the court decisions on this program have held that it’s constitutional.”  Not to mention the chutzpah from a guy who, if memory serves, failed to find Osama Bin Laden.

This year, it has been said, proved the paranoid right.  Glenn Greenwald has acknowledged that he ignored Edward Snowden at first because he saw no point in going along with Snowden’s requisite precautions, such as a public encryption key.  Give the fellow credit for admitting he was nowhere near suspicious enough!  While Greenwald has left The Guardian for a new project, excellent blogging continues there on surveillance-related issues, for example by Marcy Wheeler and Jeff Jarvis.

Jarvis makes a pertinent point, I believe, in a Guardian commentary today: “The primary NSA issue isn’t privacy, it’s authority.”  Jarvis applauds Judge Richard Leon‘s recent opinion that bulk collection of metadata is “almost Orwellian,” and boos Judge William Pauley‘s opinion that NSA data collection is “legally perfectly peachy,” but he worries that both judges, and Snowden himself, “may be debating on the wrong plane.”  His point is that the issue is primarily about authority: “not so much what government (or anyone else) is allowed to know but what government, holding unique powers, is allowed to do with what it knows.”  The bruised Fourth Amendment, as Jarvis points out, along with the First and Fifth Amendments, has to do not so much with a right “for something–privacy–as against something–government abuse.”  The basic issue, Jarvis concludes, is “government overreach and the absence of oversight.  I am less concerned with what government knows about me than what we don’t know about government.”  

What Michael Hayden is most upset about, it seems, is that Edward Snowden “stirred up the crowd.”  So much for the consent of the governed!  I am hopeful that what we the people know now that we didn’t know last New Year’s about the surveillance conducted in our name will not weaken our national capacity to prevent terrorism.  I am not sure that there is no tradeoff between liberty and security, notwithstanding Ben Franklin’s sharp comment that those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither.  I believe Jeff Jarvis is onto something by focusing the issue on government authority and its proper limits.  Another way of putting the issue of authority would be, what proportion of your income would you consent to pay in taxes?  And what proportion of those taxes should go to government surveillance operations, vs. Medicare, road maintenance, basic scientific research, and so on?  In other words, we cannot spend all of our national wealth on surveilance, can we?  So how much should we spend?

The Year In Review, 1913

Yes, I did mean 1913.  Some of us have had quite enough of 2013, even if it was not as much an annus horribilis for us as it supposedly was for President Obama.  What more need one say about a year in which a pope actually said “who am I to judge?” and gay marriage became legal in Utah–those were not proposed South Park plot lines thrown out for being too over the top, that was really 2013.  And just this week, the government, as part of their unrelenting war on Christmas, failed to deliver our presents on time–oops, sorry, UPS and FedEx actually belong to the private sector.

So, for readers who were born in 1914 or later, here is some of what you missed: twelve-year-old Louis Armstrong was jailed on New Year’s morning for shooting off a stolen revolver and put in the New Orleans Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys, where he was handed a trumpet.  Stalin and Hitler were both living temporarily in Vienna.  Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque invented Cubism.  Marcel Proust, in his soundproofed room, finished writing the first volume of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu Gertrude Stein, a few blocks away, wrote a short poem including the line “a rose is a rose is a rose.”  And that was just January (hat tip to Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before The Storm).  By March 1913 New York was startled by modern and abstract art via the Armory Show; Stalin had returned to Russia, been arrested in St. Petersburg, and exiled to Siberia; Virginia Woolf had sent off the manuscript of her first novel; Kafka and Einstein, both living in Prague, were writing love letters to far-off women in Berlin; and the Federal Reserve Bank had been founded in New York, with shareholders including the banking houses of Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman.  And on the last day of the year the Mona Lisa, lost since 1911 and found in December 1913 in Florence, crossed the border back into France on its way to the Louvre.

P. S. (or should I say prescript?) There are likely to be many books published next year on the events of 1914.  At least one fine history has already appeared: Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914.

Health Secrets Of Santa Claus

Today we can choose–if we have power and heat and wi-fi–among Christmas messages from Pope Francis, President and Mrs. Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, or Edward Snowden (on BBC Channel 4, I believe).  From the Pope’s “Urbi et Orbi Message”: “true peace is not a balance of opposing forces.  It is not a lovely ‘facade’ which conceals conflicts and divisions.”  From Snowden: “if the government really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.”

But what about Santa’s message?  There is some good news on this front, from Dr. Thomas Cavalieri, director of the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging.  It seems that Santa Claus, who was already described as “chubby and plump” in the 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” has more nice health habits than naughty ones (hat tip UPI.com).   If Santa did not exercise regularly, how could he stay so lively and quick delivering gifts, said Dr. Cavalieri. “Carrying a sack full of toys strengthens muscles, improves balance and helps prevent falls.”  Making a list and checking it twice could be a sign of age-related memory problems, but, according to Cavalieri, making lists is an excellent way to compensate.  Moreover, while old pictures of Santa depict him with smoke which “encircled his head like a wreath,” he appears to have given up this habit.  Santa’s pet ownership (the herd of reindeer) “can help lower blood pressure, ease anxiety, reduce social isolation and even boost the immune system and provide opportunities for exercise,” Cavalieri says.  “When you add it all together, Santa’s health habits definitely put him on a successful aging path that others can follow,” according to Dr. Cavalieri.

“Pretty Definitive”? Should We Be More Like The English About That?

The Guns of August opens with the parade of European royal pageanty at the1910 funeral of King Edward VII of England.  “In the nine short years of his reign,” according to author Barbara Tuchman, “England‘s splendid isolation had given way, under pressure, to a series of ‘understandings’ or attachments, but not quite alliances–for England dislikes the definitive.”

England may dislike the definitive, but do we Americans?  Our President, Barack Obama, said in his pre-holiday news conference that he would “assess” the state of the surveillance state over the next few weeks, and then make “a pretty definitive statement in January about all of this.”

I doubt that anyone is waiting up for such a statement.  And I doubt that a “pretty definitive statement” to reform the surveillance state will be forthcoming in January.  Surprise me!  But has President Obama not had several months, if not years, to ponder the serious issues involved here?  The giveaway that no big non-cosmetic changes are likely was the President’s repetition of the word “confidence,” as in “give the public more confidence’–that “as technologies change and people [people at the NSA or its designees] can start running algorithms and programs [formerly known as “modest encroachments”] that map out all the information that we’re downloading on a daily basis,” we can all stop worrying and be happy.  What could go wrong?  We can have total information awareness and still give people confidence that we are “taking seriously rule of law and our concerns about privacy and civil liberties.”  What we take “seriously,” by the way, is optional, whereas the expansion–beg pardon, “refinement”– of the national surveillance state does not currently seem optional.

Could I correct my above remarks?  The most definitive statement President Obama is likely to make has very likely already been made.  We, the executive branch, will “refine” our surveillance and big data mining to give you, people, more “confidence,” so that your animal spirits (hat tip to John Maynard Keynes) will not be crushed and you can still shop happily.  But courts and legislatures and the tech companies and other countries will have their say too, in less predictable ways, one can hope.

P.S.  As 2014 approaches, Barbara Tuchman’s book about August 1914 is perennially relevant as a cautionary tale about how a series of blunders and miscalculations can lead to war.

“The Appetites Of The Special Services Need To Be Controlled”

Vladimir Putin, in his annual press conference, which lasted about four hours today (don’t be jealous, Fidel, you used to give speeches twice that long), offered to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and release two Pussy Riot protesters ahead of the winter Olympics.  No word yet on the exact look of the rainbow fur coat Putin will surely be wearing at the opening ceremonies in Sochi.

But seriously, is it too late to take the Person of the Year award away from Pope Francis and give it to Vladimir instead?  Because he had the perspicacity to say this today: “However much our American friends are criticized, I think their work was mainly directed at fighting terrorism.  Of course, this has its negative aspects and on a political level the appetites of the special services need to be controlled [and he would know!].  But overall, you have to understand that it is necessary.”

So, on the whole, thumbs up to the surveillance state!  From a truly unimpeachable source.

No Such Thing As An Unfunded Mandate Here!

Happy 100th birthday to the Federal Reserve!  I take no position here on whether the Fed is an illegitimate usurper, or whether we ought to go back to the gold standard (abandoned by noted pinko Richard Nixon, if I remember correctly).  I just feel that any centenarian deserves a certain respect.

As interested parties around the world await news on the “tapering” of Fed bond purchasing, let me say simply that the Fed’s dual mandate–“to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates” (since 1977, per Congress’ revision of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act)–is a work-in-progress, but a project with a rosier long-term horizon than, for instance, Bitcoin.  Why so?  It helps a lot to have a mandate, or two, with 300 million reasonably productive people and considerable political legitimacy behind it.  With all the bickering in Washington, if the Senate ever blockaded a nominee for Fed chair or revised the Federal Reserve Act to micromanage its quasi-public, quasi-private operations, then we would know that our political/economic system is in big trouble.  Even the wonderful structure of checks and balances and separation of powers could not protect us from that kind of indiscreet legislation.

As it stands, the great thing about the Fed–and a source of worry should it fade away or collapse–is that it suffers from no unfunded mandates, insofar as people and institutions around the world trust it.  The Fed snaps its fingers, and don’t think too hard about fighting it unless you have money to burn.

I Swear I Cannot Even Begin To “Imagine” Waging War Against The Queen

While the crime of being an “incorrigible rogue” was among 309 U.K. laws recently removed from the statute books, according to Australian website The Age–which must be a huge relief to any Australians who might somehow still be incorrigible–it is seemingly still a crime in Great Britain, punishable by being “transported beyond the seas for the term of his or her natural life,” to call for the abolition of the monarchy, or even to “imagine” abolition or “waging war against the queen” (in print).  So watch yourself, section three of the Treason Felony Act of 1848 is still in force, repeat, still in force.

Now Who Is The Useful Idiot?

Some reactionary commentaries on the Pope‘s recent “Apostolic Exhortation” equated the papal critique of 21st-century capitalism with Marxism.  Rush Limbaugh, for example, insinuated that someone must have “gotten to” Pope Francis.  In an interview with Andrea Tornielli published yesterday on the Vatican Insider (La Stampa) website, Francis was asked “what does it feel like to be called a ‘Marxist’ by “ultraconservatives in the USA”?  Francis replied, “The Marxist ideology is wrong.  But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”  Marx may or may not have gotten to Bergoglio, but as many have remarked this week, Jesus apparently did.

The takeaway here, for most Americans, could simply be that this Argentinian pope has a set of presuppositions quite different from ours.  He and his interviewer speak matter-of-factly of “ultraconservatives” and good Marxists, just as educated and cultured western Europeans would do.  We in the USA live in a climate where Democrats, from the President on down, are just starting to get up their nerve to speak of poverty and inequality in the stark terms used by this pope: “how can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”

Pope Francis is, for good reason, unruffled by the implication that he is a useful idiot for socialist and Marxist tyranny.  In the interview with Tornielli he made clear that he is not pretending to offer detailed technical analysis of economics, but rather to give a “snapshot” of current conditions based on the social doctrines of the Catholic Church that have been affirmed by each pope going back to the late nineteenth century. (If a free-market ideologue is looking for a blunt assertion that the gap between rich and poor is increasing–a debatable point–he or she might well look at paragraph I.7 of the 1984 “Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology,” the literary product of those noted socialist stooges, John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger.)  The one reference to a “specific theory,” said Francis, was his criticism of “‘trickle-down theories,’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world.  The promise was that when the glass is full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor.  But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger and nothing ever comes out for the poor” (from “Never Be Afraid Of Tenderness,” Vatican Insider, 12/14/13).

Francis’s vivid language is not often heard in mainstream American political discourse, but he is helping to place and keep inequality and poverty on the world’s agenda.  Does he give too little credit to the “magic of the market,” the marvelous workings of the invisible hand? Does he presume some special insight into the proper path to a more Pareto-optimal distribution of resources?  I think not.  Francis is not oblivious, as John Cassidy noted in The New Yorker, to the remarkable productivity engine of modern capitalism.  But he cannot help but point out the idolatry of “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”  I would add that such trust is also too often a self-serving and malignant ideological facade.

P.S. Those interested in encountering the work of an eminent South American Jesuit theologian who engaged with Marxist thought as well as hermeneutics can look up Juan Luis Segundo, S.J.  Segundo, born in Uruguay, taught in North America and Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, and was, along with Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, the dean of the liberation theology movement.

Of Course They Are Doing This To Keep Amazon And The NSA In Their Place, They Wouldn’t Be Evil To Nice People Like Us, Would They?

The home page of the Boston Dynamics company website claims that their “development teams take projects from initial concept to proof-of-principle prototyping to build-test-build engineering, to field testing and low-rate production.  Organizations worldwide, from DARPA, the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps to Sony Corporation turn to Boston Dynamics for advice and for help creating the most advanced robots on Earth.”

Now that Google has bought the builder of Big Dog, I want to retract any bad things I may ever have said about Google.  I never even considered that Google could possibly be evil.  How could I think such a thought, when my entire cognitive capacity is consumed with figuring out how to escape (in waking state and in sleep mode) from the Cheetah, the Big Dog, the forthcoming Big Dog/Kit Kat robot hybrid, and whatever other horrid evil stuff Google comes up with–oops, let me try to delete that–oh no, the robots won’t let me erase my bad thoughts@%&*Y*@SV#$

Lying People Of The Year, 2013

Pope Francis Person of the Year?  And Edward Snowden Runner-Up?  No quarrel from me.  They shared a knack for inviting everyone to think again about how we frame big issues like faith and freedom, and for prodding us to consider anew our obsessions and biases, our risk aversions and mental shortcuts.

Let us thus turn our attention to lying liars, a target-rich environment every year I suppose, but 2013 had at least its fair share.  Politifact’s Lie of the Year has been health law-related four out of five years  since 2009: first “death panels”; then “government takeover of health care”; then in 2011 a Democratic Campaign Committee claim that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” (I think Paul Ryan’s plan would in fact have sabotaged it, but on we go); to 2012 with a non-health Mitt Romney interlude–so many options here!; and to President Obama this year: “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

That was true for about 98% of Americans with health insurance, so I read, but 2% is still a lot of Americans to mislead, especially on such a serious and nerve-racking issue.  Even so, I would say Obama’s blithe assurance back in June that NSA surveillance amounted to “modest encroachments” might have been an even bigger whopper.  It has not reassured me about whatever else he says.

General Keith Alexander, soon-to-retire head of the NSA, lived in the shadows for almost all of his career, but found himself obliged to prevaricate, mislead, evade, and misinform in public this year.  I am not sure how many lives he may have saved.  Nor do I have a clear sense of how many outright lies he uttered–perhaps fewer than the unpersuasive James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence–but Alexander’s public Congressional testimonials qualified him in my book for scary-good virtuoso performance artist of the year.

Am I unfairly neglecting Vladimir Putin?  He capped off the year with an attack on “genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance.”  Pooty Poot (President W. Bush’s nickname for him) apparently noticed that the new Pope seems incapable of rendering proper judgments, and is stepping into the breach, taking up the white man’s burden and defending conservative values lest civilization fall into what he called “chaotic darkness.”  With which he is well acquainted.

P.S.  On Thursday John Boehner, who seemed to some to embody the conservative white man’s burden as he bowed low to the right-wing astroturf groups, seems to have snapped, going off in a big way on those very pressure groups as treacherous liars.  Such a topsy-turvy year! And so sad that, I fear, neither Boehner nor Putin, let alone General Alexander, can bring back the happy conservative values days when Dick and Jane and Spot were just Dick and Jane and Spot, and their problems were real and serious.

Update later Friday 12/13/13: The Guardian reports that the White House-sponsored review of government surveillance will recommend minimal changes, and will not recommend stopping bulk collection of Americans’ phone data.

Now the NSA Is In A Big Heap o’ Trouble

I refer, of course, not to the joint statement today by Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and AOL pushing back against government spying, which can be seen at reformgovernmentsurveillance.com.

The even bigger threat to the NSA and GCHQ (UK signals intelligence) may be the revelation this morning that, as the NYT puts it, “Spies’ Dragnet Reaches a Playing Field of Elves and Trolls.”  Yes, the national surveillance state has “infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life,” creating “make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers.”  But according to Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, “for terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar.”

Never got beyond Pong and Pac-Man myself, so all I can imagine is that irate gamers are going to try to gobble up the virtual NSA spies.

There Goes Trouble

The late Nelson Mandela was known by several names: Madiba, his clan name; Tata, meaning father; and prisoner #466/64 among them.  His given name at birth was Rolihlahla, meaning one who pulls the branch from the tree, or “troublemaker.”  If Mr. Mandela, in his long life, caused plenty of trouble, his most amazing accomplishment was to keep trouble with a capital T from overwhelming his country.  He was, it has been said, not just the George Washington of South Africa but also its James Madison, as the years just before his release from prison and then the four years between his release and his election as president were spent in long negotiations over the shape of the political and legal system that would guide South Africa after apartheid.

Mandela’s presidential successors in South Africa have displayed all-too-human failings, but Mandela himself should hardly shoulder much of the blame for that, I believe.  He did have the “good fortune,” though, as Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, that “his moment inverted the demands commonly placed upon a politician’s shoulders.  His country needed him to publicly and explicitly act on his firmest convictions, not bend bend them on the altar of expediency.  Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.”  To put it another way, Nelson Mandela stands almost alone in living memory for being master of both the moral high ground and the political high ground.

And with quite the puckish sense of humor: upon meeting one of the Spice Girls in the late nineties, Mandela said that “I don’t want to be emotional, but this is one of the greatest moments of my life.”  The Onion might have made Mandela smile when they paid tribute, exaggerating just a little, to “the first politician in recorded history to actually be missed.”

Incidentally, All The NSA’s Technical Capabilities Do Not Include “The View From Nowhere”

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Barton Gellman and Ashkan Soltani reported that the National Security Agency “is gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, according to top-secret documents and interviews with U.S. intelligence officials….The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices….New projects created to analyze that data have provided the intelligence community with what amounts to a mass surveillance tool.  The NSA does not target Americans’ location data by design, but the agency acquires a substantial amount of information on the whereabouts of domestic cellphones ‘incidentally,’ a legal term that connotes a foreseeable but not deliberate result.”

If the people who work for the American surveillance state were capable of that holy grail of reporting, the objectivity of disinterestedness (which does not mean, or did not use to mean, lack of interest), we might be able to afford ourselves a little complacency.  But that word “incidentally” sounds suspiciously like the phrase “modest encroachments” President Obama used in June to wave off concerns that we Americans have been stripped of any meaningful privacy rights.  If I doubt that agents of the federal government are capable of a lofty “view from nowhere” that would minimize unnecessary intrusions into the private life of a good fellow such as myself, how paranoid am I ?  Better to ask, how shortsighted am I if I trust the NSA farther than I can throw it?

Have these NSA revelations gotten almost crazy enough for Congress and the courts to restrain the insatiable appetite of the security apparatus?  Crazy enough, at any rate, for Microsoft and other large tech companies to work on stronger encryption methods so as to protect their own business reputations.  Those tech behemoths are smarter than to say “I don’t care because I have nothing to hide”–Microsoft, Google, et al. know full well how much private mess is under those black and silver tablet rocks.  If the NSA has been spying on the online pornography Al Qaeda leaders watch, perhaps that will help keep America more secure–but how long before they come after your habits too, whatever they are, if you object to their proclaimed need to know everything about everybody?

Clueless NY Times Misinterprets Harold And The Purple Crayon

“Certainly children’s tales like ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ offer few lessons for dealing with Tea Party congressmen,” according to an NYT story today by Peter Baker, “In Obama’s Book List, Glimpses of His Journey.”  Since I have not seen an official Times correction yet, allow me to suggest one: “The Times regrets that a recent article misstated the facts.  Due to an editing error, the “White House Memo” of 12/5/13 failed to note that when Harold drew a frightening dragon under the tree to guard the apples, and then was himself frightened by the dragon he had drawn, and almost drowned in the ocean drawn by his shaking right hand, but then saved himself by drawing a boat, the obvious parallels with how President Obama might best deal with Tea Party congressmen via unilateral executive orders were ignorantly and triflingly marginalized.  The Times is deeply mortified.”

The Times, of course, has still failed to note the eerie parallel between the nine pies served at the White House Thanksgiving dinner and Harold’s “simple picnic lunch” consisting of his nine most favorite pies, and nothing but.

Drones All The Way Down

Can I get Amazon Prime to send me an infinite regress of drones inside boxes delivered by drones (hat tip to “turtles all the way…”)? If I can’t afford that how about an undead zombie from UPS or FedEx to deliver the complete “True Blood“? Jimmy Carter, not Reagan, started the deregulation thing back in the 1970s by getting rid of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which monitored interstate deliveries. But this Amazon drone thing gives rise to a thought: are we on the road to taking our deregulatory impulse a bit too far?